The Serendipity Arts Festival (SAF) is something everyone is talking about ever since it made its dramatic appearance on Goa’s cultural calendar last month.
It was so wonderful to find the beautiful heritage Secretariat building come to sparkling life after decades of stagnation and disuse. It was as if an evil spell in some fairy-tale had at long last been broken.
We hope that this is the beginning of a fresh new lease of life for the iconic building. It was an exhilarating feeling, walking along former corridors and balconies of political power to find them repurposed as glorious celebrations of art, history and heritage.
What with the preparations for our Child’s Play Christmas concert, and being laid up with the flu the week after, and having to dash to Mumbai to the Royal Flemish Philharmonic concerts at the NCPA, I missed the publicity and buzz before the SAF, and most of the festival itself. It was through a chance meeting with my friend Jack Sukhija that I learnt of the exhibition of paintings in Campal by iconic masters of Indian Modern Art curated from the collection of DAG (Delhi Art Gallery) Modern, as part of the festival.
I managed to catch the last two days of the exhibition, and kept returning to it, almost in disbelief that there could be works by so many famous Indian painters all at once, and so flatteringly displayed, right here, in the heart of my hometown. I fervently hope that if SAF becomes an annual affair, that the DAG Modern returns along with them as well.
It was a joyous homecoming for so many of the paintings of Goan masters Francis Newton Souza and Laxman Pai. It is a crying shame that their homeland doesn’t have a dedicated space with more of their work, and of their Goan contemporaries prominently and appropriately displayed.
At my last visit to Mumbai, I was able to duck into the Chhatrapati Shivaji Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSVS) (formerly the Prince of Wales Museum of Western India) and spend a day there before the evening concert. I came across a few paintings by another Goan icon, Vasudeo S. Gaitonde in the Jehangir Nicholson gallery there, as part of a wider exhibition ‘The Infinite Project’, showcasing the work of Laxman Shreshtha. Although the museum does a great job of displaying the art, on repeated visits there, I have found the care-a-damn attitude of the staff really disturbing, in the way they chatter loudly among themselves or into their phones, paying no heed to visitors who wish to take in the exhibits in silence. This is all too often the case at the Goa State Museum as well. So the experience at the DAG Modern exhibition at Campal was a refreshing contrast to this.
At the CSVS Mumbai, I revisited “The Adoration of the Magi” attributed to Italian master Bonifazio Veronese (1487-1553), in the Sir Dorabji J. Tata Collection, and thought it would be appropriate to highlight it in this column, two days after the feast of the Epiphany.
But on returning to Goa and seeing the section of the DAG Modern devoted to Christian art, I was struck by a painting on the same subject by Bengali artist Jamini Roy (1887-1972). Although untitled, the work was described as “Madonna and Jesus with the Magi”.
The contrast between the two paintings I had seen on the same subject in two cities within the space of a day could not be more striking.
Veronese and Roy are separated from each other by a vast gulf of time (four centuries) and space. The scale of the Veronese work dwarfs the Roy hugely. Veronese uses oil on canvas, while Roy’s painting uses tempera on box board pasted on masonite board.
And when it comes to the treatment of the subject, I couldn’t help remembering Orhan Pamuk’s ‘My Name is Red’, the tension created in the art world by the contact between East and West, and the completely different frames of reference in the Eastern and Western schools of art.
Veronese celebrates perspective, depth, chiaroscuro, foreground and background, detail and realism. Jamini Roy’s earthy style makes a break not only from Western tradition but from the Bengal School of Art as well, and draws inspiration from the Kalighat Pat, folk and tribal styles instead.
The Madonna and Child seems to have been a theme Roy returned to again and again, and there was one other such example on display in the exhibition as well, which although unmistakably Indian in style, still uses the Western format adopted by the Great Masters in the way the Mother holds the Child against her right shoulder.
So in Roy’s Adoration of the Magi, the Madonna and Child are featured, but Joseph does not. Also scale and proportion are less important than symbolism. Madonna And Child occupy the top centre of the painting, at the centre of what seems almost like a baandhini tie-and-dye circular decoration mounted atop a thin tapering pedestal upon a narrow base. Just two of the three Magi look solemnly unsmilingly at us on either side. They have matching crowns (just a horizontal brush-stroke of white paint, with little dabs above them as spartan embellishments) but different garb, although their stance is identical, almost as if they are standing guard for the Mother and Child, ready to draw their swords at any moment. They are larger, so perhaps they are meant to be in the ‘foreground’? But unlike most depictions, where they are turned towards the baby in adoration, here they direct their gaze at us instead.
The baby Jesus is given a different hue from the rest of the characters in the painting. This is something Roy seems to do in other depictions of the Madonna and Child as well when using the Kalighat pat style. When I pointed out the absence of Joseph and the third King to a young friend, he quipped “Maybe they ‘took’ the picture and the rest posed for it!” Today’s generation think only of photos and selfies.
In Goa, we are lucky of course to have the paintings of the son of the soil who revolutionised Christian iconography: Angelo da Fonseca. I remember the exhibition of his work at the Xavier Centre for Historical Research Porvorim a few Christmases ago. I don’t recall if Fonseca painted his own version of the Epiphany. It is time for me to pay his paintings another visit.
(An edited version of this article was published on 8 January 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)