Legendary Goan Catholic painter lives through his work

Angelo da Fonseca was expelled from the place he loved for painting Christian themes with Indian settings
Legendary Goan Catholic painter lives through his work

Angelo da Fonseca was expelled from Goa for painting Biblical characters in Indian style. (Photo from thenightchild.blogspot.com)

Some eight decades ago, the Portuguese condemned and expelled Angelo da Fonseca from Goa, their colony, for an unpardonable mistake. He painted Biblical characters in Indian style.

The Goan Catholic's paintings began to be recognized only recently, more than five decades after his death in 1967 at the age of 65.

A typical Fonseca painting "shows a sari-clad Madonna seated in the full padmasana, a key meditation posture both in yogic Hinduism and in Buddhist practice," art historian Rupert Arrowsmith said.

"She holds not a lily, the Christian symbol of purity, but a white lotus, the emblem of the Hindu goddess Lakshmi and of the redemptive Buddhist deity Avalokitesvara," Arrowsmith wrote in a 2014 issue of Art India magazine.

For Fonseca, born on the Mandovi River island of Santo Estevam in 1902, it had been a long road to prominence. Art critics now acknowledge his cross-cultural paintings as among the most remarkable contributions to 20th-century art.

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But Fonseca had to wait until 2014 for his first-ever inclusion in a survey of the Indian 20th-century icons, Arrowsmith noted.

Fonseca was recognized as an Indian Christian Cultural Renaissance artist but had to leave Goa following severe criticism for painting Christian themes with Indian settings in the 1930s.

Ahead of his time

The Second Vatican Council encouraged local languages and cultures in the life and mission of the Church.

Fonseca was ahead of his time. The budding artist began studying medicine in Mumbai but soon quit to join an art school — J.J. School of Art. But he left the school in 1930 complaining of a strong influence of European and British systems.

He then joined Shantiniketan in Kolkata, the best-known Indian-style university of the time, because he wanted to learn art under the best Indian artists. Here he was trained under Nandalal Bose and the legend Abanindranath Tagore, the brother of Rabindranath Tagore.

He returned to Goa in 1931 and continued his artwork uniquely presenting Christ and Biblical themes in Indian settings — features, dress and symbols. 

Marian devotee artist

An ardent Marian devotee, he painted several pictures of the Virgin Mary donning traditional Goan sari and blouse. The conventional European missionaries in Goa at the time could not tolerate this, and the Portuguese expelled him from their colony.

His creation of the pale-skinned Madonna, clad in a simple blue and white robe with a halo, is a familiar sight in every Goan Catholic household. But most Catholics wouldn’t know it as a Fonseca masterpiece!

After leaving Goa, Fonseca settled in Pune. There he is said to have been influenced by the Spanish Jesuit, Father Henry Heras, a widely respected archeologist and historian who encouraged Indian artists to paint native themes.

Fonseca was a prolific and versatile painter; he carved on wood and slate and worked on scrolls, stained glass, wax drawings, pencil sketches and baked clay. He has over 1,000 works in watercolor, oils, murals, and paintings. Some of his works are in St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai, Missio Museum in Aachen, Germany, De Nobili College in Pune and Rachol Seminary in Goa.

But as Arrowsmith notes with great sorrow, there is this impression of Fonseca among art historians “as rather a provincial figure, of interest probably only to practicing Christians. The artist’s intense interactions with other traditions of sacred art in India have thus become obscure, and his most experimental and best work left largely in the dark.”

Fonseca died unexpectedly of pneumococcal meningitis at 65, leaving behind his widow, Ivy, and their only daughter, Yessonda. His widow gave his paintings in her possession for an exhibition to the Pilar Fathers, in 2002.

Angelo da Fonseca was ahead of his time with his Indian-inspired art. (Image supplied)

Memories of a daughter

We contacted his daughter, Yessonda Fonseca, in the western Indian city of Pune and put forward some questions. Here is her response:

“My parents got married on March 26, 1951, and I was born six years later in 1957. I was only 10 when my father died. It gave me only 10 years to understand the greatness of my father. I vividly remember my birthday celebrations that year, just before he passed away. We had some French guests who were on an exchange program — an artist and a schoolteacher. I was brought home early from school. A special dress was stitched for me, a lavish lunch organized, even though it was a school day, and a party was held for my school friends in the evening. It was extraordinary.

“His religious fervor is most evident in his paintings, and most of them are religious.

“Some 50 years back, children were innocent and not so aware of things, which is why I was not conscious of his status as the Guru or Father of Indian Christian art.  All I knew back then was that he was someone special because people would come to visit and want to view or buy his art.

“His greatness only struck me after he died. The day after his death, all the newspapers had their front pages filled with headlines mourning his demise. So many people paid homage to him and the procession from the church to the graveyard was so long with policemen lining the street.

“I was the only child of my parents and the apple of his eye. Since I was very tiny he had named me ‘Chicken’. He would take me everywhere he went on his bicycle. He would drop me at my school. I remember during lunchtime he would either come with lunch to school or take me home for lunch. After dropping me off at school, he would go to the market and pick up his favorite fish or meat, which he cooked himself.

“A true Goan in all his habits, he loved fish on the menu every other day, a siesta every afternoon and a shot of brandy at night. He would also smoke a cigar or cheroot, which he bought from a store in Pune Camp called Martin. Of course, he would be thrilled if he got some from abroad.

“A good singer and ballroom dancer, he lived life to the fullest. He was very calm in disposition and never lost his temper. My father was very particular in what he wore. Generally, it was a Bush shirt and trousers, mostly cottons. He also wore khadi printed shirts, which were specially tailored by Lord's Tailors in Pune Camp.  His usual footwear was either leather sandals or Kolhapuri chappals. He would also sport the traditional Gandhi cap during the day, but at night would switch to a beret, especially so after his bath, so that his hair would set.

