I have lost count of the number of times that I walked past the Cruzo Studio between the early 1980s and the early 2000s, on my way to or from Marine Drive. With its name announced in crisp, elegant red metal letters, the studio was a landmark, located prominently on the first floor of Stadium House on Bombay’s Veer Nariman Road, formerly Churchgate Street. As a student, I would sometimes pause at K Rustom’s, below the studio, for an ice cream; and looking up, would wonder about the artist who carried on his practice above, picturing him as a recluse or man of mystery. Alas, I never followed my curiosity up the stairs; gradually, the red lettering faded, grew shaky and weather-beaten, and one day the sign vanished altogether. It was only in November 2013, at the invitation of Dattaraj Salgaocar, that I first viewed the paintings of the artist whose forms and explorations had animated the Cruzo Studio for five decades.

The space had been repossessed by the Cricket Club of India, which owns Stadium House, better known to lovers of cricket as the site of the celebrated Brabourne Stadium. The paintings, consigned to the mercies of Bombay’s pigeons and its coastal climate in a storeroom, had been rescued by Mr Salgaocar and were being expertly restored by Kayan Marshall Pandole. As the conservator’s delicate surgeries removed layers of dust and neglect from the canvases, images long concealed began to disclose themselves: visionary self-portraits, scenes from the life and afterlife of Jesus Christ set in seemingly Indian locales, and episodes from the life of Mahatma Gandhi rendered in symbolism suggestive of the lives of saints or martyrs as rendered by an Italian trecento painter or a 19th-century Pre-Raphaelite artist in England.

Given my fascination with the work of artists active in Goa and in the Goan diaspora, and my research interest in Bombay’s fertile art scene between the 1950s and the 1980s, I was transported into delight by these paintings. At the same time, I was deeply saddened to think that their creator, who had once been a well established and widely admired figure, had been relegated to amnesia by an art world whose memory and attention span are fickle, and by the public culture of Bombay, which still lacks the forms of continuity that only robust and self-confident institutions can provide. So began what I have come to think of as the “quest for Cruzo”.

Variously known in the course of his long career as Cruzo and d’Cruz, Antonio Piedade da Cruz (c. 1895-1982) was born in Velim, Salcete, in Portuguese-ruled Goa. He was educated at the Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy School of Art, Bombay, where he studied with Principal Gladstone Solomon and MV Dhurandhar. Solomon, a South African Jewish World War I veteran and Royal Academy alumnus, had revolutionised the curriculum at the ‘JJ’, as the school is fondly known. Dhurandhar, a notable salon artist and painter of mythological and historical subjects, originally from Kolhapur, was the Headmaster, the most senior Indian member of the faculty. Following his apprenticeship with these mentor figures, the young Goan artist applied for admission to the Academy of Arts in Berlin – the Akademie der Künste, now the Universität der Künste – and was accepted, one of the first Asians to be welcomed by this august institution.

Among his teachers in Berlin were the history painter Arthur von Kampf, the nationalist artist Ferdinand Spiegel, and the church painter and poster artist Paul Plontke. Unhappily, all three of these artist-pedagogues would join the Nazi Party once it came to power in 1933 and become part of its pantheon of officially honoured artists; their Goan student adopted a strikingly different ideology and route of political consciousness, becoming drawn to Mahatma Gandhi’s message of emancipation and peace. In retrospect, it would be illuminating to reflect on the manner in which da Cruz made use of the techniques and traditions that he absorbed in Berlin while committing himself as a contributor to the anti-colonial struggle in India.

In Bombay, da Cruz led an extraordinary double life. To the world, he had secured for himself the profile of a successful salon artist. Like his Parsi contemporary Jehangir Lalkaka (1884-1967), who had been educated at the St John’s Wood and Westminster Schools of Art, London, da Cruz developed a practice as a fashionable portraitist. As with Lalkaka, his clientele embraced a gamut of figures who featured prominently in late-colonial India’s public life: members of the royalty of the Princely States that formed a substantial dimension of British India, feudal aristocrats, leaders of the mercantile elite, as well as titled British administrators, judges and military officers.

