Goa and Lusosphere art

VIVEK MENEZES

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THE study of Modernism is in total upheaval all over the world. In the past decade, the subject has become particularly fraught with controversy and debate. A new generation of scholars has begun to contest even the most basic assumptions that underlie the way modernism has been framed, studied and discussed to this point. It’s now becoming increasingly clear that we are going to see an entirely new approach and understanding of the subject replace the inadequate definitions of the past.

All this has implications for Indian art’s understanding of its own history, and particularly for Goa. As the old hierarchies are being shaken up, our remarkable, unquestionably great legacy of modern art is becoming recognized for its global and historical significance.

The prevailing problem has been that – right until the present day – modernism has been treated as a walled-off European invention, a set of very specific cultural reactions against realism, a tradition that evolved in Western Europe and the United States in concert with, and as a result of, the far-reaching social and cultural changes that took place roughly between 1850 and the middle of the 20th century. The core sentiment of the movement might best be boiled down to Ezra Pound’s famous exhortation, ‘Make it new!’ Thus, the artists and writers celebrated as exemplars of modernism consistently embraced disruption, discontinuity, and even dissonance, as crucial aesthetic values and choices.

 

The issues created by the unabashed, indeed aggressive Eurocentrism of almost all scholarship and writing on modernism has been economically described by Rupert Richard Arrowsmith, the brilliant young art historian, in Modernism and the Museum: Asian, African and Pacific Art and the London Avant-Garde (OUP 2010), a slim volume of acute, terrifically researched essays that has levelled a devastating blow against many of the basic assumptions that bedevil contemporary understanding of the subject.

He writes, ‘[H]istories of the period have been written, until very recently, by scholars with little or no knowledge of culture provinces other than their own, resulting in a situation where the dots of apparently discrete geographical regions are not adequately connected by lines of influence. In the western part of the Eurasian continent, and in the United States, this situation has led to a distorted view of modernism as essentially a European invention, with comparable movements on other parts of the globe characterized as imitative of ‘advanced’ art and literature in Europe, or – paradoxically – as reactionary and propagandist. The possibility of multi-directional, transnational exchange in aesthetic concepts, art-historical knowledge, and literary and artistic technique is thus discounted, played down, or at best acknowledged in tentative and misleading ways.’

A former Buddhist monk who has spent years in Asia, Arrowsmith has quickly become an unpopular, even ‘controversial’ art historian in the academies of the West, because he has carefully connected previously unperceived dots to reveal the utter bankruptcy of generations of Euro-centric scholarship. Step-by-step, with startling insight, he has demonstrated how art and aesthetics from around the world had a profound, and ultimately crucial role in the development of many acknowledged modernist masterpieces. It is a claim that would have seemed hysterically audacious just a decade ago. But the evidence has been carefully marshalled, and no honest observer can deny the obvious.

 

While art history has long acknowledged that Picasso’s monumental modernist icon ‘Les Demoiselles D’Avignon’ contains images copied from African masks (among other things), Arrowsmith’s findings now demand that textbooks be revised to reflect that Jacob Epstein’s most important sculptures were almost entirely derived from his favourites in the Indian, Assyrian and African collections of the British Museum, and that Ezra Pound’s pioneering modernist breakthroughs are actually ‘adapted Japanese conventions, Korean imagery and Korean aesthetics’ gleaned from the library of the same institution. There are many other examples in the same vein.

Very recently, Arrowsmith spent a couple of weeks in Goa and Mumbai, which will soon feature at the centre of his next book, which is being built around a conclusion that I believe will set the agenda for coming generations of scholarship. He writes that it is now obvious that, ‘Modernism actually evolved simultaneously, and with equivalent historical impact, in cities from one end of the Eurasian continent to the other.’

It is a sentiment that finds an echo in the startled, but creditably open-minded reaction of the influential art critic of the New York Times, Holland Cotter, after he first encountered the work of Nandalal Bose in a groundbreaking retrospective held in Philadelphia in 2008. Cotter did not mince his words when he wrote, ‘[E]very Museum of Modern Art in the United States and Europe should be required, in the spirit of truth in advertising, to change its name to Museum of Western Modernism until it has earned the right to do otherwise.’

But even as the global narrative of modernism is being questioned, challenged and corrected on a vast and fundamental scale, we face a very similar problem right here in India, where the so-called Bengal Renaissance has become enshrined at the centre of an utterly flawed narrative of Indian modernism, which has nonetheless become cherished gospel in Indian art history since 1947.

