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Valued the world over, forgotten at home Goa’s most prized Bardezkars

Two artists of Goan origin, Francis Newton Souza and Vasudeo Gaitonde are now one of the most expensive artists of the country and their works are being shown in some of the best art museums and galleries of the world. Ironically, in Goa, not many know about either them or their work. NT BUZZ tells you all you need to know about the contributions of these two celebrated artists to the field of art



Last week, on September 17, on Chaturthi, Goans had another reason to celebrate. On this day artist late F N Souza’s painting ‘Birth’ sold at Christie’s for $4,085,000, making him the most expensive Indian artist. Prior to this, another Goan artist, late V S Gaitonde’s work ‘Untitled’ sold for $3.7 million at Christie’s inaugural India auction December, 2013. Interestingly, both Souza and Gaitonde, who trace their roots to Goa, are now India’s most expensive contemporary artists.

Sadly, in the land of their ancestors they are almost forgotten. We have no clue about either their life or works, and neither do we understand the importance behind their work commanding such huge prices.

“Souza and Gaitonde are not just auction and market successes, they are the two most significant and influential modernists in Indian art history. It is quite remarkable that these two lifelong friends would remain connected from their early twenties into the history books long after their deaths, from their roots in intense childhood experiences in small villages in Bardez to being celebrated in the most important museums of the world,” says writer and photographer Vivek Menezes.

It is indeed sad that we are speaking about them just because now their work sells for crores. “If we learn to appreciate someone’s work only for the money it quotes then that indeed it is a sad state of affair. A painting is actually a repository of culture. The fact that it commands a price is incidental. What the artists are trying to show through their art is actually priceless,” says art historian Apurva Kulkarni.

What makes Souza and Gaitonde special?

Both these artists were students of J J School of Art, Mumbai and were part of the Progressive Artists’ Movement. They were known for their abstract art.

Gaitonde’s art was influenced by Indian miniature painting, East Asian ink painting and abstract expressionism. His large-scale paintings revealed stillness and depth. “His works are very poetic and you can get lost looking at them. They can easily envelope you,” says Apurva.

Souza was a rebel and non-conformist and these aspects are reflected in his painting style. He was highly influenced by Picasso. One of the most recurring themes is that of the conflicts in a man-woman relationship.

“Souza painted Goa throughout his life, and its profound influence on his work showed up right until the end of his six-decade career. He used to say ‘I swallowed Goa whole’ and the result was there to be seen in his artworks. Some of his most important, famous, and iconic paintings are recognisably of Goa, such as ‘The Red Road’ which sold for over a million dollars at an auction a few years ago, and is a stunning depiction of his beloved native Saligao,” says Menezes.

“Souza not only painted but also wrote beautifully. When Picasso died Souza said, ‘Now I am the greatest.’ Such statements only he could make,” says artist Subodh Kerkar, who goes on to add, “When any visitor comes to meet me, I make a point to show them F N Souza’s house in Saligao, where he spent his childhood. I also met his childhood friend Bobo who said ‘Newton was a nice guy.’ Actually Souza had gifted few of his drawings to Bobo which he claims to have misplaced.”

Kerkar also happened to meet Gaitonde during his visit to Delhi, where Gaitonde spent most of his life. “In 1989 when I opened my first art gallery my friend lent me a V S Gaitonde. I always wanted to meet him and made many attempts during my Delhi visits. I used to always carry stuffed mackerels and king fish with me for my friends. On one such trip, in the year 2000, I happened to make a call to Gaitonde and told him that I had come from Goa with stuffed mackerels. He told me to come immediately. We spoke at length in Konkani. By that time he had stopped painting as he had reduced his work after an accident in the 1980s. He had become a recluse. He said, ‘I paint for myself as my canvas is in my mind.’

In his work there was no reference of Goa as his work was pure abstract and not based on a particular place. He had friends in Goa, and he even did a portrait of Xantaram Amonkar, his contemporary,” says Kerkar.

Goa’s tryst with its artists

Goa is always late in realising the worth of its own artists. Be it Angelo Fonseca or Antonio Xavier Trindade, both of whom are now getting some form of recognition thanks to the Xavier Centre of Historical Research and Fundaco Oriente showcasing their artists, respectively.

Today, Gaitonde and Souza have become household names after the news of the auction. “It is indeed ridiculous that Goa and especially Goa’s moneyed class has only awoken to these artists now that their paintings have started to break auction records. A few years ago, they could have bought out their entire archives for the price of one of their imported cars, but they never did, but now you hear comments like ‘Souza is my favourite artist.’ I know Souza was very angry about

Goa’s churlish attitude towards him until the end, and suspect the same was true of Gaitonde,” says Menezes.

He further mentions that compared to Goa artists and writers are much better appreciated in states like West Bengal, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. “It is criminal that generations of Goans grow up without knowing about Souza or Gaitonde or Angelo Fonseca – most countries in the world can’t boast of artistic legacies like that, let alone states in India – but that is what happens in Goa, and certainly the state plays no part in celebrating these greatest sons of Goa,” says Menezes.

The way forward

Apurva who is curating art shows in Goa for the last 30 years opines that the situation is changing and these efforts are visible in small private galleries that make an effort to showcase Goan art and individuals who buy Goan art. “Thirty years ago the situation was so difficult. Even arranging ` 700 to print the catalogue of an art show was difficult. Now we have few Goans buying Goan art. In the last seven years the scenario has changed. Thanks to social media, now it is easier to connect with like-minded people and hold exhibitions or so on,” says Apurva.

He suggests that we should have more public museums and galleries for people get to know these artists. “For example the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA) at Delhi has opened its doors to the public. It is a fascinating concept,” says Apurva.

Kerkar states that in a country like India only 1 per cent are aware about the art scenario. He further emphasises on inculcating the habit of visiting museums and galleries right from school days.

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