The list of grandees who lavished their patronage on da Cruz reads like a social register of the 1930s and 1940s: among them were Maharaja Hari Singh of Kashmir, the Maharajas of Travancore, Gwalior and Bikaner; Lord Brabourne, Governor of Bombay in the early 1930s; Field Marshal Sir Philip Chetwode, who was Commander-in-Chief of India in the early 1930s; the industrialist and patron of culture Sir Cowasji Jehangir, and Lady Jehangir; the magnate and philanthropist Sir Hormusji Dinshaw Adenwalla; Sir Chintaman Deshmukh, Governor of the Reserve Bank of India; members of the Birla family; influential personages such as Purshottamdas Thakurdas, Vithalbhai Desai, Bhulabhai Desai; and, in due course, the charismatic and controversial Lord Mountbatten, a relative of the British royal family and the last Viceroy of British India, and Lady Mountbatten.

Indeed, da Cruz is said to have played a key role in securing the site of the Brabourne Stadium for the Cricket Club of India; the Club’s secretary, Anthony de Mello, requested him to act as an intermediary and approach Lord Brabourne, whose portrait he was painting in the mid-1930s, with the Club’s proposal. The Governor assented, the foundation stone was laid in 1936, and the grateful Club named the new stadium in his honour; and once Stadium House became an architectural reality, da Cruz moved in and set up the Cruzo Studio there.

Despite his glittering presence as a painter associated with high society, the artist’s deepest sympathies lay with the wretched of the earth. He articulated his ideological convictions, which were firmly moored in the anti-colonial struggle, through a series of allegories of labour, poverty, and revolution. These allegories were strikingly different from the commissioned works that he made for his elite patrons. In this parallel life, da Cruz evolved a compelling expressionist idiom to convey his sense of an artistic calling linked to the fate of his fellow Indians, and his revolutionary commitment to their freedom and redemption from poverty. The focal figures in this idiom were Christ, Gandhi, the Buddha by allusion, as well as personifications of Labour and Revolution, and also the artist’s self, depicted as wrestling with dilemmas and anxieties, the rival claims of art and life, bourgeois sanity and bohemian precariousness.

Cruzo met Gandhi twice, in the 1940s, sketching him and translating his encounter with the great man into drawings and paintings. Decades later, he would conceive an elaborate cycle of symbolic paintings dedicated to the events of the Mahatma’s life. This aspect of his work would have been shared, at first, with his inner circle of friends and colleagues; the evidence suggests that he presented it to the public at large by gradual degrees. Between the 1930s and the 1950s, the Cruzo Studio served, not only as the artist’s workplace, but also as a lively meeting place for artists, writers and activists, a hub for cultural discussion and political debate; during this period, it offered refuge to members of the Goan resistance against the Salazar regime.

After India gained independence in 1947, da Cruz received many public commissions. His sculpture of the ‘Dudhwalla’ or ‘Milkman’ stands at the Aarey Milk Colony in Bombay; he also created, as a public sculpture, an image of ‘Rhythm’, cast as a Venus in the pose of a flautist. He was also commissioned to produce an imposing sculpture of the Mauryan lion capital, India’s national emblem, for the High Commission of India in Nairobi, Kenya. Once Goa had been absorbed into the Republic of India, he was commissioned to sculpt busts of the revolutionary journalist and anti-colonial activist Luis de Menezes Braganza for the municipal gardens of Panjim and Margao, where these still stand. He would continue to present exhibitions of his work at the Cruzo Studio until the 1970s but may not, in these later years, have enjoyed the same measure of public attention that he had done earlier.

Excerpted with permission from the curatorial essay by Ranjit Hoskote.

The Quest for Cruzo: A Homage to the Art of Antonio Piedade da Cruz, curated by Ranjit Hoskote, will be on display at Sunaparanta: Goa Centre for the Arts from June 30 to July 20, 2016.