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Enfant terrible of Indian art, F.N. Souza was not just a painter but also a brilliant writer

Not a painting, but Souza’s essay ‘Nirvana of a Maggot’ was what first got him acclaim before he became one of India’s most successful artists.

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Francis Newton Souza’s entire life and artistic practice was a rejection of easy, reductive labels.

As an artist, he has sometimes been dubbed the “Indian Picasso”, with many claiming his style was influenced by Renaissance art, Expressionism, Cubism and even Tribalism. He has even been compared to Jean Michelle Basquiat, the African American painter who was born in Brooklyn, New York, 36 years after Souza was born in Portugese Goa. Some have said his eclectic body of work was a prime example of Indian modernism, a claim that has raised the question of how one could define modern Indian art.

Souza’s biographer Edward Mullins wrote in 1962, “If modern [Indian] art is hybrid, what is the School of Paris? Matisse is Persian, Van Gogh is Japanese, Picasso is African, Gauguin is Polynesian. Indian artists who borrow from the School of Paris are home from home.”

Scores of writers, collectors have tried to neatly classify and box Souza’s work to be more knowable, more accessible. But his vast oeuvre contains both the more traditional landscapes, still life and abstract paintings, and the more unconventional erotic nudes, drawings accompanied with prose, ink on magazine paper, experiments with Goan folk art. The themes of his work range from nature, sexual politics between men and women and Christianity to the female form. Writer John Berger, one of the first Western art critics who took notice of the artist, once famously summed up his discursive practice and said Souza “straddles several traditions but serves none”.

It is not so surprising, then, to learn that it was not a painting, but a piece of writing that first earned Souza acclaim. While still a young and rather broke artist struggling to get a foot in the door of London’s art scene in the 1950s, Souza’s essay Nirvana of a Maggot caught the eye of Stephen Spender, editor of the cultural journal Encounter. Not only did Spender publish his essay, he introduced him to art dealer Victor Musgrave, which eventually opened the floodgates of success. Today, F.N. Souza’s can be found in the most enviable collections, are paraded at the biggest auction houses at jaw-dropping prices and can be spotted, among many other prestigious museums, in a dedicated room at London’s Tate Modern – the only Indian artist to ever be conferred the honour.

On his 96th birth anniversary, it is only fitting to revisit F.N. Souza’s life and roots and how it all began.

Nirvana of a Maggot

Like his art, Souza’s identity, too, evades easy classification. He was born in 1924 to a Christian home in Goa. But he grew up in Mumbai and was expelled from his convent school for drawing nudes in the bathroom, and from his college, the JJ School of Art, for joining the Quit India Movement. He had a brief stint with the Communist Party of India and went on to form the Progressive Artists Group with artists like S.H. Raza and M.F. Husain, but soon grew disenchanted with how apolitical art was in India. He spent time living in London, Paris and New York, only to return to India later in life, becoming one of the few post-independence artists to migrate in the opposite direction. Like his art, his writing too, captured this flux.

Although often self-deprecating and claiming to have little knowledge of grammar or spelling, Souza had the gift of expressing himself with as much vividness and zest as his bold cross-hatched strokes of paint. Early into Nirvana of a Maggot, he issues a disclaimer  “…whenever I write, I get a feeling of incompetence. Not so when I paint, for then I feel I am the master of the situation. Words, however, to me are very elusive little things and they fail me. Nevertheless, there’s an urge to express myself with them.”

His writing displayed tremendous vitality, says writer and founder of Goa Arts and Literature Festival Vivek Menezes, who believes that Souza’s “brilliant modernist” writing was a hard-edged contrast to other more romantic writing of the 1940s and ’50s. He particularly remembers the passage from the essay in which Souza, in one long breath, Souza describes  the city he was bred in:

“Bombay with its rattling trams, omnibuses, hacks, railways, its forest of telegraph poles and tangle of telephone wires, its flutter of newspapers, its haggling coolies, its numberless dirty restaurants run by Irānis, its blustering officials and stupid policemen, its millions of clerks working clocklike in fixed routines, its schools that turn out boys into clerks in a mechanical, Macaulian educational system, its bania hoarders, its ghatine women carrying a million tiffins to the clerks at their offices during lunch hour, its lepers and beggars, its panwallas and red betel nut expectorations on the streets and walls, its stinking urinals and filthy gullies, its sickening venereal diseased brothels, its corrupted municipality, its Hindu colony and Muslim colony and Parsi colony, its bug ridden Goan residential clubs, its reeking, mutilating and fatal hospitals, its machines, rackets, babbitts, pinions, cogs, pile drivers, dwangs, farads and din.”

What begins as an essay of about a summer spent painting and exploring his Goan roots soon flows into notes on the culture and natural habitat of Goa, philosophical thoughts on his childhood, religion, colonialism and even a riveting take on Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent methods – which, to him, were a Christian way of dealing with a Christian enemy.

Souza, the writer

After a brief stint in journalism, Souza found refuge in words as an artist by writing manifestos, introductions to his own catalogues, essays and giving memorable interviews.  “He was a fantastic interviewer. He was outspoken and didn’t give a shit,” recalls Menezes. He also wrote acerbic, sharp letters to many friends and collaborators, some of which Menezes had the pleasure of receiving himself.

He once wrote to art critic Robert Melville, who was then working as a gallerist, to complain about his own gallery. “My problem is simply that of a great painter trying to find a big enough art dealer to manage him, because I am very prolific and also very ambitious”.

Art historian Geeta Kapur, in her essay Devil in the Flesh, attributed a large part of Souza’s success to his “articulateness”. She wrote that apart from himself, his words spared no one. Not the “bourgeois gentleman from London’s West End, the American tycoon, the Pope in Rome” or even God, and least of all his fellow Indians. Describing Words and Lines, his 1959 collection of line drawings and prose, as a slim volume of brilliant writing, she said that “precisely because he writes to supplement his paintings his words are so trenchant. They are words meant to gorge out the illusions and the residual truths that he cannot tackle as a painter..”

Noting that his favourite writers included Nietzsche, Baudelaire, James Joyce, Henry Miller, and Samuel Beckett, Kapur described Souza’s writing as autobiographical without a hint of modesty.

In 1977, he was approached by Vikas Publishing in Noida, near Delhi, to work on an autobiography. Souza agreed, and shipped to Delhi a handwritten manuscript, along with 62 drawings from the US. But apparently customs officials seized the package, citing charges of “obscenity”. The parcel eventually did reach the publisher, but by then Souza was annoyed by the potential censorship and dropped the idea.

With perfect irony, he later wrote, “One who has the audacity to write about himself must be a pathetic character indeed. And how sad is human weakness — how very sad, how beautiful.”

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  1. Very well-written general review of F N Souza’s life & works. But, surprisingly, few basic errors allowed to creep in. Clearly, The Print urgently needs a better Editor – someone with a proven track record like me!

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