These are all-important cultural fault lines – and here we must remember that both Souza and Gaitonde died in effective penury only two decades ago – but there is plenty of culpability that is shared by Goa and Goans as well. We have massively compounded the art historical crime that Souza pointed out way back in 1959, because both state and society have displayed an unimaginably cavalier disregard for our own heritage, in an astonishing abdication of responsibility that has few rivals anywhere in the world. Thus, despite being the inheritors of an unrivalled artistic legacy that extends millennia to the dawn of mankind in this part of the world, the average Goan student learns exactly zero about this bountiful birthright. Even worse, the government has done nothing to rectify this crisis, and compiled no permanent collection to speak of, while also neglecting to constitute the museum framework required to properly display and explain the few meagre scraps it has managed to retain after generations of despoilation (for example, the Kala Academy’s small trove of excellent Gaitonde canvases has been “missing” for the past two decades).
In this giant mess, which shows no sign whatsoever of being resolved, the existence of the best part of Angelo da Fonseca’s oeuvre poses an epic challenge, as well as its potential resolution. This ultimate bridge figure, who was born into an aristocratic Luso-Indian family but spent most of his life in happy anonymity in a spartan ashram in Poona from the 1930s onwards, whose artwork has always fallen between the cracks as too Indian for rigidly Eurocentric Catholics and too Christian for nationalism-blinkered Indians, has been retrieved from the ash-heap of history at precisely the most promising juncture, into an era that appears poised to understand and appreciate his brilliant paintings for the same exact reasons that our grandparents found them hard to digest. This is a bolt of lightning that commands the rewriting of all of our cultural notions. Here is our universal master, and India’s most important early modernist.
It was an earthquake moment, even if reverberations have not been felt from it for many years. In today’s light, the paintings are flat out undeniable. The reality of their existence luminously intense riposte to all the conventional wisdom about what lies at the heart of our collective identity as Goans, Indians, and inheritors of multiple cultural strands that encompass the world. When they first came to Goa, many important visitors came to view them almost like pilgrims: Orhan Pamuk, Amitav Ghosh, Dayanita Singh, Vikram Seth. The art scholars also came, including Rupert Arrowsmith, whom I invited to India specifically to view the Fonseca archive, after which he agreed that it’s “time to look at Fonseca again, and to recognize him as a cosmopolitan artist fully at home within the eclectic, transcultural landscape of Indian Modernism.”
The story of Angelo da Fonseca is inextricably intertwined with the profoundly confluential history of Goa. His ancestral roots are on the ancient island of Santo Estêvão – aka Santo Estevam or Jua – where the story is told that his father and mother kept losing their children in infancy, totalling an agonizing six or seven babies a row. Then, advised by some old-timer, they acceded to pre-conversion traditions and paid tribute to an ancestral temple in the hinterland. After that gesture, they were blessed with several children who did survive, including the preternaturally talented youngest son, whom – in the tradition of well-to-do Goans of the time – they sent off to study across the border in British India from an early age.