2007-05-15 05:21:32 UTC
An exhibition highlights the contribution of Angelo Fonseca, a rebel who
dared to Indianise Christian iconography way ahead of his time
By S. Kalidas
History has a habit of returning to haunt the present. With Aparanta, a
large and extremely engaging exhibition of Goan artists curated by poet and
art theorist Ranjit Hoskote at the magnificent edifice of the erstwhile Goa
Medical College (GMC) in Panjim (April 11-24),the art of the coastal state
finds both a cumulative voice and a cause to claim national attention. With
23 artists and 250-odd works in a range of mediums from water colours to
video installations, Aparanta, in one tantalising visual fiesta, at once
alludes to Goa's pre-colonial past, debates its colonial European heritage
and celebrates its energetic and eclectic post-colonial diversity. The title
of the exhibition is drawn from the Sanskrit word meaning "that which lies
on the horizon", a name given to the Konkan coast by the Mauryans. According
to Hoskote, Aparanta "is defined around a number of inspired individuals who
defy the apathy of India and the defeatism of their peers; around groups of
artists acting collegially towards a higher common purpose".
The exhibition, sponsored by Goa Tourism, has many aspects that make it
worthy of national attention, the first and foremost being the belated
recognition of the state's first indigenous modernist, Angelo Fonseca, who
preceded the far better known stormy petrel of Indian art, Francis Newton
Souza, founder of the much-written-about Progressive Artists Group. Unlike
Souza and his confreres, who ushered in a modernism inspired by the school
of Paris around the time of independence, Fonseca found the J.J. School of
Art in Mumbai far too colonial for his liking and traversed the subcontinent
to reach Tagore's Shantiniketan, where he studied under Abanindranath Tagore
and other masters of the Bengal school.
Born during the high noon of Portuguese rule, Fonseca wished to "Indianise"
Goa's troubled and contested artistic heritage. He is supposed to be the
first artist who not only depicted local subjects with empathy, but also,
more subversively for his time, dared to paint the Madonna as a dark Konkani
beauty clad in a sari. Not surprisingly, Fonseca was harshly reviled and
rejected at that time in Goa and had to flee to Pune for having defied the
European norms of Christian iconography. India, at that time, caught up in
the quest for its own Independence, of course, had little time for the
lonesome Goan Christian rebel.
Luckily for Indian art, many of Fonseca's masterly works survived the apathy
of history. They were recently re-discovered by the likes of Vivek Menezes,
a freelance journalist and art lover who has now returned to Goa after
spending a long time in the US. A friend and admirer of Souza, Menezes was
so delighted by Fonseca's forgotten opus that he persuaded Hoskote to come
down and take a look at the neglected master's paintings housed at the
Xavier Institute in Goa. So when an enterprising and imaginative IAS
officer, Sanjit Rodrigues, wanted to exhibit the works of 19 young Goan
artists who had participated in an art camp organised by Goa Tourism,
Hoskote suggested that the exhibition be displayed around `shrines'
comprising works of four older Goan artists-Fonseca, Souza, Vasudev S.
Gaitonde and Laxman Pai-to lend a contextual stance to what might otherwise
have been just another art camp display. Set at the grand 400-year-old GMC
building, the exhibition also includes works by two non-Goan artists, Baiju
Parthan and Dayanita Singh, who have had strong links with Goa, having
either studied there or chosen to live and work there.
It is not easy to put together a show of so many disparate artists. Hoskote,
quite intelligently, has visualised the show "as a concert of soloists with
each artist being shown to advantage yet forming a part of a larger and
coherent presentation". So you have the body of Fonseca's `Indianised'
Christian art and a few works of Souza, Pai and Gaitonde culled from the Goa
Museum, around which the works of other Goan artists are displayed. There is
a rhythm and intuitive logic to the scheme that highlights the complex
engagement of the Konkani artists with their troubled colonial legacy on the
one hand, and their aspirational negotiation with the `national enterprise'
of Indian art on the other. And amidst the 250-odd works shown, there are
quite a few surprises and immensely arresting works that could find just
place in any national or international platform.
However, peril looms in the coastal paradise. It is now evident that the
historic and magnificent building of the GMC, where the show is put up, has
been leased to a Delhi firm to be converted into a shopping mall. The Goa
Heritage Action Group has condemned "the high-handed and insensitive
decision of the Government" and feels the building can be put to better use
in a number of ways, like converting it into a library or a museum.
Architect and activist Dean D'cruz says: "We protest the suspicious and
opaque manner in which this historic structure is being sought to be
transferred to private commercial use." So in a poignant twist, this
exhibition might well be the swan song of the heritage building.
But what a grand act of farewell it would be-if indeed the fears of the
conservationists turn out to be true. For over the next two weeks an
elaborate programme of plays, poetry readings and music performances has
been billed to complement the exhibition. All very worthy of Goan pride and
deserving national attention. (ENDS)
The above article appeared in the April 23, 2007 edition of India Today,