A rebel, always

Different Strokes

A rebel, always

For angels Souza’s man.

He was the undisputed enfant terrible of Indian modern art.The only Indian artist to have a room dedicated to his works at Tate Britain, one of his works was sold for Rs 1,273,250 at the Christies auction last year, creating a new world auction record for the artist and for any Indian modern art and contemporary work of art.The art group he started in the year of India’s Independence was short-lived but not short of significance or impact. M F Husain, a member of the group, considered him to be his mentor; to be the most significant Indian painter, and almost a genius.

A prolific painter, he had successful exhibitions all over the world. In his hey days, his paintings hung alongside leading artists of the caliber of Francis Bacon, Henry Moore, and Graham Sutherland. When Pablo Picasso died, he unabashedly declared: “I am the next greatest living artist after Picasso.”

Yet, when Francis Newton Souza died in Mumbai on the night of March 28, 2002, his funeral in Sewri cemetery was virtually unattended; none of his family members was present, nor were any worthies from the art world. The king of sin and sensuality, who defied convention all his life and developed a razor-edged vocabulary both in art and writing, left quietly.

Souza was born on April 12, 1924, in the small village of Saligao in Portuguese Goa. His father was a school teacher. “My childhood has been insipid like an undigested bit of straw, recalled Souza. My father died when I was born, like a beetle that dies having laid the egg. I can never forgive him for having died just like that, and having left me in the lurch. I’ve always had a curious feeling of an ancient guilt that I had inadvertently killed him because he died soon after my birth.”

A rickety child with running nose and running ears, and scared of every adult and every other child, Souza contracted smallpox, which compelled his mother to add Francis to his name, the patron saint of Goa, and pledge her son to priesthood. She also shifted to Bombay and raised him under great financial constraints.

By all accounts, Souza had a sticky childhood. Among others, he confessed to watching his mother bathe herself through a hole he had made in the door. As I can recollect, I have even painted on the walls of her womb.” He was twice expelled from school in 1937 and 1939 by Jesuit fathers. His crime: Drawing pornographic figures on the walls of the school lavatories.

When he was barely 16, he decided to become an artist, and joined the J J School of Art where, among other things, he is said to have slapped a teacher. He was eventually expelled from J J also for rebelling against the anti-national practices of the English principal and, for bringing down the Union Jack and hoisting the Indian flag.

In 1947, he founded the Progressive Artists Group with painters like S H Raza, K H Ara, and Husain. One of Souza’s shows in Bombay had a number of female nudes and a frontal portrait of Souza himself in the nude. This created a furore and the police had to intervene. When asked to either withdraw the painting or to suitably clothe the figure for the sake of decency, Souza covered the genitals with a piece of cloth there-by attracting greater attention to it!

Souza left for London in 1949 and spent the next six years in dire straits as a struggling and impoverished artist, staying in places that didn't have toilets, performing menial tasks for landlords, and developing the habit of picking up cigarette butts from the road.

His literary skills, however, drew the attention of poet Stephen Spender who not only published Souza’s autobiographical essay, ‘Nirvana of a Maggot’, but also introduced him to Peter Watson. This resulted in an exhibition where Souza’s paintings were hung alongside the works of Francis Bacon, Sutherland, Moore and others; all his paintings were sold during the show.

Success at last

In 1955, Souza’s solo show at Gallery One, became a defining event in his life. It was sell-out as well as a critical success. “How much Souza’s pictures derive from western art and how much from the hieratic temple traditions of his country, I cannot say,” wrote eminent art critic John Berger in ‘New Statesman’. “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.”

Souza built on the success and participated in many significant shows. His works were collected eagerly by celebrities and wealthy patrons. After his marriage to a teenage girl in 1967 created a stir in London, Souza fled to New York and settled there. His marriage did not succeed, his health failed and he started drinking heavily which made him look sick and deranged. In later years, Souza became a pale shadow of himself even without his legendary drinking binges and womanizing habits. When he died following a massive heart attack, he was virtually a loner and a tormented soul.

Souza’s paintings are easily recognizable by their brazen looks, with a penchant for the perverse and affinity with the macabre. His stunning portraits, landscapes, still-lifes, male heads and female nudes were painted with utmost disdain for tradition and conventions. Many of his works looked at religious icons and mythological imagery in a most distinct if disdainful manner.

Some of the most moving of Souza’s paintings are those which convey a spirit of awe in the presence of a divine power, a God, who is not a God of gentleness and love, but rather of suffering, vengeance and of terrible anger, observed Souza’s biographer, Edwin Mullins. “In his religious work there is a quality of fearfulness and terrible grandeur which even Rouault and Sutherland have not equalled in this century. All his most successful work seems to contain something of an emotional clash —vulgarity and tenderness, or agony and wit, pathos and satire, aggression and composure. They have some of the sheer inventiveness of Picasso — specially Picasso’s late graphic works — and the same unresolved tumult.”

For curator Yashodhara Dalmia, Souza’s landscapes seem to be driven by a cataclysmic force, which wreaks havoc. The tumbling houses in their frenzied movement are symbolic of all things falling apart, of the very root of things being shaken, of a world of the holocaust and thalidomide babies.

On his part, Souza had his own explanation. Painting for me is not beautiful, he once said. It is as ugly as a reptile. I attack it. Renaissance painters painted men and women, making them look like angels. I paint for angels to show them what men and women really look like.

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