Portrait of a maverick

Portrait of a maverick

different strokes

Portrait of a maverick

F N Souza lives his life painting and loving. His footsteps still reverberate in the corridors of modern Indian art, notes Giridhar Khasnis.

Ten years ago, Francis Newton Souza died almost in obscurity; by several accounts, the 77-year-old artist was, at that time, close to penury, if not bankruptcy.

Only a handful of people were present at the funeral and burial which took place at Bombay’s Sewrie Chapel and Cemetery at 11 am on March 30, 2002.

Poet Adil Jussawalla, who knew Souza for decades, lamented how and why the sad event had gone almost unnoticed (A Bitter Parting /Associated News Features / Deccan Herald, April 13, 2002). Recalling that Souza had, on a few occasions, written about other artists and critics publicly with characteristic savagery and scorn, Jussawalla wondered: “Does this explain the near-indifference to his death, the mealy-mouthed praise? I’m shocked. He was more than a friend. Surely there’s little doubt that he was one of our greatest painters.”

Rather than any Indian newspaper or magazine, it was The Guardian, UK which posted a detailed obituary on June 17, 2002. Hailing him as India’s most important, and famous, modern artist, Christopher P Wood referred to Souza’s compelling paintings of Christ and the power of his erotically-charged nudes.

“These were his subjects and the imagery of his most important works. Here the east, the west, the spiritual and the physical fuse together, giving credence to his often used declaration that the ‘whole meaning of life is life itself!’ Souza held on to his wry humour and a healthy skepticism of the establishment in any form. He celebrated the individual. He lived his life painting and loving.”

Among the few grief-stricken artists who bothered to remember Souza was M F Husain. “I came into the art world because of him,” he said. “He is the most significant Indian painter, an intellectual... an artist whom India should be proud of.”

Unusual journey

Born on April 12, 1924 in Saligaon, Goa, Souza saw death from close quarters. Within three months of his birth, his father died, leaving his mother with two kids and debts. In the following year, his sister died too.

“Better had I died,” Souza wrote decades later. “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.”

How the ‘rickety child with running nose and running ears, and scared of every adult and every other child’ went on to carve a niche and become the L’Infant Terrible of modern Indian art is a long and fascinating story.

One could catch a glimpse of his unusual journey in his autobiographical essay, ‘Nirvana of a Maggot’, which Souza wrote as a young man of 30.

The piece was published in Encounter, a London journal then edited by British poet Stephen Spender. By then, Souza had already become a source of influence for his contemporaries in India; had established the short-lived but significant Progressive Artists Group; and had moved to London to become part of its vibrant art scene, exhibiting alongside the likes of Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon.

“How much Souza’s pictures derive from western art and how much from the hieratic temple traditions of his country, I cannot say,” wrote renowned art critic John Berger after his sell-out solo show in 1955. “Analysis breaks down and intuition takes over. It is obvious that he is a superb designer and an excellent draughtsman. But I find it quite impossible to assess his work comparatively. Because he straddles several traditions but serves none.”

In all, Souza spent more than 40 years of his life living outside India — in London, Paris and New York. He was prolific, drew and painted feverishly and impulsively. His works could be warm and tempered in one instance, savage and cynical in the very next. Besides erotically-charged nudes and expressionist crucifixes, he painted a variety of last suppers, haunting portraits, evocative still lives and stunning landscapes.

“Painting for me is not beautiful,” he declared. “It is as ugly as a reptile. I attack it.” In an interview in 1964 he revealed that “for me, the all-pervading and crucial themes of the predicament of man are those of religion and sex.”

In another instance, he said that art, like Nature, was endless. “A painting has a beginning, a middle, but it is endless. Its ‘view’ is carried from observer to observer, from generation to generation, growing in appreciation, or it dwindles into a meaningless daub. Such is the fate of a work of art, dead or alive.”

Over the years, critics and reviewers found Souza’s work to be profoundly original, appallingly honest, and full of formidable caricatures of the human consciousness. For many, his paintings are visual documents that probed the intricacies of human behaviour, cartographies of religion and social ritual.

Art historian Yashodhara Dalmia recalls that at the heart of Souza’s creativity was the belief that society’s destructive aspects shouldn’t be suppressed, they should be aired and confronted.

Belated recognition

Fame and notoriety came hand in hand in Souza’s life. While he was alive, he was acknowledged in international art circles, but remained on the fringes in his own country. He made his fortune but also lost it as easily, thanks to his anomalous lifestyle which included three marriages which all ended in divorces.

Prices of Souza’s paintings never reached high levels during his lifetime. “In 1998, for the price of any Anjolie Ela Menon painting, you could have bought a dozen Souza masterworks from the 50s and 60s,” observes writer and fellow-Goan, Vivek Menezes.

“Until his death in 2002, anyone could walk into Souza’s apartment and take home a spectacular canvas for $2,000, and often much less. All his life, Souza’s exhibitions in India regularly went half-sold or worse, despite prices that stayed stuck under a lakh…He was perpetually close to penury throughout the last decades of his life; his bank balance never went above the low five figures.”

It was only after his death that the prices of his paintings started shooting up. Within a year, his works were selling for $100,000 or more. In 2005, Souza breached the $1 million mark. And in June 2008 — six years after his death — his painting ‘Birth’ (1955) created a record when it sold for $2.5 million at a Sotheby’s auction.

Since then, Souza’s paintings have continued to make headlines. Along with belated recognition comes the malady of Souza fakes, said to be rampant in the art market.

“Souza chose to leave no glossy footage behind,” says artist-writer Dom Martin."In retrospect, whoever Souza was and whatever he became, one will continue to hear his footsteps in the corridors of modern Indian art. And for those who knew him personally, it isn’t without the tacit admission that the likes of him are quite an uncommon occurrence in the grand scheme and theatrics of existence.”

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