 

Thus we have Partha Mitter’s supposedly authoritative, much-feted landmark book on the topic, The Triumph of Modernism: India’s Artists and the Avant Garde, premised on grand proclamations like ‘[G]lobal modernity as such arrived in India with the consolidation of the British Empire in the 19th century’, and claims like it was Bombay and Calcutta which were ‘the two cosmopolitan cities in India... which acted as the locus of colonial encounters.’ In this, as happens depressingly often whenever India is presumed to be spoken about as a single entity, the West coast of India is left conspicuously absent from the reckoning. The history and culture of the ancient entrepots of the Konkan and Malabar coasts somehow remain an inconvenient truth.

In fact, it should be entirely obvious to Mitter – indeed to any open-minded reader of history – that the first truly global city in India was actually in Goa, and that same city was also the locus of the most culturally significant colonial encounter in Indian history. Fifty long years after Goa largely willingly joined the Indian Union, after five long decades of stellar Goan contribution to the rest of the country, it is frankly shameful that these simple historical facts are consistently ignored and glossed over by even the worthiest luminaries of the Indian intelligentsia.

So we must reprise; at the turn of the 16th century, Goa was arguably the richest few square kilometres in the world, the first European colony in Asia, and the greatest trading crossroads between East and West that the world had ever seen.

 

The Portuguese then dominated the entire arc of the Indian ocean, from Malacca to Lanka to Aden. As a result of this unprecedented dominance, the riverside port now called Old Goa mushroomed rapidly, and became the locus of extraordinary exchange. The first printing press in Asia started functioning in Goa. The first printed grammar of any Indian language is in Konkani. The first public library in Asia, and the first medical college in the continent were there too – Occidental medicine was introduced across the continent all the way to Japan by doctors from Goa.

It is important to note that Old Goa was not only the centre of power for the entire Portuguese maritime empire, but also the administrative centre of the entire Asian archdiocese of the Catholic Church in the era of its greatest expansion in the continent. Monks, priests and nuns from across Europe and Asia congregated in Old Goa. To suit this status, the largest churches in Asia were built in Goa then – Se Cathedral and Santana de Talaulim, as well as the largest convent in the continent, Sta. Monica. These buildings still remain the largest in the continent, even four centuries later, and it is also illustrative to note that they are also still larger than any built in Portugal itself in that era.

 

Very soon, Goa became connected to Brazil and other parts of South America by regular ship’s circuit, opening up a transfer of ideas, flora and fauna that completely rewrote the culture and society of the subcontinent – chillies, potatoes, corn, guavas, chickoos and myriad other food and plant products entered India for the first time. The diet of the subcontinent would change permanently as a result – can anyone imagine Indian food without chillies today?

Even more disruptively (and unlike the British), the Portuguese conquistadores were motivated by religious zeal almost as much as the lure of vast profits. Thus, the first coerced mass conversions to Christianity in Asian history also took place in Goa. And as the Portuguese writ extended beyond the port city to Bardez and Salcete (aka Velhas Conquistas), so did the Church; the choice to convert essentially delivered at the point of a sword.

To become Catholic was to enjoy considerable advantages over Hindu subjects of the Estado da India, but it also meant the brutally complete severing of all ties to the original family and community mores. New Brahmin converts were made to ritually eat beef, for example, in order to make them permanently profane to their families. The result is that the Goan was globalized, placed away from tradition, and in contact with the whole world, in a manner that simply didn’t happen anywhere else in India for at least another 100 years.

Thus, everything that Partha Mitter claims happened first in Bombay and Calcutta – thus creating a ‘climate for modernism’ – actually took place in Goa long before the British even showed up in India. It’s only suitable irony that it was Thomas Stephens (1549-1619), the English Jesuit who wrote that first printed grammar, whose letters home about the astounding fortunes to be made in Goa first drew the attention of the group of London businessmen, who eventually established The East India Company.

It is of course true that Goa did not last long at the centre of the Indian Ocean trade routes, and it took only a century for the Portuguese to become reduced to irrelevance by the Dutch and the British. Certainly, by the time that Calcutta and Bombay were starting to emerge as international ports, Goa’s trading heyday had long since faded. Its economy slumped to stagnation, and the main export had long since become human resources. From the 18th century on, already self-confident moving between and dealing with both East and West, Goans fanned out across the region to find work in the British and Portuguese colonial possessions in the subcontinent, the Gulf and East Africa.

