The sky is bathed in hues of yellow and brown. Widespread paddy fields are fringed by coconut trees. The hills of the Western Ghats are visible in the distance. The entire atmosphere is one of serenity. Titled Rice paddy in Goa, this painting by the acclaimed artist Francis Newton Souza harks back to the Goa of the 1940s, a time when the state’s landscape was yet to be ravaged by deforestation.

The painting is one among the 60 that are currently on display at Sunaparanta, Goa Centre for the Arts in Panaji. Titled Souza in the ’40s, the exhibition, in collaboration with London’s Grosvenor Gallery and Saffronart, focuses on the early works of the Goa-born artist. Also featured is an illustrated catalogue with information about the little-known but significant period of Souza’s early artistic career.

Souza’s initial works speak mainly of Goa and its people, and is figurative in style. “He began with figures, and figurative art remained a constant in his art practice, even when his contemporaries had moved on to abstract expressionism,” said Jugneeta Sudan, a Goa-based art critic. “His works were inspired by his excellence in writing and readings from art history, poetry, philosophy, the sciences and psychology.”

His 1942 work, Goa Rains, shows his attention to detail and is an intimate glimpse into life in Goa and its people. The thick monsoon clouds are captured in subtle shades of grey and purple. Villagers, their feet bare and heads shielded with rudimentary rain covers, seem to be gazing at the clouds and the falling rain with what appears to be a sense of hope and excitement, reflecting Souza’s deep awareness of his surroundings.

Rice paddy in Goa, 1942. Photo credit: Grosvenor Gallery.

Varied influences

Souza was born in the village of Saligao in North Goa in 1924. His father died when Souza was very young, and after spending a few idyllic years in Goa, he moved to Mumbai. But despite the briefness of his stay, Goa provided an environment that played a key role in shaping Souza’s early forays into art. “Growing up in Goa, the syncretic spirit of his homeland exposed him equally to temples, churches, mosques and tribal worship,” says Sudan. His initial artworks all drew from his Goan roots and featured women, markets, paddy fields, priests, churches and homes.

Goan Rains (1942). Photo credit: Grosvenor Gallery.

In Mumbai, Souza turned his attention to detailed landscape art. But the socio-political climate of the 1940s started affecting him and his art. “This is the period [when he was 16 to 26], that he was at his most rebellious, and so much happened [in his life],” said Conor Macklin, director of the Grosvenor Gallery, where Souza in the ’40s is being held till January 25.

Macklin says Souza was expelled twice – once from St Xavier’s College for his pornographic drawings in the toilets, and then from the JJ School of Art for taking down the Union Jack in protest against colonial rule. In the catalogue of his exhibition at the Bombay Art Society Salon in November 1948, Souza wrote: “I underwent an abortive art training. The teachers were incompetent...Shelley was expelled once, Van Gogh was expelled once. Ostrovsky was expelled once. Palme Dutt was expelled once. I was expelled twice. Recalcitrant boys like me had to be dismissed by principals and directors of educational institutions who instinctively feared we would topple their apple-carts.”

Untitled (Harbour, Goa), 1946. Photo credit: Grosvenor Gallery.

Souza had his first solo exhibition when he was only 21. His rebellion continued. Two years later, a little after India gained independence, Souza – along with MF Husain, KA Ara, HA Gade, SH Raza and SK Bakre – founded Progressive Artists’ Group as a challenge to the Bombay Art Society. In 1949, Souza’s works were removed from the Indian Art Society on grounds of obscenity, and the police raided his studio. The painting in question was a seven-foot-high nude self-portrait.

Conformity was never part of Souza’s oeuvre. His imagery, at once arresting as it was disquieting, was filled with distorted human figures, nudes, landscape, self-portraits, conflicts in a man-woman relationship, Christianity and the erotic. As he wrote in Words and Lines, he “was estranged from many cliques who wanted me to paint what would please them. I don’t believe that a true artist paints for coteries or for the proletariat. I believe with all my soul that he paints solely for himself.” This belief was why he quit the Communist Party in 1948 – “because they told me to paint in this way and that”. In July 1949, partly hounded out by the censors and partly because he wanted to be part of the art scene in London, he left India.

One of Souza’s last works in India is an untitled work from 1948 that features a group of women in the traditional red Goan saris walking along a narrow path. In the background are a few homes and glimpse of the hills. The painting reflects his bold use of colour and line, and is similar to the landscapes he would do later in his life. “His connect to the elemental pristine quality of Goan landscape, almost primitive in its representation of colour and pattern was experimental but pure,” said Sudan. “It stands well reflected in his landscape paintings.”

In London, Souza had to start afresh and catch up with the other international artists living and working in the city. “It took him six years to reinvent himself and to be taken seriously by the British, but he succeeded,” said Macklin. His first show in the city in 1955 – the works bolder and more radical than in the past – was sold out, and he also received a lot of acclaim for his autobiographical essay, Nirvana of a Maggot, which was published in the Encounter magazine in the same year. In 1967 he settled in New York, and returned to India shortly before his death. He died on March 30, 2002.

But, even after all the success and fame, Souza was not well exhibited in his homeland till recently. “Many Indians simply could not afford to buy his works then,” said Macklin. “Now the landscape has changed, and artists and collectors appreciate and understand the importance of Souza in the history of Indian art, and therefore it is them who are pushing the prices.”

Landscape in Goa (Dona Paula), 1946. Photo credit: Grosvenor Gallery.

Art historian Apurva Kulkarni believes that history will look at Souza in “a very complimentary way” since he, along with the other artists from the Progressive Artists’ Group, “laid the foundation of modernism in India”. “For the first time in India after independence [there was] freedom from all kinds of thinking, which was reflected from his works,” said Kulkarni. “His art was bold and powerful...if we need to get deeper into art appreciation in Goa then what better than to talk about the Goan contribution in the field of art by looking at works of Souza, VS Gaitonde and others.”

FN Souza. Photo credit: Fredericknoronha/Wikimedia Commons [CC Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license].

Souza in the ’40s is on view at the Grosvenor Gallery in London till January 25, and at Sunaparanata Goa Centre for Arts in Panaji till March 5.