More than 100 years after being drawn by Antonio Xavier Trindade – the masterly portraitist and early Indian faculty member of the Sir JJ School of Art in colonial Bombay – an elegant and consequential nude has debuted into public view.
The 1913 artwork (four others by the same artist are emerging concurrently) is another insistent reminder about an important modernist trajectory in Indian art history, which has been suppressed due to deep-seated – now institutionalised – biases about nationalism and authenticity.
This is an extraordinary legacy hidden in plain sight in Fontainhas, the centrepiece Latinate neighborhood of Panjim, the capital of India’s smallest state. The five “new” artworks are a previously unseen part of the 144-artwork corpus of The Trindade Collection, on permanent display in the headquarters of the Indian delegation of Lisbon-based non-profit Fundação Oriente.
The Rembrandt of the East
Antonio Xavier was born in 1870 on the border of the Portuguese Estado da India and British India (his father was a customs official), but the Trindade family is rooted in Assonora in Bardez, the same modestly proportioned taluka where his world-renowned successors Francis Newton Souza (Saligao) and Vasudeo Gaitonde (Uccassaim) also have deep ancestral connections.
Trindade was meant to be a lawyer, but showed artistic promise, and in 1887 enrolled at the Sir JJ School of Art. In Art and Nationalism in Colonial India, 1850-1922: Occidental Orientations, Partha Mitter writes that he “was nicknamed ‘the Rembrandt of the East’…After graduation, he assisted in tinting photographs for the studio of Raja Deen Dayal [but] did not remain long, for his prospects at the art school were good.”
Trindade was appointed as superintendent of the prestigious Reay Workshops at the JJ School, says Mitter “instead of [MV] Dhurandhar”, his Maharashtrian colleague. But these two, along with Archibald Herman Muller (his father was German and his mother from Kerala) and the Parsi exemplars Pestonji Bomanji and Manchershaw Pithawalla formed the vanguard of an emergent phenomenon: the democratisation of connoisseurship.
“The remarkable success of salon art followed a social revolution,” Mitter writes. “The patronage of artists by individual aristocrats was in decline, to be replaced by the support of an art-conscious public…the rise of the art exhibition, art criticism and an art-conscious public owed to a change in the public’s relationship to art and in the role of the artist himself.” In India, exhibitions in Calcutta, Bombay and Madras were key nodes of diffusion.
Dhurandhar was the first Indian gold medal winner of the Bombay Art Society in 1895, and he and his colleagues expanded Indian painting and sculpture in impactful ways. But after 1947, the art establishment purposefully pushed that history aside in favour of the ostensibly “swadeshi” orientalism of the “Bengal renaissance”. Caste and religious prejudices also underpinned the effacement.
In the 21st century, that egregiously slant has been exposed, with exhibitions such as the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum’s excellent 2018 MV Dhurandhar: The Artist as Chronicler (1867-1944) conceived of in direct rebuttal.
Trindade’s paintings in Goa illuminate yet another dimension that’s unsuitable for regressive canon-makers, because they portray distinctly emancipated Indian women, who adroitly repel – even reverse – the male and colonial gaze.
After considerable time in their presence, irresistibly drawn to their intimate realism, I realised these are milestone achievements in Indian art, without any parallel until Amrita Sher-Gil started painting herself and her sister in the 1930s. That difference is perhaps most notable in Trinidade’s allegorical 1920 masterpiece Flora (it won the Bombay Art Society gold medal), where he portrayed his wife (they had been married for 19 years, and she had borne eight children) in classical repose, in a manner which unnerves even today.
Fundação Oriente’s director, Inês Figueira told me that she always asks visitors if they could imagine important contemporary Indian artists painting their wives like that today. No one ever says yes. “This painting granted AXT great acclaim, and I often wonder if it would be the case today, in an increasingly conservative Indian society,” she said. “What I find most remarkable is the dignity, and sense of equality with which he portrays his subjects independently of their gender, social condition or environment. In his paintings there is no subjugation or judgment, and definitely no moral higher ground.”
It’s an acute point, which I believe is especially apparent with women subjects. However, in the knowledge that I cannot be the final arbiter in this matter, I recently turned to the redoubtable critic and curator Nancy Adajania, whose blockbuster Counter Canon, Counter Culture: Alternative Histories of Indian Art at Serendipity Arts Festival 2019 (disclosure: I curated a different section of the festival) was one of the best exhibitions I have ever seen in India.
“Trindade portrayed his wife as a passionate, uninhibited woman who is comfortable in her skin,” Adajania wrote back. “But she too strikes a well-rehearsed pose invested in the male gaze that belongs to a genealogy that extends from Giorgione and Titian to Manet, basically the sweep from Renaissance to Impressionism. What makes this portrait exceptional, then, is that it demonstrates an ameliorated male gaze – here, an Indian painter makes the bold decision to put his wife on display in a suggestive pose while recording her resistance to complicity.”
Adajania added: “This is a complex painting where the wife-sitter seems to be saying, ‘While I have agreed to pose for you in this time-honoured manner, don’t imagine this is all there is to me.’ Her subjectivity hovers between objectification and an assertion of female agency.”
Another Trindade painting (and, admittedly, its subject) truly makes me swoon. Miss Ferns – A Writer (1925) portrays a “Bombay girl” of Goan origin (Anglicised names like Ferns from Fernandes were relicts of the time) who is all short bob and self-possession.
When you think Indian women in 1925, this is not the person who comes to mind. Nor was anyone like this being painted by Trindade’s contemporaries, whether in Bombay or Bengal. This is disruption in the flesh, “the shock of the new” that lies at the heart of the modernist impulse. You might expect it from Amrita Sher-Gil, a bohemian in Paris. But how did the patriarch of the Trindades get there?
The answer, of course, is love.
Antonio Xavier Trindade was the product of his times, but above all the project of his wife and daughters. When he painted Miss Ferns, he had five feisty young women in his household (there were also three sons), each one equally well-educated and self-possessed. All of them were well-regarded teachers at one point or another, and three proceeded abroad for self-improvement and higher studies.
“My mother used to ride her bicycle from Mahim to Bandra to teach at St Joseph’s Convent,” recalls 82-year-old Sonadri Rao, the artist’s grandson who lives in retirement in Long Island. His mother Annalia was an accomplished musician who taught piano and singing, and didn’t marry until she was 31 (to a man who was slightly younger than her, and entirely smitten by her independence).
Rao told me his grandparents fostered a highly liberal atmosphere at home, that “was open to anyone and everyone. They were extremely culture conscious, immersed in music and theatre. It was quite ahead of the times to encourage girls to be strictly financially independent, and find their own career paths. I think you are right that we can see the implications of that in my grandfather’s paintings. They really do reveal the personalities of their subjects.”
Vivek Menezes is a photographer, writer and co-founder and co-curator of the Goa Arts + Literature Festival.