Fusing cultures

FORGOTTEN PAGES Savia Viegas: ‘Fonseca imbibed the philosophy of the Bengal School and tried to replicate it within his own cultural milieu'

FORGOTTEN PAGES Savia Viegas: ‘Fonseca imbibed the philosophy of the Bengal School and tried to replicate it within his own cultural milieu'  

INTERVIEW Art historian Savia Viegas's research on Angelo da Fonseca, the Goan painter, reveals a forerunner in many ways SRAVASTI DATTA

A ngelo da Fonseca — a Goan painter who was the pioneer of the Christian cultural Renaissance in India — expressed through his paintings the different movements that captured the imagination of the Indian people during his time. Savia Viegas — writer and art historian — rues that many facts of Fonseca's life and works have been forgotten and that regions are largely underrepresented. Being an art historian and a Goan, Savia considered it her responsibility to revive an understanding of Fonseca's work. She received a grant by the Arts Research and Documentation Programme under India Foundation for the arts (IFA) to pursue her research further.

Her reasons for pursuing the research were also personal. “Fonseca had come to my village in Goa, Carmona, when I was about seven or eight years old. I didn't have any idea about his works then, of course, but I remember playing with his daughter.” When Savia returned to Goa in 2002, she was inspired by an exhibition she saw of his works. “It was held at Pilar seminary, in Goa, and I was amazed at his talent.”

Savia contends that Fonseca was a forerunner in many ways. “Fonseca pioneered did in his art what the Church tried to bring about in the 1970s, i.e., conducting Mass in vernacular languages. His works had far-reaching ramifications. He worked primarily with religious iconography. He re-structured an entire pantheon of saints, such as The Virgin Mary and child, St. Joseph's etc. by adorning them with working class clothes and features, thereby giving the common man social images they could identify with.” Fonseca's works were not always readily accepted. “The use of principles of religious iconography requires a certain distance from the worshipper and the image of worship; Fonseca worked with several contradictions, made more challenging by the fact that he was a Roman Catholic. I can't verify this fact, but it's believed that the images he drew of Mother Mary bore similar facial features to his wife and wearing a sari as well. The point is can you worship that image?” Savia further explains that portraying Mother Mary in a sari was not accepted socially at that time. “Both the conformist Church and the ruling Portuguese elite had issues with this. One had to wear formal clothes such as coats before entering the city, so, wearing saris wasn't considered socially acceptable by the elite.”

These stringent social norms made Fonseca felt an artist uncomfortable and so he left Goa and moved to Poona in 1931. “He spent considerable time at Christa Prema Seva Ashram, an Anglican institution, which initiated inter-faith dialogue.” Savia says that here too Fonseca's style wasn't always understood. “Fonseca combined in his works the Swadeshi philosophy as well as the ethos of Gandhi's Liberation Movement that involved the masses in the fight for Independence. The latter meant different things to different people. For Fonseca, he imbibed the spirit in a completely different way in his works. I once met a man who knew Fonseca well. He narrated an incident when he saw Fonseca using earth colours and a single line. Intrigued, the man asked Fonseca his reasons for using browns and base colours when colour is so intrinsic to Indian art. To this Fonseca replied that European artists paint with a different sensibility. His reasons for working with the single line perspective and using earth colours were based on what he learned from Abanindranath Tagore. But other Indian art students— who worked with colour, detailing and the aesthetics of the local — couldn't relate to Fonseca's ideas.”

Fonseca was influenced by the Bengal School of Art, pioneered by Abanindranath Tagore and Nandalal Bose. “Fonseca corresponded with Abanindranath Tagore a lot when he was in Santiniketan. He imbibed the philosophy of the Bengal School and tried to replicate it within his own cultural milieu.” He also borrowed stylistically from Indic and Islamic schools. Fonseca was also influenced by his mentor Father Heras who gave him a perspective on Indian mythology and enabled him to get commissions.

Savia posits Fonseca's works in the social, economic, political and cultural history of the time. Unfortunately, she still has no access to all his works. “I hope that his works are thrown open to the public and a gallery be dedicated to them. His contribution to Indian art is much deeper. He combines the political and social too in some of his paintings, in which he portrays Gandhi and Tagore as the Magi and in his work, Emmaus.” Fonseca's works can be clearly divided into specific time periods. “From the 1930s to the 1940s, his works were distant and stiff but between the 1950s and 1960s, his form takes on a life of its own. He reached his creative zenith, however, in 1965-1967, when he worked more with watercolours and less with oil paintings.”

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