Soon after Independence came to India, Angelo da Fonseca gathered together a large number of his religious paintings, and headed to Europe for the first time in his life.
By now, the sensitive, patrician Goan artist was in his late 40’s. He had spent most of the previous two decades in a kind of monastic seclusion in the first place that had offered him sanctuary after he’d been harried out of Goa.
That refuge was the CPSS ashram, which produced C. F. Andrews and Verrier Elwin. It was a high-minded and serious place, Fonseca flourished there. Even before 1947, he was entrusted with its running, and lavished long hours on its garden, and on many murals on its grounds.
But when he came back from his long trip to Europe, Fonseca was no longer the same man. Something had clicked in him: he wanted to get married. By 1951, he had made it happen, and moved out of the CPSS ashram and into a regular independent household for the first time.
But today we are concerned with that year of restlessness before Angelo made his match with Ivy.
Take a look at the two very loving sketches below. They are a window into a precious, unheralded Goan moment that played out on the outskirts of Poona in 1950 and on.
Though almost unknown even today, Angelo da Fonseca’s artwork was extremely well-regarded by a small number of influential people all through his life.
He took his painting very seriously. It was everything to him, before and after he got married. Look at a broad selection of his work, and it becomes undeniable that this unknown Indian man was pitting himself against the greatest iconographers of the Western tradition.
But if the ambition was boundless, the physical circumstances could not have been more restricted. Fonseca painted in a tiny cell without a door, the same kind of room where he and every other ashram member slept.
But the CPSS ashram’s bare-footed calm also greatly appealed to another great Goan artist who lived in Poona in 1950. B B Borkar complained that he had no peace to work at home with several daughters clamouring for attention. So he moved in too!
Fonseca and Borkar worked side-by-side in those cells all through that year and the next.
The painter set up house with Ivy after 1951 (Borkar’s daughters made beautiful flower girls) but bicycled over to look after the CPSS ashram right until his death in 1967. Borkar worked there right up to the fall of the Estado da India, and then returned to Goa.
In 2009, after a series of discoveries of forgotten masterpieces which had me on the brink of total obsession with Angelo da Fonseca, I went to stay in the CPSS ashram.
My days were spent reading, looking at old sketch books under the (now giant) trees that Fonseca had tended. My nights on a cot in the same cell that Fonseca worked in for all those years.
They all have doors now, but the CPSS has become ramshackle and a bit sordid. The library’s excellent collection is in shreds, and Fonseca’s then-acclaimed murals are just indistinct rust-coloured stains on the walls.
But by that second night, feeling out the contours of the space, I began to get the measure of the moment that passed so lovingly between these two dear friends, these toweringly great Goan artists of the 20th century.
It was 1950, and the world outside CPSS was in upheaval. It must have been a kind of haven to our two protagonists.
Remember that by 1950, Souza had already flamboyantly quit India, and waist-deep into a highly significant moment for Indian art that was taking shape in Paris, and then shifted to London. Right when Fonseca and Borkar were withdrawing to a kind of artistic retreat from the world, everyone else who makes up the contemporary pantheon from Raza and Padamsee to our own Pai was heading straight out to the West. Rather ironically, the one desh bhakt who steadfastly stuck to his country was M. F. Husain!
Anyway, by that second night at the CPSS ashram, I was really feeling the infinitely quieter moment that took place in that bare ashram setting in Poona in 1950, even as the “action” in Indian art seemed to be taking place in Europe. In their withdrawal to the CPSS, Fonseca and Borkar (along with another constant companion, the rebellious nationalistic priest, H. O. Mascarenhas) made their own high-level summit.
In my little cell at the CPSS, the depth and immensity of Borkar’s and Fonseca’s creative achievements now seemed enhanced by the way that they had gone about them
There is so much power and significance in the way these two Goans worked elbow-to-elbow, Bakibab aware when Angelo shifts in his chair, and Angelo so familiar with Bakibab that he can bring him alive in a few pencil strokes. Konkani oaths. Mango Pickle. Snatches of familiar music. The trappings of a great Goan friendship remain the same across time and space.
And so it was that by the third night, I realized that I didn’t want to leave.