 

When Bombay, Karachi, Rangoon and Nairobi were built, quite often it was Goans who did the building and administering. Their prosperity abroad fuelled a new assertiveness at home. Thus, even as Calcutta and Bombay were still to come into their own, Goan culture was experiencing its own renaissance – a newly self-confident, confluential and unique architecture, cuisine, music and literature flowered into being. Consistently misunderstood and mislabelled, this cultural expression of the Goans draws on myriad sources, but is much more than the sum of its parts. It could only have emerged after a culture had experienced and absorbed myriad eastern and western culture, aesthetics, manners and mores over a long period of time. It is simply true that these conditions occurred in Goa before any other part of the subcontinent. It is time Indian historians acknowledge this is actually where the modernist impulse in India emerges to daylight for the first time.

 

In his widely influential book, Modernism: The Lure of Heresy, the historian Peter Gay lays down two general rules to define the actions and motivations of modernists. They are, ‘first, the lure of heresy that impelled their actions as they confronted conventional sensibilities; and second, a commitment to a principled self-scrutiny.’ These are unconventional guidelines, but they ring true. Extrapolated to Indian art history, we can certainly see that the Bengal Renaissance soundly qualifies. But then, so does the art, literature, and music of Goa, whose development occurred earlier.

In attempting to correct the record, it is not my intention to denigrate the very real breakthroughs that occurred in Calcutta and Shantiniketan. And in fact, the debate about which modernism came first isn’t terribly interesting compared to the more fundamental question of significance, of what Indian art merits recognition for its global significance in the history of modernism.

One thing is clear: there is no doubt that Indian art history became unconscionably skewed after 1947 to privilege Bengal, probably for vague, misguidedly nationalistic reasons. Previously, indeed right into the 20th century, no artist or observer of the times had any doubt that the ‘Bombay School’ offered at least an equal counterpoint to Calcutta and Shantiniketan. But there is another part of this story which is considerably less known. That is, even in the Bombay School, it was Goans who led the way.

‘There used to be a healthy feud between Bombay and Calcutta Art Schools. Each school was rejecting the other as ‘western’ and at the same time proclaiming itself Indian. Actually both followed the European as well as Indian traditions and techniques.’ – P.T. Reddy

After 1850, Bombay boomed rapidly into a great metropolis on the back of the opium trade with China. It was an age of great philanthropy by the newly-minted opium millionaires. This is when the Sir JJ School of Art came into being, intended to become the foremost art college in India. As with all European-derived education in India in general, Goans were disproportionately represented right from the beginning. While precise numbers are unavailable, it is illustrative to note that four out of the eight students who comprised the first class of graduates from Grant Medical College (which also came into being at the same time after a gift from Jeejebhoy) were Goans, including Bhau Daji Lad, now hailed as a pioneer of modern Bombay. Certainly, by 1870, the director of the JJ School was already proudly boasting about the facility of his ‘Goanese’ students.

 

Still decades before Shantiniketan’s art school gained prominence, the best ‘native’ JJ School artists now began to paint their own realities with ever-increasing fluency and mastery. The exemplar was Antonio Xavier Trindade, a migrant from Goa who had moved swiftly from tinting photographs for Raja Deen Dayal to studying at the art school, and then became the JJ’s first Indian faculty member. Known for his superb, intimate portraits of the high and mighty, Trindade constantly experimented on the side with more impressionistic techniques and unconventional subjects. If this is not Indian modernism (I think it is) it must at least be acknowledged as its first impulse in India. Thus the narrative arc of Indian modernism has to start with Trindade.

Perhaps more important than Trindade himself is the case of Angelo da Fonseca, a spectacularly talented aristocratic Goan who, fired by nationalism, left the Grant Medical College to become an artist in 1929. He rejected JJ as being too colonial, and instead headed across Shantiniketan to learn from the Tagores and Nandalal Bose. He was a prized student, and left Bengal with great acclaim and a lot of hope. It was his intention to create an Indian iconography for the Catholic Church, firmly grounded in native realities. But these innovations – Madonnas in saris, Infant Jesuses which look like Bal Krishna – were met with severe opprobrium in Goa – and he was consistently rejected by his family and community even in Poona (where he fled) where he finally died, almost completely unknown, in 1967.

But looked at in the light of 2011, we see that Fonseca is the sole bridge figure between Bombay realism and Shantiniketan revivalism. In solitude in his studio at the Christa Prema Seva Sangha, he kept working away at both religious and secular paintings that now seem the very definition of high modernism in Indian art. What is more, his oeuvre today also seems clearly the high point of Shantiniketan’s own artistic legacy.

