The Uncelebrated Goan Artist

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Now in his 90’s, Vamona Navelcar’s passion for his art remains steadfast. The modern Indian artist from Pomburpa who seeks no accolades or fame opens up to NT NETWORK

DANUSKA DA GAMA | NT NETWORK

Two days before he could turn 93, I jumped at the chance to interview Vamona Navelcar, one of Goa’s greatest artists, who now resides in Pomburpa.

Having facilitated the interview through his nephew Anant Navelcar in a matter of hours, I stepped inside the yellow house, to find him seated, well dressed in a long-sleeved shirt, hair combed back, mask in place, smiling with glee.

And indeed, while his hearing may be impaired, and he deals with a persistent knee and back injury, Vamona remains as active as he can, defying age-related problems to the best of his ability.

“What’s the secret of your long life? You look good in your nineties,” I begin.

He laughs and says: “Just like Johnnie Walker I am still going strong. It’s a miracle that you say I am happy and looking good, it’s all because of my thinking and philosophy.”

Known to be a very reclusive person, Vamona has always been content to just remain in his world of art. And it is perhaps this aspect that has led to people not knowing what a great artist he is, believes Anant, adding that it was artist Suhas Shilkar who was initially instrumental in creating a buzz about Vamona’s art.

Slowly, as word spread among artists, art connoisseurs, and art collectors, people would come home and Vamona, who never saw himself as a commercial artist, would either gift his works or agree to the price quoted, thus selling a lot of his masterpieces for a song. Today, he still has a few paintings done in the 50s and 60s which the family possesses and don’t want to part with.

Vamona later left for Portugal during his prime years. Till date in fact, he is thankful for the scholarship he was given by the Prime Minister of Portugal, Salazar, after which he left his job in the accounts department of the Chowgule mining company to pursue a postgraduate degree in Fine Arts in Portugal in 1954.

He returned back to his home soil in 1982 and was immediately enchanted by the beauty of his place and people. “Within four days of my return I painted the walls of my house with the representations I had stored in my mind and seen,” he recalls, and now eying the walls of the house which have distemper paint, he says with wide open eyes: “I want to paint the walls again with better quality material. I will start after eight days.”

Upon returning home from Portugal, Vamona was occupied with running the family pharmacy and had less time for his art.

“He would paint and sketch only post sunset, or on Sundays, until the pharmacy shut in the mid-90s. Then he once again immersed himself totally into art,” recounts Anant.

Today, the artists fraternity and Goans who know of Vamona and his works across themes and styles believe that he deserves great honour in Goa and from the Indian Government in the form of a Padma award or its equivalent, and/or the Gomant Vibhushan.

Anant agrees. “Certainly, enough justice hasn’t been done to this artist uncle of mine, the son of Goan soil. He is very deserving of the award. But I think his reclusive nature is to be blamed along with him being away in Mozambique and Portugal. That distorted the connect and subsequently honour from the State and Central government’s which is thus overdue.”

Those who know of him, his works, and the versatility he has brought out on canvas or paper, also believe that the absence of this award till now may be because his work ranges across a variety of styles and themes and also because his works have been scattered due to his name, as earlier he would sign off the works as Ashok, then as Vamona and later as Ganesh.

But the artist says humbly: “Only if I deserve it may be bestowed. Otherwise, everyday I am getting awarded and rewarded by the Almighty.”

And as we speak of his awards, and go through photographs of his works of the past, Vamona looks at his left palm to tell us a tale of someone who read his hand.

“I don’t believe in all this, but I was told that this rare palm line (that runs from the fourth finger to almost join the wrist) is what very few artists/people have, that brings greatness. But, I don’t know,” he shrugs.

In fact, Vamona has always vouched for discipline and practicality in life. This can also be understood in the book ‘Vamona Navelcar- An Artist of Three Continents’ by Anne Ketteringham.

In his family too, there were petty squabbles as Vamona didn’t adhere to religious customs and rituals. “He is spiritual and is still very pragmatic and could never associate with traditions merely being followed,” explains Anant.

In fact, even as a young boy, Vamona denounced the caste system and has always had more friends from other castes and communities.

He even remembers injustice meted to his friend at the age of 12 at a temple in Panaji, when his friend was asked not to stay back for food because he belonged to another caste. In anger, Vamona left along with his friend.

“Who freed India?” he asks me now and I wonder what reference this man is trying to make… and in a soft tone he then expresses: “India is still not liberated, but is divided everywhere.” He stops, leaving me to make sense of the little he said.

And such were his representations of art that had layers and several meanings or connotations for the viewer to sense and interpret. In fact, apart from Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, and Fernando Pessoa, a lot of his paintings are influenced by the teachings in the Bible, though his body of works crosses themes and styles.

Vamona tells us that after reading the New Testament, he was disturbed by how a good man like Jesus could be crucified for no fault. “Christ taught me a lot. I lived life according to his teachings,” he says. “I am more Christian than Hindu, but I am not a Catholic,” he adds and smiles.

Many of his drawings also depict Indian mythology. In fact, his final thesis before getting his degree was a large painting of the Ramayana depicting Lord Ram, Sita and Hanuman. This thesis of a painting and story was presented to the board of judging teachers.

Later when in Goa, the painting was opened up for the author Anne, who insisted that Vamona show it to her. The large 2.2 metres x 1.8 metres artwork used to be used as covering material in the loft at Pomburpa.