“On weekends and on holidays, he took me to the Christa Prema Seva (CPS) Ashram, located at Shivajinagar in Pune, where he had his studio to paint. He went there because it was calm and quiet, and many a time he needed the concentration to paint. He encouraged me to draw and sketch and assisted me in painting. My drawing would be with crayons or wax crayons.

“I was too young to understand what brought him to Pune from Goa or the implications of it, especially on his art. But I do believe he could have been disappointed when he had to shift to Pune and start life anew. Creative people are usually sensitive. But he managed to live on his own terms.

“My father used to take me to our native Santo Estevam whenever we went to Goa on holiday, which was usually during the Diwali and summer holidays. Goa was always the holiday destination for my father. It was a land so close to his heart. His three beloved sisters — Helena, Olinda and Bevinda — and their families lived there. Since he had lost his mother at a very early age, they had literally mothered him as the youngest in the family.

“The days in Goa were divided amongst his sisters. His niece Alice, who was Helena’s daughter, married and settled in Carmona. He loved the mid-morning ‘kanji’ with ‘kal chi kodi/miscut/water pickle’. Fish curry with the coarse Goan rice was his favorite. Although he loved to visit Santo Estevam, for some reason he never wanted to visit the ancestral house occupied by his nephew. He made it a point that I be taken there by my mother or a close friend so that I could experience its grandeur.

“We would spend a day or two in the village with his friend Mr. Alfred D’sa. The journey from Panjim to Tonca was considerably long, meandering along the causeway to Ribandar, Old Goa, Banastari, Marcela and finally Tonca, which took almost an hour and half. Back then, there was no bridge across the River Mandovi to Santo Estevam, so we had to take the ferry or a little canoe. The ancestral house was quite a distance away, so we either walked or occasionally travelled by bus. As we walked, the villagers would greet my father and welcome him. Knowing who my father was, none would accept any payment for the ferry or bus ride.

“The villagers respected him a lot as was evident all along the way from the bus stop to his friend’s house — they would welcome him warmly. Some would even call him for a meal as a courtesy. He had many friends and relatives in the village and would visit them.

“Just across the village along the river in the village of Khandola, my father had a plot of land which was basically a coconut plantation. We would visit this serene place where he would just sit and reminisce about the good old days, make a few sketches and then ask the caretaker to give us tender coconut and some of the fruit to take home.

“We still have properties in those places and I still visit at least once a year. Now of course there are hardly any people who really know me. My father was always a quiet worker. He was not a worldly person. He made his own colors from the red mud of Goa which facilitated him to work in water. His paintings were more of a religious type. His patrons were the Church and Christians as this kind of art would not be appreciated by people other than those of the Christian faith.

“He did not have a public relations agency promoting his work. He did not become rich by his paintings. His aim was to link East and West, in which he was the pioneer. He wanted all the characters of the Bible or his religious paintings to be as close to India as possible. In his own words: ‘Why should the Catholic Church not find herself a home in India, since she is as Catholic, i.e. universal, Indian in India, as she is European in Europe?’ That was the inculturation that he wanted to bring about. When he started out, he was chastised and ridiculed. The Catholics at that time could not accept the idea that Mary could be depicted in Indian attire, wearing a sari, and Joseph in a lungi and kurta.

“I am a little hazy about the exact date of my father moving to Pune but I think it is somewhere in the early ‘40s. He had many friends whom he had met abroad during his exhibition tours. Some of them were from the Anglican Church (now CNI). The CPS Ashram belonged to them and he became a member. He served there as the warden of the hostel for poor children of the faith who came from nearby villages.

“He was very generous by nature and ready to help people in need. During his bachelor days he looked after a lot of boys who came to Pune from Goa and Mumbai for their studies in medicine, law or engineering.

“In the initial years my father was located at Kirkee, a cantonment on Pune’s outskirts, where he was doing some paintings for a church. While at the Ashram, my father was commissioned to paint for St. Ignatius Church Kirkee, a cantonment on Pune’s outskirts.  He met my mother there as she belonged to that parish.

“He was condemned by the Church and forced to leave his native Goa, but time is a great healer. Love is blind, they say, and my mother was a headstrong person who always did what she wanted. They married in 1951 at St. Xavier’s Church.

“After his death, his art was never propagated. Perhaps there was no one to advise my mother on this. My mother was running a primary school when my father passed away. In 1976 she was able to buy a property just opposite the CPS Ashram, which had a building where she could expand.

“Father Mathew Lederle, a German Jesuit, was the only one who printed a lot of his paintings and sold them as Christmas cards, bookmarks, etc. through Art India. He even tried to arrange to sell them abroad through fellow Jesuits and friends in Germany.

“The other person who encouraged him was Father Henry Heras. From the many articles that I have read, many a mention has been made of him. My father had even made a few sketches of him. He made an oil painting of Father Heras in his last days when he was sick in bed that adorned the wall of our sitting room. It is evident that Father Heras encouraged him as he commissioned him to do a lot of paintings for St. Xavier's College’s history section in Mumbai. I have personally seen them on my visits with my father and also later.

“It seems such a long time ago now. My grandfather was Bonoparte da Fonseca and my grandmother was Delfina Fernandes from the village of Siolim. They had 17 children but sadly only seven survived. I married Conrad, an air force officer whom I met in the mid-70s. We got married in New Delhi, his home town, in 1977. We have two children. After my husband retired from active service in 2002, we settled in Pune.”

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