Flowering of Goan Art

Posted on 2008-09-07
‘I n Indian art, Shri Aurobindo once wrote, the, creative force comes from “a spiritual and psychic vision; the emphasis of the physical is secondary and always deliberately lightened so as to give [the viewer] an overwhelmingly spiritual and psychic impression ... everything is suppressed which does not serve this purpose or would distract the mind from the purity of this intention.”
Which is why, in the work of some Goan artists, detail in the human figure or other objects is minimized or disregarded, while strong and subtle lines, pure shapes, are brought into relief. An inspired harmony of conception, method, and colour reinforces the spiritual and psychic intention. We can see this if we study the significance of hues in a Buddhist miniature, as they are reflected in the paintings of R. Chimulkar, Angelo da Fonseca, V. S. Gaitonde, and Antonio Piedade de Cruz.
Before the Portuguese came, we had no paintings, but we had a wealth of sculptures. Divine figures depicted as statues and bas-reliefs in temples became the object of rituals and adoration. Human figures were also depicted in architecture. In statues and some sculptures (for example, Vetal), we see that necks and torsos are conceived as cylinders, and the head as a pearl; the limbs are cylindrical, and protuberant parts are presented in relief, providing the viewer with an extraordinarily emphatic sequence of planes. The figures project a vitality that suggests they possess an inner life of their own.
In Goa, we find evidence of the visual arts only after the Jesuits arrived in the 1540s; this religious order played a pioneering role in encompassing all expressions of the human spirit. In art, they are irrevocably associated in our minds with the most original Indo-Portuguese religious sculptures, worked on entirely by local craftsmen who left their stamp on every piece they worked on-the draping of a statue’s garments, the folding of its hands, the ears left uncovered, the heads shown in reverential bows, and most significantly of all, the Infant Jesus shown with a finger in his mouth (a pose associated with Lord Krishna), or depicted lying down, reminiscent of Lord Buddha during the last moments of his life.
But while artisans and craftsmen thus left their mark on the religious statuary of their time, the fine arts languished, because in those days the top layers of Goan society, whether Hindu or Christian, regarded the arts with total disdain. Parents would punish children who wished to dabble in the arts, pressuring them instead into choosing careers in such fields as medicine.
Fortunately in the 20th century, though no art schools existed in Goa, young people eager to pursue the visual arts promptly migrated to Bombay and perfected their talent at the J. J. School of Art. Those who made a name for themselves included Antonio Piedade de Cruz, Antonio Xavier Trindade, Angela Trindade, V. S. Gaitonde, Angelo da Fonseca, R. G. Chimulkar, Franjoao, Laxman Pai, and, in sculpture, R. P. Kamat.
Antonio Piedade de Cruz, through his large canvases, narrated the story of India’s liberation, and South Africa’s exploitation of human beings that had impelled Gandhi to action; Antonio Xavier Trindade established himself as a portrait painter of the old school; his daughter Angela, equally talented, took a softer, more modern approach. Both chose oils as the preferred medium.
Angelo da Fonseca, depressed with the Western bias at the J. J. School, went to Santiniketan. There, Abanindranath Tagore and N. Bose introduced him to Indian traditions of form and colour. Heading back west, he found a congenial atmosphere in Pune’s Krishna Prems Seva Ashram. Further encouragement came from Fr Henry Heras, a Spanish Jesuit who headed the Indian Historical Research Institute in Bombay and urged Angelo to reinterpret the New Testament on Indian lines.
Angelo then began to paint Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and the Apostles not as the white-skinned Europeans shown in European religious art, but as the brown-skinned Middle Easterners that in fact they had been. Much to his distress, when his paintings were exhibited at a religious fair on Bombay’s Esplanade Maidan, the booth was stoned by
irate Goan Christians, who would rather worship a blonde European Madonna than a brown Semite! Sombre colours and concentric lines mark Angelo’s paintings; one also detects the influence of Ajantan frescoes.
The late V. S. Gaitonde’s art has the flow and feel of great music. More, it has its roots in philosophy; his work is thought provoking. R. G. Chimulkar was his own guru and guide; his works are built on harmony, projecting feelings of gaiety, calmness, sadness, even spatial bliss; in them we see a kinetic movement, dense mystic hues, vibrating lines. Laxman Pai’s works are extremely lyrical. His works do not express the emotions that the artist himself experiences, but rather the feelings and emotions that he knows perfectly.
As for R. P. Kamat, we have to speak of him as the Rodin of Goa; the movement in his sculptures sometimes takes on a kinetic form. Through his magic hands and creative mind he conjures up shapes that sprout out of the earth like mushrooms. In the 1940s he created the statue of Abbe Faria that captures the attention of almost every visitor to Goa.
Like Gaitonde, Francis Newton Souza (d. 2002) is one of the great painters of the world. While a student at the J. J. School of Art in Bombay, he was expelled for taking part in the ‘Quit India’ movement. He embraced Communism, but only briefly, as he found that doctrine too confining. As co-founder of the Progressive Artists’ Group, he contributed immensely to Indian art. Perhaps his most intense and moving paintings are those in which he explored incidents in the life of Christ. Through the twisted limbs, Mary’s agony, and the barbaric role of the scourgers he indirectly expresses the agony, the helplessness, the humiliation he felt in his own life.
Extracts from the book Goa: Aparanta - The Land Beyond The End. The article has been reprinted with the permission of the publisher.