Every time I entered Francis Newton Souza’s apartment in New York City, it felt like passing from the familiar into a vortex of pure fantasy. The passage of hours and minutes slowed down to an uncanny crawl. Though he was a physically small man, in that space, his personality loomed outsized. At first glance what initially appeared to be an irredeemably chaotic jumble of art supplies, papers, books, plates of food, and stacks of videotapes, was eventually revealed to possess distinct order, and even a kind of unique harmony. This was the 1990s, but every signifier of the times ceased to exist the moment you walked up the narrow staircase to his Upper West Side aerie, and crossed the threshold. Now you were on Souza Time.
The transition never stopped being deeply disorienting. Everywhere around you, piled precariously on every flat surface, and lined up on every wall, were extraordinary masterpieces. You were literally surrounded, and had to edge through corridors to avoid knocking them over. These were the artist’s most prized treasures, the most talismanic works that he had held on to throughout the vicissitudes of his roller-coaster life: bold Goa works, the first spectacular experiments from Paris, and assured London paintings from the signature ’60s when he’d first rocketed to notoriety and fame. This was shock and awe, the great flowering of contemporary Indian art history laid out like a map for anyone who recognised it. But as Souza regretfully told me so many times, “no one ever gets it”. In the end, my friend did not live to enjoy anything like the rightful acclaim and sustained critical interest that was always his due.
‘My paintings are treasures’
By that point of course, on an intellectual level, the 1924-born artist had long since realised he was simply fated to live in adverse times. In the decades of his emergence to greatness – a fact about which he had no doubt whatsoever – the country he was born into had faced existential challenges, struggling to simply provide enough food so that hundreds of millions would not continue to starve. The idea of being an artist had been incomprehensible to nearly everyone. With great disgust, Souza told me his childhood friends thought an artist was someone who painted signboards. In the quirky, searingly brilliant little 1959 book, Words and Lines, he wrote, “Who had ever heard of a professional artist in India? An ‘artist’ was a fellow who could draw designs for pillowcases, cushions and petticoats for girls to embroider, and paint your name and address on your trunk lest it be stolen on the Indian Railways, or on your umbrella lest it be lost in the monsoon.”
Still, understanding the history, cold logic and rationales that underlie prevailing circumstances is not at all the same thing as accepting them and their impact. Souza certainly knew precisely why things had turned out the way they did for him and his peers – in the 1990s only MF Husain could have been said to be living comfortably from selling his artworks – but he passionately hated the situation nonetheless. He found it loathsome and demeaning. It was an ongoing affront to his dignity and sense of self worth, and he never came to terms with it. Once, displaying every bit of his characteristically great acuity and vision, he told me, “My paintings are treasures, and they belong in great museums. Indians are becoming rich now, but they’re still not sophisticated enough to recognise my work. But you wait and watch. It is certainly going to happen. Eventually these people will wake up.”
At that very moment, if you could have zoomed outside the tiny living room of his apartment, and away from our accustomed places perched on little couches facing each other, the reality of New York City at that moment might have led an observer to think Souza was off his rocker. The city was then “boiling with money” – as observed by Salman Rushdie in his novel Fury – but none of it was coming the septuagenarian Indian artist’s way. Not only was no one paying attention to him at all anywhere in the West, only a few diehard buyers, collectors and galleries were still interested in him in South Asia. He always spoke fondly to me about his Karachi fans. By this point intimately close, we both knew that even $100 would be gladly received by him in exchange for a drawing or ‘chemical’ painting. But none of that ever stopped him from believing history would see things differently, or me from believing he was definitely right. After all, we were looking at the evidence right there on the walls around us.
In fact, for me, Souza’s paintings were something like alpha and omega, a grand summation of my own cultural identity. This is partly because our life itineraries closely mirrored each other: Goa, Bombay, Paris, London, New York, but also because we were both stirred by identical moments in time, very similar episodes of love and loss, and above all by reams and reams of the same literature and music. The artist once wrote with great pride, “I have made my art a metabolism. I express myself freely in paint in order to exist. I paint what I want, what I like, what I feel”. But in my view, it very often felt like he had painted exclusively for me – I could see and experience all of my own roots and connections in his works, and could easily see the biggest thunderclaps were in the private collection the artist himself cherished above all. The chosen few that he chose to live with, out of hundreds of other works stacked in his store room.
