An artist who has lived and worked in three continents and a master of line drawing whose inspirations range from poetry to Christian art though his work is classically secular, Vamona Navelcar is, after many decades, winning the admiration of his native Goa. The octogenarian who once lamented that he “shouldn’t have come back” to his homeland is now the subject of books, a documentary and Goa/Portugal/Mozambique: The Many Lives of Vamona Navelcar, an exhibition of 16 of his works at Fundação Oriente India in Panaji.

“One wonders if these efforts are belated,” said R Benedito Ferrão.

Ferrão is a member of The Al-Zulaij Collective, a group of scholars and professionals who along with Fundação Oriente are hosting the exhibition. “Given that Navelcar returned to Goa in the 1980s, it is unfortunate that he has not been recognised by the state or even Indian art history as a purveyor of drawings, sketches, and paintings that speak to the diverse contexts of his life travels and experiences,” Ferrão said. “Perhaps this also says something about how a Goan and/or Indian aesthetic has been constructed to the exclusion of Goa’s complex past as it is portrayed by Navelcar.”

In a Pensive Mood, Vamona Navelcar. (2010)

Too little, too late

Vamona Ananta Sinai Navelcar, whose roots lie in the sleepy village of Pomburpa, studied art in Portugal in the 1950s, taught geometry in Mozambique, and then moved back to Portugal and, finally, to Goa. His art reflects the socio-political climate of all these three places.

As Ferrão explains, Navelcar demonstrates Goa’s historic connections to many worlds – “His remarkable ability to portray the diverse cultural influences of the Lusophone world also speaks to the contemporary reality of how that past continues to bear relevance to Goans today. Yet, it is often the case that this heritage is deliberately sidelined in how Goa’s identity is reimagined in nationalist conceptions of the region. What I mean is that despite its long-standing historical connections to such places as Portugal and Mozambique, Goa and Goans find themselves being narrowly defined in terms of how it and they fit into the Indian imagination. So, one is more likely to see depictions of Goa as a beach destination, for example, but one would be hard-pressed to find mention of Goans as artists with an oeuvre so diverse that it covers three continents.”

Vamona Navelkar drawing Pessoa. Credit: Anne Ketteringham.

The exhibition at Fundação Oriente in Panaji and other endeavours are a way to celebrate this “gentle giant of the arts,” as Navelcar was described by his biographer Anne Claire Ketteringham in An Artist of Three Continents in 2013.

The art and the artist

As a young boy growing up in Goa, Navelcar always showed an interest in art and had the habit of drawing on pieces of paper and even the back of a calendar, only then to get reprimanded by his father. In 1953, he painted a portrait of Dr António de Oliveira Salazar, the prime minister of Portugal, and was offered a scholarship to travel there. However, he lost that grant in 1961 when he did not sign a document decrying Jawaharlal Nehru’s actions against Goa as the state received liberation from the Portuguese. Two years later, however, Navelcar received a grant by the Foundation Gulbenkian, which allowed him complete his studies.

In 1963 he moved to Mozambique in search of a job, and started teaching geometry and mathematics, though he continued to draw and paint. On June 25 1975, the FRELIMO (Front for the Liberation of Mozambique) took over governance of Mozambique and Navelcar celebrated this victory with African communities at a party with his students. But the new government did not support these gestures – he was arrested along with others and spent nearly 80 days at Imala, a prison camp in the forest. Here too, Navelcar found refuge in his paintings and made murals with the help of the students.

DETA Airlines, Vamona Navelcar. (1968)

Once he was released from imprisonment, Navelcar moved back to Portugal, but during his travels, he lost his suitcase which contained numerous of his works and certificates. This incident had a big impact on Navelcar, who started signing his work as Ganesh, from the 1970s onwards. “He wanted to be reborn and recreate a new persona,” said Apurva Kulkarni, a Goa-based art historian. “Also, the name Ganesha means to start afresh.” It is interesting to note that Navelcar’s elder brother’s name was also Ganesh and it was he who inspired Navelcar to paint during his formative years.

Navelcar moved to Goa in the early 1980s. But, as Kulkarni explained, he never got his due and was completely forgotten and neglected – “He was never appreciated by the state for his work. Also, here in Goa, we tend to celebrate what is in fashion and trendy. This made him bitter.”

A complex homecoming

Ferrão, who has edited the companion book to the exhibition, Goa/Portugal/Mozambique: The Many Lives of Vamona Navelcar, said, “Navelcar returned to his homeland, but it was not ready to receive him. One would argue that this continues to be the case. After the Indian annexation of Goa, the region’s cultural heritage and particular history were eschewed in favour of a narrow delineation of what it meant to be Indian. So, an artist whose work was immediately Asian, European, and African was not likely to be thought of as Indian enough.”

Pietà, Vamona Navelcar. (2007)

The book also includes a poem by Karishma D’Souza and a story by Jessica Faleiro. The latter was inspired by one of Navelcar’s paintings of a coconut seller. “First, the posture drew me in: the legs stretched wide open at the knees, the pile of coconuts underfoot, the body leaning back into the picture, away from the viewer,” said Faleiro. “But, the face clinched the deal. The downturned corners of the mouth and the pensive face, with tragedy hidden just under the surface. I wondered what the story of this man might be, and decided that I wanted to write it.”

Kulkarni describes Navelcar’s art as that of a modernist much like MF Hussain – “He is a creator extraordinaire who was inspired by Rabindranath Tagore, Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa and African themes.”

Artist and writer Savia Viegas said, “[Navelcar] is truly a secular artist. Despite being Hindu he has been very sympathetic of the cultural imagery of Christianity. He has allowed the cultural ethos of Goa to permeate and suffuse his work. He has painted the Last Supper in a myriad of ways, so also he has painted the nativity and Christ in his many manifestations on the cross, meditating and walking to Calvary.”

Whilst Flying by DETA from L.Marques to Quelimane, Vamona Navelcar. (1963)

But, at the same time, he is also the quintessential Goan artist – like the state, he is layered with complexities. “His art is no doubt representative of his personal genius but also of a larger Goan reality, and this is what makes is work unique,” said Inês Figueira, director of Fundação Oriente. “He is a Goan artist in the sense that this is a place of interception between many cultures, which you can see reflected in the artist’s work. He is actually a perfect example of the complexity of Goan identity and in this sense his work represents the larger Goan reality.”