I woke up this morning to the sound ofslushing, smothering, dunkingrain. The weather forecast had predicted storms and showers and while there was no thunder, the rainfall was intense and delayed everyone and everything. I had planned to drive into Panjimfor a talk on the Goan artist Antonio Xavier Trindade. I wasn’t familiar with hispaintings or the context of Bombay in his art, which was the subject of the talk by Mr. SuhasBahulkar, painter, curator and Director of the Modern Art Gallery inMumbai.Lapping up the natural habitat in Siolim, cycling and walking miles in the slithering monsoon rain, I also needed something to stimulate the mind. So thought it a great idea to discover a painter I didn’t know and rediscoverFontainhas, the Portuguese quarter of Panjim, where the FundaçãoOriente,which houses a permanent collection of Trindade, is located. The rain had cleared up after lunch and I was hopeful it wouldcontinue to stay dry.
As a tourist I have taken long walks through the narrow streets, with quasi Romeo and Juliet balconies and colourfully daubed facadesoverlooking them, and the Ourem creek flowing alongside. I was looking forward to another stroll, but housekeeping chores took better part of the day.Even so I left in good time but, Iwas flagged down,en route, by a woman who looked in pain, requesting a lift because she couldn’t wait any longer for the bus. And on and on little things kept taking time away from the scope of an amble.And by the time I reached Fundação Oriente, locating the Filipe Neri Xavier Road it was on, aided but unaided by google, who really did get me into quite a spot, it was already 6pm. And, the moment I opened the car door, itteemed down with rain; almost as if this was the trigger to some unseen bucket that overturned, the instant I opened the door. In Delhi I may have had a different response but, my frequent walks in the drenching rain have imbued getting wet with a sense of fun. It’s liberating to pop open the brolly and walk, always remembering never to wear anything other than plastic shoes or slippers during the monsoon.
While all this is fascinating, I am not intrigued by his Western style painting,nor why the JJ school of art,starting out in response to the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London, designed to improve the arts and industry of India became instead, the epitome of Western classical tastes and techniques of painting and sculpture. Maybe it should interest me, but what grips me about these naturalistic canvasesis the capacity artists had then, to eschew personal expression to focus on observing the subject at hand and portraying it with insight as well as accuracy of physical attributes.
The painting that I am particularly captivated by is ‘Forsaken’. In this rather largeoil on canvas (35.5 x 28.25 inches, undated), Trindade has depicted a woman dressed in a blue saree seated on the floor in a tired and dejected stance. Behind her a lamp-light flickers pale, suggesting that she has waited all night for someone, but waited in vain. In the catalogue to an exhibition of Trindade’s works at the Georgia Museum of Art, USA, the text informs that this could be seen as a westernized interpretation of the rejected lover or nayika,popular in numerous Sanskrit texts. This typified pining beauty was in vogue with early 20th century painters of the Bengal school and may have influenced Trindade rather than the subject matter being part of his instruction at the JJ school of art. In fact, the style of painting that he was tutored in, foreshadowed the emergence of the Bengal school which arose as a kind of protest forthe exclusion of Indian art practices and themes in British run art schools in India.
I suppose, one could surmise through her downward glance that she isforlorn, but she could well have fallen asleep leaning against the diwan or sofa. The dextrously detailed drapes of the folds of her simple indigo blue saree is contrasted with a softly tinted blue-white blouse bringing the viewing eye to rest on her bosom – ample and sensuous.To my mind, this is hardly a typical nayika – a young and expectant maiden brimming with sexy youthfulness. Her fingers and toes are long and elegant, her body is filled out, her demeanour mature and not necessarily disappointed but tired, making me deliberate on who was the inspiration behind this. Who was the woman modelledon and, although not much is known about her,could it have been Trindade’s mother? Although the painting may have been inspired byIndian literary traditions, or that the prevailing trend encouraged the saree clad figure in the style of the nayika, but the image also brings to mind the self-sacrificing and dutiful Indian wifewho never ate nor slept until her spouse came home, whatever time that may be.
Trindade has painted this with such poignancy, making me wonder, how an artist can project feelings that must have been totally alien to him both in terms of gender and also situation. But, getting to the know the story behind his life, one is introduced to his own tragedies and pain and realise that this is probably how some of it may have been sublimated – in themes that required him to delve into his own agonies.
His portrait of the Theosophist Dr.Annie Besant is fashioned in a completely different way. While the Hindu woman is represented as a full length figure, with Besant, he zooms in. Wesee up-close, the face of this well-known, colourful and politically powerful personality. A British woman who eventually joined the Indian National Congress and allied herself withanti-raj activists. Not only does the full frontal gaze of the sitter reflect a similar stance of the painter and therefore a confrontational posture but, one that is evocative of familiarity rather than the distance of being the public figure Annie Besant was. He chose to present the human being rather than the persona and it is noted that he probably captured her likeness in person rather than from a photograph, which may well have given him important insights to bring these facets to the fore. His portrayal of Besant, isin direct divergence to the woman in the blue saree, thereby highlighting the contrasting attitudes prevalent in India in the early twentieth century – an India grappling with identity and independence, frequently revisiting the past to defineits nationality.
