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The Indispensable Modernist: Francis Newton Souza

From becoming one of the highest priced Indian painters in history to being hailed as the ‘Father of Indian Modernism’, Francis Newton Souza’s legacy is undeniable. But 18 years after his death, there is still some unease in the art world about where to place him

Francis Newton Souza with one of his paintings in London, 1955
Francis Newton Souza with one of his paintings in London, 1955

Precisely 18 years ago, the tumultuous and meteoric life of Francis Newton Souza came to an end. The great Indian modernist had been based in New York for decades but died on 28 March 2002 while visiting Mumbai, the beloved city of his youth and initial ascent to notoriety. He was buried two days later,with only a handful of witnesses, and no family members in attendance. The rest of the world barely paid any attention at all.

Writing in the Deccan Herald a fortnight later, the poet and editor Adil Jussawalla was white-hot angry about what he called “the near-indifference to his death, the mealy-mouthed praise". He wrote: “I’m shocked. He was more than a friend. Surely there’s little doubt he was one of our greatest painters."

Jussawalla pointed back to the artist’s A Fragment Of An Autobiography, first published to great acclaim in England in 1955, then republished in India, writing, “Hardly anyone in a city which buys, sells and talks art all the time and which has pretensions to be one of the art’s international capitals, seems to have been interested in buying the book since copies can be bought off one of the city’s pavements at 10 each."

Untitled (Spanish Landscape), oil on canvas, 1958
Untitled (Spanish Landscape), oil on canvas, 1958

He quoted this unforgettable passage: “I was a rickety child with running nose and running ears, and scared of every adult and every other child. Better had I died. Would have saved me a lot of trouble. I would not have had to bear an artist’s tormented soul, create art in a country that despises her artists and is ignorant of her heritage." Concluded Jussawalla, “It’s something I read with great bitterness now."

But the Souza story was not yet extinguished. Another chapter was already kindling. Later in 2002, Christopher Wood referred to him in The Guardian as “India’s most important, and famous, artist". By then prices of his work were skyrocketing. He had never sold any work for $10,000 (around 7.6 lakh now) but within months that record crossed $100,000. In 2015, the Delhi-based collector Kiran Nadar made his 1955 oil-on-board Birth “the highest priced Indian painting in history" by paying just over $4 million for it at auction at Christie’s in New York.

Earlier this week, I emailed Jussawalla to ask what he thought about this remarkable posthumous twist in the Souza tale. He told me, “His legacy has held up, but I think there’s still some unease in some ignorant pits of the art world about where to place him: not identifiably Indian in the West and not Indian (enough)—as a curator once wrote in a daily—here."

It’s a perceptive insight, which continues to bedevil the artist’s legacy. Part of the reason is Souza’s lifelong indifference to what he called “chauvinist ideas and fanaticism". Instead he insisted his paintings—and the work of his fellow Progressive artists—“evolved over the years of its own volition; out of our own balls and brains". But there’s no doubt the main cause for the slights and confusion is his personal background: Goan Catholic from Portuguese India, raised in 1930s and 1940s Mumbai.

’The Deposition’, 1963, by the artist at Sotheby’s, London, 2016
’The Deposition’, 1963, by the artist at Sotheby’s, London, 2016

The difference between the two colonial systems that coexisted for centuries on the west coast of India is little understood, and almost never formally acknowledged. But while they flowed profoundly into each other (at least 10% of Goa’s population lived in Mumbai by the turn of the 20th century) and once even overlapped (when the British occupied the Portuguese territory for 15 years at the cusp of the 19th century), their social and political scenarios were radically divergent.

The Estado da India’s remarkable heyday—in the 16th century its capital city, now known as Old Goa, was twice the size of contemporary London and Paris combined—ended as quickly as it began. The latter half of the Portuguese 451-year reign was characterized by painful concession and compromise with “native" elites, who seized control of their own future and exerted dominance across the vast arc of Portugal’s maritime empire, from Timor to Mozambique. Thus, in 1924, Souza wasn’t born second-class in the British Raj, but fully on a par with any Portuguese citizen, complete with equal rights it took other Indians several decades to achieve.

As the critic and curator Ranjit Hoskote pointed out so acutely in his catalogue essay for the monumental 2007 exhibition Aparanta: The Confluence Of Contemporary Art In Goa, “Geographical contiguity does not mean that Goa and mainland India share the same universe of meaning: Goa’s special historic evolution, with its Lusitanian route to the Enlightenment and print modernity, its Iberian emphasis on a vibrant public sphere, its pride in its ancient internationalism avant la lettre, sets it at a tangent to the self-image of an India that has been formed with the experience of British colonialism as its basis."

In colonial Mumbai, the young Souza grew up in another foment of globalization before World War II, as the city filled with soldiers, spies, travellers and refugees from across the world, with lasting significance for its artists. This burgeoning scene had important Indian figures like Mulk Raj Anand, Homi Bhabha and Ebrahim Alkazi, but its main catalysts were three Europeans with roots in Austria: Walter Langhammer (The Times Of India art director), Rudolf von Leyden (the same newspaper’s art critic) and Emmanuel Schlesinger (a generous patron).

These three changed everything for the young Indian artists they took under their collective wing. Many years later, Souza would recall the lasting impact of being shown high-quality reproductions of the works of Paul Gauguin. At that very moment, he decided everything he had learnt at art school (he had actually been expelled from the Sir JJ School of Art for participating in the Quit India movement) was wrong.

