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Goa’s invisible artscape

Subodh Kerkar's Museum of Goa has given a home to the works of significant young artists from the state, who may finally get the attention they deserve

The Museum of Goa. Photo: Museum of Goa
The Museum of Goa. Photo: Museum of Goa

With a single stroke in 2015, the mercurial artist and showman Subodh Kerkar plugged a gap that had bedevilled modern and contemporary Goan art for at least a century. It was a glaring historical lacuna—India’s smallest state has consistently churned out noteworthy artists like Francis Newton Souza and Vasudeo Gaitonde, but each of them had to leave home and migrate in order to gain recognition and make a living. There have never been any decent galleries, serious collectors or critics. The state museum was, and remains, a disgrace, with almost nothing to see, and woefully haphazard with the few works that ever make it to display.

All this was particularly galling considering the extraordinary modern and contemporary art heritage of Goa. From the very inception of the first modern arts institution in India, the Sir JJ School of Art in colonial Bombay, students from the Estado da Índia Portuguesa were singled out for praise by the European instructors. Soon afterwards, a Goan was appointed the first Indian faculty member; the celebrated Antonio Xavier Trindade was also the first native to win gold at the annual art exhibition of the Bombay Art Society in 1920. A few years later, Angelo da Fonseca quit Sir JJ School to go to Santiniketan, where he was a prized student of Abanindranath Tagore. He is described by the British art historian Rupert Arrowsmith as a globally significant “eclectic genius", with his work now being catapulted from obscurity to recognition as one of the great modernist achievements of the first half of the 20th century.

Then follows a long string of famous exemplars. Antonio Piedade da Cruz was a favourite portrait painter of the maharajas, and of Mahatma Gandhi. Souza and Gaitonde helped kick-start the Progressive Artists’ Group, the most significant development in the history of Indian modern art. Today, these two Goans continually trade between them the record price paid for an Indian painting, now permanently in multiple millions of dollars. Then came Laxman Pai, another powerhouse artist who is still producing important work in his 90s, and was an influential principal of the Goa College of Art.

Subodh Kerkar. Photo: Museum of Goa
Subodh Kerkar. Photo: Museum of Goa

Filling the gap

Still in his 50s, Subodh Kerkar provides a crucial bridge between the masters of the 20th century and the explosive Goan talent of the new millennium. Educated as a physician, he is both prodigiously gifted and prolific. Starting with deft watercolours and meticulously detailed realist paintings, he has morphed into an installation and landscape artist. Recently, his field-sized artwork, Carpet Of Joy, drew a large number of visitors each day to open grounds in the north Goan village of Saligao.

Kerkar grew tired of waiting for the government to fill the gaping voids in Goa’s arts infrastructure. The idea of a large gallery space began to gestate in his mind, and he rushed headlong into the project, committing most of his life savings. In 2015, the Museum of Goa (MOG) complex—spread across three floors, and over 1,500 sq. m—was inaugurated with a group show starring the state’s brightest young talent.

One of the exhibition spaces. Photo: Midhun Mohan.

Kerkar’s goals for MOG (the acronym is also a Konkani word meaning love) are markedly different from private arts spaces such as the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in New Delhi. He says, “In this country of over one billion people, not even 1% of the population connects with contemporary art. The idea that my work would only reach a handful of Indians was scary. I wanted to become the ‘Tukaram’ of contemporary art, so I started MOG to break down cultural barriers and bring art to the masses. I believe art is important for a healthy, tolerant and happy society."

Even in Goa’s immensely crowded tourism landscape, MOG has quickly established itself as an essential pit stop for cultural immersion—100-150 people visit every day, says Kerkar. This is in large part due to Kerkar’s infectious enthusiasm for the complex social history of his homeland, which pervades his own sculptures and installations in the museum. But the real eye-openers come from his supporting cast, the line-up of almost completely unknown younger artists whose works clearly deserve much wider attention. When you view these collectively at MOG, recognition dawns that Goan art is going to be the next big thing.

Kalidas Mhamal’s ‘Caste Thread’. Photo: Midhun Mohan

The show-stoppers

Almost exactly 10 years ago, Ranjit Hoskote curated a seminal art exhibition in the heritage precinct of the Goa Medical College on the Panaji waterfront (it has now moved to another location). Aparanta: The Confluence Of Contemporary Art In Goa included hundreds of works by 26 artists, and expertly connected the old masters (Souza, Gaitonde, Pai) to the emerging generation from Goa, as well as artists whose work reflects and relates to the state’s cultural ethos (Dayanita Singh, Baiju Parthan). These are hugely varied artists who work across media, but some congruent themes do emerge: cultural confluence, layers of history, questions about loss, absence and abandonment.

Hoskote wrote in a curatorial essay: “Goa has brilliant, meteorically brilliant artists. But the lack of a context has left them afloat in a void of discussion. 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."

It is this dissonance between state-sponsored, overtly ideologic Indian art history and the Goan experience that makes it so difficult for young artists from the state to leap into the broader national conversations. And until Kerkar intervened, that instability and lack of understanding was the overwhelming reality for most Goan artists. In the months after MOG opened its doors, most of those energies coalesced in its soaring gallery spaces. For the first time, contemporary Goan art has a worthy home.

It is no surprise that the show-stoppers at MOG’s inaugural exhibition were created by artists who had received their first big break at Hoskote’s Aparanta. Many of them studied at the University of Hyderabad, under the tutelage of the printmaker and painter Laxma Goud, imbibing his emphasis on surrealism in a rural context. Together, Goan artists like Viraj Naik, Santosh Morajkar, Chaitali Morajkar, Siddharth Gosavi, Pradeep Naik, Shilpa Mayenkar Naik, Kalidas Mhamal and Kedar Dhondu have evolved their own Konkani surrealism, influenced by Goud, and at once rooted in their experience of the villages of Goa’s heartland as well as the long trajectory of their antecedents, especially Souza.

While all of them went from the Goa College of Art to Hyderabad, Karishma D’Souza and Loretti Pinto pursued their higher degrees at the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda. Each one of them is a highly individualistic powerhouse painter, intensely thoughtful and engaged with cultural and environmental politics, who has already earned national and international acclaim. D’Souza’s work is subtle and allusive, often complemented and coloured by eclectic readings in poetry and fiction. She has already exhibited solo twice at the Xippas Gallery in Paris. Pinto is frankly polemical, marked by her experience of growing up in the coastal village of Siridao, from where many of her neighbours migrated to France after getting Portuguese passports. She returns often to that wellspring. Her paintings and drawings seethe with emotion about displacement, exclusion, and the powerlessness of individuals in resisting globalization.

There are many other significant artists working in Goa whose work merits immediate attention. Rajeshree Thakker is preternaturally quiet and unobtrusive in person, but her collages and multimedia paintings spill over with sly humour and wit. Aadhi Vishal’s meditative watercolours fuse an enormous range of ideas and symbols, to create icons that are his alone. Vitesh Naik’s representations of local characters and settings are consistently winning. He is a worthy postmodern successor to Mario Miranda. Norman Tagore’s paintings are charmingly cheeky, with a tart pop sensibility. Sonia Rodrigues Sabharwal delves deep into the ancient sources of Goan culture.

So much virtuosity, but there was no place to see it until Kerkar opened MOG.

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