As a contemporary artist, who works with a medium that veers very naturally towards abstraction and an introspective stance, honed into a very personal expression, the work of Trindade is at the opposite end of the spectrum. It is the discipline of an artist who wields paint with brush to bring to life another human being with verisimilitude, necessitating inordinate concentration and skill, that creates the sense of awe, pulling my attention into the detail of the brushwork. It is not that I have had been trained in another art aesthetic. It is not as if my education was any less a “European cultural” one, because studying in London, it was exactly that. I loved figure drawing of live models, and exulted in sitting for hours together, portraying the delicate veins of a Champa leaf. But, I have moved so far from this exacting mastery of co-ordinating hand and eye, and keeping oneself out of the picture so dedicatedly.The crowded mind of our millennium, has compelled the self to express, to observe within rather than without.Personal history, identity and opinion are the hallmark of our milieu and Trindade in this context is like a breath of fresh air, akin to walking in thundering rain and allowing it to wet you from head to toe.What I experience, is not a simple admiration for how it was done, a yearning to acquire the skills, but respect for the relative quietude of mind that facilitated it. Along with appreciation for these vistas, of a time when photographs were a rarity and therefore they serve as historical, visual records of dress, attitude, landscape and architecture – of what has changed and how.
His brushwork is relatively informal. We can see the strokes.it is not all about photographically refined textures in the tradition of Vermeer and Rembrandt, who are constantly referenced in the writing around Trindade and his work. In ‘Goan Beggar Saying his Beads’ ( 23.25 x 19.25 inches, 1927) he paints a close-up of a wandering mendicant, adding this Christian man to his repertoire which also includes the fakir and sanyasi. The beggar grasps a spiral shell,known to be carried by religious nomads,in his right hand. His shirt is dull grey, emphasizingthe sombre facial expression of abearded countenance, with the light in his sad eyes accentuated to reflect the hardship born. Rather than bedraggled and pitiable Trindade presents a simple man living outside mainstream society. Clutching his shell and touching the rosary worn around his neck, in remembrance that where all else fails there is divine grace, lends a modicum of respect to this poverty stricken human being.
Trindade belonged to a large family with strong ties to the church. His father Zeferino had five sisters and four brothers. Their ancestral home in Assonora, Bardez was known among localsas the “house of Friars” because two of his brothers were Dominican Friars. Although intending to join their ranks himself, Zeferino left the seminary to join the Customs department in Goa and was posted in far off places where he married, but returned to live in Sanguem where Antonio was born. While he lived, his family was well taken care of and much attention was paid to education but, after he died the tutors were dismissed and many creature comforts discontinued. Trindade was just sixteen years old when his father passed away.
In ‘The Artist’s Family by Lamplight’ he illustrates a rather shadowy scene,where a strong light from a table lamp illuminates the tableau of his children studying at the table, overseen by his wife. Unlike the sensual interpretation that won him a gold medal, here his wife Florentina is dressed in a long dress, with full sleeves and the painters glance is indulgent. As if benevolently appreciative of the care being given to his children – of enduring love. The canvas is executed in the tradition of painted interiors such as those of Jan Van Eyck’ or Velazquez, where the artist establishes his presence by leaving a token.In this case the picture of a man above the crockery arrangement, though vague, can be assumed to be a self-portrait. The painting of the artist’s family is mentioned by his daughter Angela Trindade (also an artist), as a record of “a special time” when his children were young.Before the hardships that World War I was to bring and before the familyfaced the premature demise of his younger son Gabriel. It is however curious that the household is depicted in such failing light.Even as the subject matter is an everyday scene, the dark umber tones of the canvas are foreboding.Or perhaps carrying forth the distress of the timeafter his own father had passed away, subconsciously bringing those dark memories to life.
In addition to portraiture, Trindade created landscapes, still life’s and nudes, in oil on canvas as well as with water colour. In four water colours done in 1931 of ‘Nasik Scenes’, the freedom of his oil strokes takes on a whole new dimension enlivening everyday street parades of vendors, bathers and pedestrians in the city of Nasik. And while he was commissioned for portraits of the rich and famous, he also chose to paint his cook John. Virtually a member the family he posed for an aging Trindade, who rendered his image at the age of 61 years, with his uncanny facility to bring character to each of his delineations with undisputed authenticity. The cook is portrayed with profuse brush strokes, less refined than elsewhere, adding to his lower social status. His look is unkempt, mouth open, eyes that are lowered and jacket which is torn. In fact the only real detailing that Trindade indulges in here, is to reveal the texture of the torn cloth with exacting particularity.
After the talk by SuhasBahulkar, there was a brief, impromptu solo violin concert. The violinist Luis Dais, played a medley of pieces from Bach, Kriesler, and Jules Massenet among others, as an educated guess of what may have been played in salons of Bombay during Trindade’s time. He stood in a corner, with his back to four portrayalsthat could very well have defined the portraiture of Trindade. Flanked by Mr. Amor, Portuguese Agent and Mrs. Miranda and Child on one wall,with Annie Besant and John the family cooked alongside each other, on the other. If it hadn’t been for the soloists’ unconventionally informal attire of a T-shirt, time could have stood still for those pleasurable moments as I allowed the familiar strains of music to help me mull over my recent acquaintance with Trindade, his family, his India and painted oeuvre.
But, before I end, I must mention the smiling visage of Lady Meherbai Tata, mother of Ratan Tataof Tata Sons Incorporated, and the most intriguing Miss Ferns, a writer. While Lady Tata is regal and statuesque as befitting her social stature, Miss Ferns is perhaps the most delightful of all the portraits on view at the FundaçãoOriente, a collection donated by the Esther Trindade Trust in 2004 – also known as the Antonio Xavier Trindade Foundation. A young, unusually attractive European woman, self-consciously clutches the collar of her dress, as if it revealed too much of her flesh. And has turned her eye away from the artist, suggesting her inability to bear his piercing scrutiny. Her young writers’ intuition knowing that therein lay more than a painters skill. Because Trindade’s gaze went beyond the physical façade to uncover psychological depths,privy only to those who have fathomed themselves well enough.
Photo Credit : Fundação Oriente