Recalling that epiphany, Souza wrote: “I had begun to notice that JJ School of Art turned out an awful number of bad artists year after year, and the Bombay Art Society showed awful crap in its Annual Exhibitions…. It then occurred to me to form a group to give ourselves an incentive. Ganging up in a collective ego is stronger than single ego. It is easier for a mob to carry out a lynching; and in this case, we found it necessary to lynch the kind of art inculcated by the JJ School of Art and exhibited in the Bombay Art Society."

Souza assembled an extraordinarily motley cohort. There were two Muslims, Sayed Haider Raza (who was from then-remote central India) and Maqbool Fida Husain (who was painting cinema billboards). Krishnaji Howlaji Ara was a houseboy and Hari Ambadas Gade a science teacher. Sadanand Bakre had been in the air force. They had no obvious connection other than the young Goan, whose passionate rhetoric bound them together.

In the catalogue of the first Progressive Artists Group exhibition in Mumbai in 1949, the 25-year-old Souza wrote with unrivalled chutzpah: “We paint with absolute freedom for content and techniques almost anarchic…. 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."

As Yashodhara Dalmia writes in her outstanding 2001 The Making Of Modern Indian Art: The Progressives: “It was an attempt at rooting themselves within the paradigm of (global) modern art. It was at the same time a means of re-inventing these in their own context. To do so in the India of their time required an act of courage." She notes the backlash of opprobrium, quoting the senior artist Madhav Satwalekar: “I certainly would welcome progress. But the present turn does not strike me as progress. I would even call it degradation."

Nearly 50 years later, Husain told Dalmia the Indian art establishment closed ranks against Souza’s misfits. “Some of the professors at the JJ School of Art used to tell the students, ‘Don’t mix with these fellows. They are destroying Indian art. Behind them are three foreigners and they are destroying everything.’" That prejudice lasted right into the 21st century, with national institutions repeatedly rejecting seminal modernist works as “un-Indian".

There’s no doubt this egregiously blinkered “nationalist" opinion prevailed precisely because of the heterogeneous nature of the Progressives (which expanded to include an additional two Goans, two more Muslims and a woman, amongst another sundry handful) as well as their refusal to be part of any forced revivalism. In the view of most Indian scholars, this made them inherently inferior to the vaunted “Bengal Renaissance", with its suitably upper-class Brahmanical exemplars led by the Tagores.

The enshrinement of ostensibly “authentic" Santiniketan artists as the Indian modernists of choice occurred at full speed after 1947. Still, there were dissenters, notably the ascerbic Avadhanam Sita Raman, the first Indian editor of Illustrated Weekly Of India, who wrote with great ire in 1971: “No doubt Indian revivalism began as a revolt of protest, but it was a movement without momentum. Its leaders had national pride, but lacked revolutionary fervour. Theirs was ecstasy without agony." Raman concluded: “The Bengal School continues to be the refuge of mediocrities. Being a prisoner of the past, it is a pathetic anachronism. The main cause of its decline is not its Indian-ness but its pseudo-Indian-ness. If there were an Olympiad for bathos, the Bengal School is sure to emerge as the gold medallist!"

It should be noted this was published by Contemporary Review, in London, because the comments were pure anathema at the time in India, where conventional wisdom held that the Progressives were derivative, and Souza in particular was degenerate. Meanwhile, the “Cult of the Tagores" was at its highest ascendance.

It’s true Souza hadn’t done much for his own case after topsy-turvy years in London, where he had moved in 1949. Before he left again for New York in 1967, he divorced twice, remarried both times and had four children from two wives (another was born in New York from his third marriage). But he also rocketed into public attention with sell-out exhibitions and huge critical acclaim alongside his peers Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, before getting derailed by erratic personal choices and an intense struggle with alcoholism.

Until just a few years ago, it seemed as though that luminous golden initial moment had slid irretrievably into the “ash heap of history". But then auction records began to tumble. Now, catapulted from sheer ignominy, Souza has become an essential part of how both the UK and India want to construct their new art histories, with his works prominently displayed in London’s Tate Modern and Delhi’s National Gallery of Modern Art. As the fine, emergent curator Zehra Jumabhoy wrote this year: “F.N. Souza is as divisive in death as he was in life: his legacy is fought over by Britain and India. Souza is feted as a Father of Indian Modernism, and is increasingly prominent in India’s nation-building narratives. Meanwhile, (exhibitions in the UK) hail him as ‘Black’ and British; exemplifying an inclusive version of Britishness…. Do these posthumous accolades serve to right art historical wrongs or propagate new injustices?"

Jumabhoy points out, “During his lifetime, neither nation was keen to embrace Souza within its fold," and argues, “(actually) Souza’s art simultaneously cements and contravenes nation-pushing agendas—however ‘inclusive’ they purport to be, ending with an excellent question, ‘what does Souza’s pariah past mean for his British-ness vis-a-vis his Indian-ness?’"

The inherent ironies are indeed rather piquant, and there’s no doubt that Souza himself would have been highly tickled by them. The inveterate outsider is now repositioned precisely where he had always believed he belonged—the centre of everything, the maker of worlds.

At last year’s Serendipity Arts Festival in Goa, the standout exhibition was Nancy Adajania’s Counter-Canon, Counter-Culture: Alternative Histories Of Indian Art, which had a number of jewel-like Souza “chemical paintings" at its heart. When I emailed her earlier this week, Adajania wrote back: “It is impossible to imagine the Progressive Artists Group without Souza. He was its catalyst and spokesperson, and gave it a working manifesto…he was unique in celebrating the irrepressible human will-to-overcome, the freedom to defeat the constraints of conditioning and circumstances, through the bacchanalia of phantasmagoric imagery that he produced. He embodied a Bergsonian élan vital to a degree unparalleled in Indian art."

Vivek Menezes is a Goa-based writer and photographer.

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