Gaitonde & Souza: two friends from Goa4 min read . Updated: 11 Oct 2014, 12:15 AM IST
The journey of a painting that V.S. Gaitonde gifted to his friend Francis Newton Souzaand what it says about the two artists
One snowy February weekend in 1997, I agreed to help artist Francis Newton Souza clean up his tiny walk-up apartment near Lincoln Centre in New York City. The artist was going through one of his hermit phases—alone and isolated except for my visits—and his rooms had become nearly impassable with debris: newspapers, art supplies, empty food packets, a mountain of dirty dishes.
Souza was in his 70s and I in my 20s, but we had become pals and confidants after I found his number in the Manhattan phone book, and cold-called. Across generations, we had many things in common, including joyous childhood years spent in Goa. When my friend asked me to help make his apartment more livable—and refused to allow me to pay for a cleaner—I agreed.
As snow piled up outside, and I hefted endless bagfuls of junk four flights of stairs down to the kerb, things Souza had forgotten began to emerge: a sheaf of jewel-like “chemical paintings", a set of notepads scribbled with an abandoned manifesto. Then, an unframed painting slipped out from a pile of papers under his bed. One glance, and I gasped. The painting was by Vasudeo S. Gaitonde, and it was signed “to Souza, from Gai".
In today’s era of million-dollar auction records for Souza and Gaitonde, it is easy to forget both artists died almost penniless. Most people refuse to believe me when I tell them that just 15 years ago, Souza happily sold masterpieces from the 1950s or 1960s for $1,500 (around ₹ 93,000) or $2,000, and stunning works on paper just for $100-200.
It is an inconvenient truth that the exact same art establishment that now ostentatiously lionizes these “masters" generally ignored and overlooked Gaitonde and Souza throughout their lives. It took death for them to become fashionable.
The moment their lives ended (Gaitonde in 2001 and Souza in 2002), prices of their artworks tripled, quadrupled, then went up a hundredfold in a matter of months. But despite the torrent of big bucks, it really took the New York-based Solomon R Guggenheim Museum’s attention to finally start serious study of Gaitonde (this still has not happened for Souza), even in 2014. The curator, Sandhini Poddar, hits bullseye when she says “the market has been supportive of his work, (but) there was no scholarship to substantiate the interest. No one had seriously researched his work or his position."
The problem of inadequate or non-existent scholarship goes beyond Gaitonde and Souza, directly to the intellectual underpinnings of the study of art, and art history in India.
Ever since 1947, a misguided ideological bent to studying and writing about art has warped these disciplines to their foundations. The most egregious propagandizing is on behalf of the “Bengal Renaissance" in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which has been unconscionably installed in concrete as “Indian modernism". This ignores all available evidence from early modern encounters in Travancore, French India, and Baroda. But the most glaring omission produced Gaitonde, and Souza and a long stream of other exemplars. This is the erstwhile Estado da India in Goa, and its extended cultural footprint in Bombay.
Indian scholars hate to acknowledge Goa was the first, and among the most impactful crucibles of East-West confluence (today called globalization) in history. Sixteenth-century Goa featured the richest metropolis in the world, larger than contemporary Paris and London combined. Technology, ideas and food from across the Americas, Africa, Asia and Europe flooded into the subcontinent. The first Gutenberg type printing press in Asia, the first medical college, Goa seethed with cultural exchange that comprehensively changed everything.
But the Portuguese soon lost the ability to project power in Goa, and native elites rose to fill the vacuum. They seized European-style political ideas (like republicanism), scientific practice (modern medicine was spread across Asia by doctors from Goa) as well as cultural expression (Os Brahmanes by Francisco Luís Gomes was among the first Indian novels).
When Bombay developed into urbs prima in Indis in the 19th century, Goans took advantage. The first class at Grant Medical College had eight students: four were Goan, including Bhau Daji Lad. It was the same at Sir JJ School of Art, where the director boasted about adroit “Goanese" students, and A.X. Trindade was the first Indian to be appointed faculty.
Gaitonde and Souza sprang from this milieu. They both spent idyllic childhoods with relatives in the north Goa countryside, before moving to Mumbai where they met at the Sir JJ School of Art. The two Goans shared a lifelong disdain for both the colonial art they were taught, as well as the self-conscious Santiniketan artists who strove in the opposite direction.
Souza formed the Progressive Artists’ Group in 1947, and chose and mentored its other members. This band of hungry-eyed college boys with the Goan duo at its core declared they would “paint with absolute freedom for content and technique", their eyes firmly fixed on a place in the world. It is immensely moving to note just how completely their ambitions have been realized in the 21st century.
As evening approached, Souza found me staring transfixed at the Gaitonde painting in my hand. I recall his look of amusement, and his knowing chuckle “You know why you’re staring at it? It is the Rosetta Stone of Goa!"
Souza told me that in 1958 Gaitonde found photographs of the earliest rock carvings in Goa’s hinterland, and became excited by their possibilities for his art. This piece, Monsoon, marked a decisive step into abstraction. He called Souza to tell him he had heard his voice in his head when it was completed. So he kept it in his studio until they met in 1960, when he signed it over to his compatriot.
While Souza told the story, I devoured Monsoon with my eyes. The artist reached for a pen, and inscribed his friend’s gift to me: “No one has looked twice at it for almost 50 years except you, hopeless Goenkar!"