 

Can it be that an almost entirely unknown artist is actually the centrepiece of Indian modernism’s global significance? Rupert Arrowsmith certainly seems to think so. After viewing a large part of the Fonseca archive – currently indifferently maintained at the Xavier Centre for Historical Research in Goa – he wrote that Fonseca is ‘a modernist artist of international standing’, ‘a forgotten Indian genius’ who blended ‘Christian motifs with iconography and technical conventions derived from Hindu, Buddhist, and Islamic art.’

In an epistolary exchange with the renowned author Amitav Ghosh (who lives in Goa part-time), now excerpted on Ghosh’s blog, Arrows-mith writes that, ‘There are some world class masterpieces there (no exaggeration), and their references to various world cultures combined with a measure of newly fashionable-again academic technique makes this exactly the right time for them. Frankly I’m amazed that so little work has been done on them.’ The young art historian is convinced that Fonseca deserves to be talked about as one of the globally significant modernist painters, and is hard at work to ensure that this happens. From being left outside even Indian art history (Fonseca gets no mention in Partha Mitter’s book; in fact the great canon-maker of Indian modernism had never heard of the artist until recently) now we are going to see the Goan story positioned exactly where it belongs – at the very centre of a new understanding of modernism as it actually occurred around the world.

 

For when we come to the 1940s and what is universally acknowledged as the great modernist awakening, the Goan fingerprints become indelible and impossible to deny. For everyone acknowledges that the most significant movement in modern Indian art came about because of yet another migrant from Goa to Bombay, the ebullient, irrepressible Francis Souza.

‘Today we paint with absolute freedom for content and techniques almost anarchic; save that we are governed by one or two sound elemental and eternal laws, of aesthetic order, plastic coordination and colour composition. We have no pretensions of making vapid revivals of any school or movement in art. We have studied the various schools of painting and sculpture to arrive at a vigorous synthesis.’ – Francis Newton Souza, 1948

We might engage in lasting debate about where and when modernism first started to make itself apparent in India, but there can be no doubt at all that the Progressive Artist’s Movement is its high point. The sheer guts in the above declaration becomes apparent when you realize just who this motley crew of hungry-eyed, largely impoverished artists were who were dismissing both the JJ School and Shantiniketan as tired, effete, and pointlessly backward-looking. Souza, the ringleader and chief talent scout, was the son of a seamstress. Ara’s father was a driver; he himself washed cars to make a living. Husain often slept on the streets, a signboard painter.

The bold, exhilarating paintings produced by these unlikely revolutionaries completely changed the trajectory of Indian art forever. Those impoverished misfits are now the most feted modern Indian artists. As Souza later said, they made themselves into great artists by sheer dint of ambition, their startling originality ‘evolved over the years of its own volition; out of our own balls and brains.’ By the 1960s, the Goan was a sensation in London and Paris, the first Indian artist to make it big in the galleries of the West.

 

Once again, this part of Indian history is familiar – there are several decent books on the Progressive Artist’s Movement and its significance. But what has never attempted – cue Rupert Arrowsmith – is a connecting of the dots between Souza and Vasudeo Gaitonde and Laxman Pai (Goan friends who became associated with the Progressives), then back into time via da Cruz (the Goan migrant to Bombay who became Gandhi’s favourite painter) and Chimulkar (another prodigiously talented JJ School artist from Goa) to Angelo da Fonseca to Trindade.

There are also readily apparent connections to be made to Joseph Furtado, the Goan migrant to Bombay who is credited with the first ‘chutnified’ Indian English prose and poems, to Lucasinho Ribeiro, the Goan migrant to Bombay who invented Tiatr, the first European-style revues performed in an Indian language, and then eventually to the Goan musicians who ‘invented the Sound of Bollywood.’ As recounted by cultural historian Naresh Fernandes, many of the songs that have come to define modern Indian culture were written and arranged by Goans, then performed by largely Goan orchestras and combos, with the ‘playback singing’ very often also provided by Goans like the sisters, Asha Bhonsle and Lata Mangeshkar.

 

All of this adds up to a considerable case. In short, many of us believe the evidence shows that Goa was the first crucible in India which exhibited the climate for modernism to emerge in the subcontinent. We see an early modernist impulse steadily come to fruition in the explosion of native Latinate art and aesthetics that occurred all through the second half of the 19th century. Then, with the rise of Bombay – significantly shaped and influenced by Goan migrants – we see unmistakable, unquestionable modernism itself, more often than not shaped by Goans like Trindade and Fonseca.

What is more, this Goa-Bombay modernism has a global significance which is still very far from being properly understood or recognized. As the prevailing global narratives on the subject are being entirely rewritten by a new generation of art historians, we have an opportunity and also the responsibility to ensure that Goan art finds its rightful place once and for all.

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