A philosopher in his own right, he doesn’t like being compared to the likes of other modern Indian artists like MF Hussain or FN Souza. “I am proud of who I am. I cannot copy. I have always been original with my works,” he says, recalling the words of Fernando Pessoa: “I am nothing. I will never be anything. I couldn’t want to be something.”

So if you were not an artist, what would you have done?” I ask.

He pauses. “Hard question, but I think I would have been in business and that would have been a big disaster,” says Vamona, who incidentally is not the only artist in his family.

Two of Vamona’s brothers were also artists – Ganesh and Krishna. His brother Ganesh, older to Vamona by nine years died at the age of 16, and it was much later in the mid 70s when Vamona lost all his important documents that he started signing off as Ganesh in his paintings – Ganesh being a family deity, and also to pay obeisance and eternal gratitude to his late brother. Vamona is quick to add that Krishna who was both a photographer and artist, also influenced him greatly. “He was much better than me as an artist,” he says with sheer humbleness.

Today, the artist loves spending time in the ‘raj angan’ (royal courtyard) at his residence, reading and listening to classical music both Indian and Western.

 He still does a few sketches, and line drawings remain his favourite. He again shows me his hands and tells me that they tremble and ‘katkutleo zata’.

“But, I can complete an entire line drawing from start to finish without lifting the pen just like how a cow pees without intermission,” he chuckles.

A quick look at Vamona’s old photographs, and you know the man was stylish and charming. “So why did you remain bachelor?” I ask.

He chuckles again. “I don’t know. I could have said yes to many girls who liked me in Portugal.” He pauses. “But, my aim was not to marry there. My links with Goa and my family would have been broken. I wanted to settle down with a Goan girl.”

However, by the time Vamona moved to Goa he was in his fifties, and who would have given their daughter’s hand in marriage to him then, when conservative ideas couldn’t be shunned, unlike today, and Vamona thought differently ‘like a foreigner’.

But even in his golden years, Vamona’s energy levels can beat a youngster, and I am mesmerised by his charisma, memory, and knowledge. In fact, the enthusiastic Vamona also offers to draw me, but I deter.

“I have lots of stories to tell you. You must come back,” he says, which I agree to.

“What is it that remains an unfinished dream or aim?” I ask as we wind up the conversation which has now clocked over an hour

With vigorous hand movement as if in work mode he says: “I want to do drawings, and drawings, and drawings without end.”

I first encountered Vamona’s works at the Art Gallery of the Fontainhas-based Fundacao Oriente. His bold strokes and original hues mesmerised the young artist in me. I still recount the overwhelming and unique blue in his work enveloping the entire gallery; typical mundane fishing trawlers rubbing sides against the vast sky on top and sea below accentuated the rhythm and beauty of the docked vessels.

Simple and humble, Vamona’s attitude towards life is reflected in his works. Sharps strokes speak of the struggle he went through during the course of his education in Portugal and beyond that. And the lyrical continuous lines for which he is famous for, brings forth his attitude of taking life as it comes. The energy he displays at this age exhibits his passion and commitment towards art. Having been a part of making his presence known to Goan art lovers, I feel honoured to be loved and blessed by him all along. This transnational artist is an asset that deserves far greater recognition and commendations.

–  Naguesh Rao Sardessai, artist

The first time I saw a work of Vamona Navelcar was at ‘The Attic’, a St Inez furniture shop. It was a pen drawing on paper, about one by two feet, of a multitude. The line joined all the people on the page, with a lightness of thread, space, and quietness. The drawing had an absolute freshness. It was exciting and fascinating as a student, to see how a mature work has knowledge of material and speaks of life with such a deep feeling for humanity. His deeply kind and generous spirit brings back the memory of my first encounter with his work.

–  Karishma D’Souza, artist

Vamona had perhaps the strongest influence on my decision to take up painting. Somewhere in 1975, I saw his exhibition of abstract drawings on the poems of Tagore and although I was just a teenager, the show hit me deep inside. I saw it again and again and absorbed the contents of the drawings. Getting to know him was a difficult task because of his reclusiveness, but my incessant persistence paid off and later we became good friends. I used to visit him regularly since the nineties to see his new works, and get inspired. He introduced me to the now famous poet Fernando Pessoa who was his source of inspiration and later became mine. His mastery over line and tone and the various styles in which he works in, is astounding even today. The late Margaret Mascarenhas and I also arranged an exhibition of his works somewhere in 2011 at The Attic Gallery in Panaji.

–  Suhas Shilkar, artist

I am fortunate enough to proudly own some of Vamona’s valuable paintings. He has exclusively drawn them for me, which I consider a rare privilege. Two of them hold much significance. The first, a coloured landscape painting of Hotel Republica which has a 3D effect is perhaps the only landscape he has drawn. The other is a painting of Lord Krishna that is symbolic of the Bhagwad Gita that he drew as he knew I was a devotee of Shri Devki Krishna. In fact, he chose the auspicious day of Akshaya Tritiya to draw it and continuously chanted the Gayatri mantra.

The two of us have a special bond and after years of him writing down his thoughts related to art, life, and creativity, he passed these writings to me that I published in the book ‘Vamona Navelcar- Art &Reflections’.”

-V B Prabhu Verlekar, chartered accountant/ author of a book on Vamona