Francis Newton Souza
- Francis Newton Souza
The Red Road
Signed and dated 'Souza 62' middle left
Oil on canvas
Gifted by the artist to his wife Maria in 1962
Bequeathed by Maria Souza to the present owner
There can be little doubt that F.N. Souza's Goan cultural tradition has been as much a source of his deepest anguish as of his best work. The landscape into which Souza was born remains much as he describes it:
"A beautiful country, full of rice fields and palm trees; whitewashed churches with lofty steeples; small houses with imbricated tiles, painted in a variety of colours. Glimpses of the blue sea. Red roads curving over hills and straight across paddy fields. Morning is announced by the cock crowing; the approaching night by Angelus bells". (F. N. Souza, Words and Lines, 1959).
This Goan culture and the mainstream of Indian life such as Souza lived and derived his sustenance from in his years in Mumbai constitute the dynamic of his art. Indeed Souza's uniqueness has been his ability to absorb the special qualities of his grassroots experience in Goa into an intellectual and cultural tradition, which has shaped national life since Indian independence.
Rather than argue that Souza rages against the contradictions in his upbringing, I would like to suggest that therein lies his greatest strength. Souza's intellectual and artistic life evolved within an urban ethos which also embraced Europe through an English educational system, and metropolitan culture sustained by interaction with Britain. The talent nurtured from an Indo-European cultural influence already experienced in childhood, was deepened and focussed by political consciousness and an awareness of existence through which he attempts a synthesis with codes in which his personal history merges with universal concerns. Thus the critic who wrote that 'The Red Road' (1962) could have been painted anywhere in the world since it has nothing specially Indian about it, is doubtless unaware of the cultural meanings implicit in Souza's work. The red soil of Goa composed of laterite is the distinctive geophysical characteristic of this region. The heavy waters of the monsoon wash the soil which bleeds into streams and rivulets. Our red earth is the theme of many a poem, folk song and pious incantation; red mud paths dissect the vibrant green of paddy fields, the dense foliage of coconut, jackfruit, cashew, areca nut and bamboo plantations. Embedded is also a code for Souza's eroticism: 'Tambre matti', the red earth, is the name given to the red light district in Panjim, Goa's capital city.
'The Red Road' in Souza's recreation is a blood red fissure on a green but abandoned hill, flanked by a church and what appears to be a Portuguese fort. The roads leading to the fort are painted white perhaps to suggest the coloniser's highway to the two powers of church and state on either side. The confrontation is between the temporal and evanescent nature of power against the permanent primal flow of red earth and fertility. It represents the fractured sensibility of the artist, and yet conveys a sense of power, a point I often discussed with Maria Souza. Menstrual power? The wrath of the artist in the throes of creativity ? Souza's sensibility comes alive in all its fearsome, primal beauty.
His grandmother's influence and environment shaped his consciousness of roots, his mother, and his wife Maria, gave him financial and psychological sustenance in the early years. They believed in him, sacrificed a great deal of themselves for him. Maria supported him in London working as a couturier, sought after by prestigious fashion magazines. She made great headway for herself and her then unknown husband when Vogue featured, through her intervention, a piece on the artist and a design created by her. Later, she ran Arts 38, which was unique and innovative in what it sought to display and where Souza exhibited twice. Yet, one is conscious of the singular absence of any acknowledgment of these women of faith and courage. Belatedly, in a letter to Maria dated May 14, 1984, Souza wrote: "I have always appreciated the way you have rooted for my art, you were involved in it almost from the time I was out of Art School and had started out on my own; you were there when the Progressive Artists' Group happened, and later when I and you moved to London, Husain and the other Indian artists, some of them living in Europe, like Raza and Padamsee, would drop in, and you would go to Paris to visit them (and on Bastille Day, Sartre would dance with you)! So you see, you have been connected with Indian Contemporary Art, and I am sure history will write it. It has come to pass that you are now becoming involved in Indian Contemporary
Art in its new phase. ..."
Shelley Souza, the artist's daughter, writes: "For me the 'Red Road' so emphatically belonged to my mother, meaning that more than any other Souza painting in her collection, it symbolized my parents' relationship. They journeyed together through his art, from 1945, when she bought his first work for sale, until her death 50 years later. And I think you are right, it reminded her of her homeland, Goa. The most vivid memory I have of the painting is in its original display in 38 Homer Street, my mother's house in London. It hung in the front room, formerly a shop with a large front window, which was attached to the house but had its own entrance. She used this room as her fitting room for her clients, who were able to enter and exit without coming through the house itself. The painting's brute force commingled with her haute couture creations: some soft, others strong, all original. The women who paraded her designs in front of the painting were some of the great names of the sixties: Ailsa Garland, Editor-in-Chief, Vogue magazine; Honor Blackman, who played Pussy Galore in Goldfinger; agony aunt Marjorie Proops; and many more."
There is considerable difference, in the milieu and tradition within which Maria née Figueiredo, and her husband were raised; Maria's being the more feudal culture of Salcete. However, as individuals, both of them balked at authority, hypocrisy, the exploitations within their society, and the repression implicit in orthodox religion. Souza's environment, nevertheless, was more open, generous hearted, informal and adventurous. The Franciscans have left behind in Bardez, the district where he was born and raised, a tolerant, relaxed form of Catholicism, more in tune with indigenous religious practice, less intellectual and meditative than mystical, pragmatic and rooted in good works. In his youth, the English language, for instance, was far more prevalent in Bardez than in Salcete.
Since the English language opened up limitless possibilities of employment, many more people migrated from Bardez to Bombay, to Aden and Abadan and British East Africa whereas the people from the district Salcete - aloof and with a superior sense of themselves partly because of a larger number among them were from the landed gentry and partly as a result of inflexible Europeanization by the Jesuits - either went to the Portuguese colonies in Africa or to Portugal.
This accounts to some extent for the fact that Souza, who spent his childhood in Bardez, came from a Konkani and English speaking family. While some of these facts can be attributed to the Franciscan method of conversion, mention must also be made here of the caste structure. The upper castes among the converts were the first and indeed the only ones to give up Konkani for Portuguese, adopt the Western style of dress and a highly formal European style of living. The beautiful Maria liked to stress this distinction and the fact that she was a rebel within her feudal paternal home. A spirited woman of great character to the last, she applauded with unquestioning loyalty the quality of the artist despite the many betrayals of her by the man. In that sense 'The Red Road' represents the personal, the political and the spiritual struggle of the artist.
(Maria Aurora Couto, author of GOA: A Daughter's Story, Viking Penguin, 2004).