When it came to the great majority of works in his prodigious oeuvre, like most artists, Souza was relatively unsentimental. He painted non-stop, people bought, and he kept on painting. I vividly remember when a newly minted duo of “India specialist” art dealers literally stole dozens of paintings in one of his occasional vulnerable moments. Even then he just shrugged at me, “I’ll paint more”. But the gems he had carefully set up along the walls of his apartment – each one just so – were in another category altogether. For these irreplaceable totems, the main audience was the artist himself. He would run his eye slowly along them innumerable times in the day, occasionally leaving the room to take another look, even mid-conversation. Without any such thing ever becoming explicit between us, I knew the sheer presence of these paintings added vitality to the artist’s well-being, and incommensurate value to the creative atmosphere he needed to keep working.
The Goan Kitchen
Thus, when I finally managed to set aside the significant sums of money required to buy serious Souza paintings, my focus went unerringly to the works the artist himself most esteemed. The very first, and in many ways above all, was Still Life – Goan Kitchen, that dominated his pocket-sized kitchen, with its unusual sunset and russet tones, and powerful aura of the rustic Goan kitchens so familiar to both of us. When I had first admired it, the artist told me he didn’t care what he ate every day, because he survived on the emotions evoked by that oil-on-board every time he went to the fridge or stovetop. So, the first time I danced around the topic of possibly acquiring it, he went silent, with eyes staring disbelief at me, then the unmistakable flare of consternation and anger, before settling to something like amusement. Then he wanted to know what possessed me to choose that one, even though it had been painted before I was even born.
This is when our connection and friendship reached another level, as I managed to communicate and explain to him exactly why his artworks often rendered me helpless and mute, neither of which had ever previously been anything like familiar conditions of being. Over time, I had come to realise many of his paintings resonated, both physically and intellectually, reaching to innermost locations in my body and mind that I had barely known existed in the first place, and it was inevitably this incredibly vital private collection that struck home the very hardest. I explained, and elaborated, and finally Souza relented. First, he negotiated me considerably uncomfortably past my sworn budget – he was a master at extracting those painful concessions – and then started talking about his own practice and why certain paintings were especially important to him, and by extension, to me.
In this way, I learned that Still Life – Goan Kitchen is a very rare instance of early childhood feelings, ideas and imagery depicted by Souza in his mature period. Most Goa works are from the 1940s. To him, that painting comprised an entire universe of emotional attachments, and when he finally parted with it, it’s entirely because he realised and accepted that someone else felt the same way. The moment we found precise words to describe these phenomena to each other was a revelation to both of us, setting off a torrent of excited exchanges that never really ended and, to some uncanny extent that I cannot reasonably deny, persists even now, nearly two decades after the artist was laid to rest in Sewri cemetery.
Mirror to self
From Words and Lines: “It is only when we hear the palpitations of a man’s heart vibrate on the membrane of his vocal chords that we consider him to have spoken well. He may not have uttered a word that is comprehensible or intelligible. He may have said something which doesn’t mean anything – it does not matter, so long as he has delivered himself to the wind and the clouds and falling fruit – as long as he has united himself to the sight of flowers, the song of the bird, and rustle of rice, the smell of mangoes, the taste of good food and the feel of flesh, playing his counterpoint in the polyphonic orchestra of the cosmos with his phonetic instrument”.
Souza immersed himself in the art histories of both East and West, absorbing everything relentlessly. But his strongest influences came from a childhood immersed in nature and dominated by the pomp and circumstance of Konkani Catholic practice in Goa. In the sublime, jaggedly beautiful Fragment of Autobiography, he writes, “As a child I was fascinated by the grandeur of the Church, and by the stories of tortured saints my grandmother used to tell me” This is why he positioned Head of a Saint to face the entranceway to his apartment in New York. He told me it had been in the same place in every home that he had owned since painting it over four decades earlier. It was placed to look him unerringly directly in the eye, all the way up and down the corridor, at the moment he came home. It took me years of looking at it myself to realise it functioned like a mirror to the artist. This particular saint is himself.
There was an age gap between Souza and myself, but it was interesting to note he always looked forward and it was I who tended to nostalgia. The one exception was the period in London in his 30s and 40s, when the artist had found sobriety and stability, in the times when John Berger praised his paintings, and many people spoke of him alongside Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon as the leading triumvirate in British art. He had been happily married, for the second time, with three daughters and owned a sizeable building in Belsize Park where he lived and worked. The only times I ever heard the artist voice any regrets, it was always about that oasis of calm and meaning, which he’d – in his telling – heedlessly disrupted. This is why he’d always held on to the winter, late-evening Landscape as a reminder. For many years it had hung over his little bed, which is where I first saw it, deeply imbued colours glowing as though lit from within. Right next to it was Flowers. These were what Souza looked at every morning when he awakened, and saw every night just before he turned off the lights. It has been my privilege to share the same experience for many years. There’s no doubt it has changed my life forever.
This essay is part of the catalogue for an auction at Pundole’s on December 5.