Sonny Souza Portrait1

 (Portrait of F N Souza by ©Cheryl Braganza reproduced here with permission. The portrait was with the National Portraits Gallery, London.)

 

THE EXHIBITION catalogue says F N SOUZA. The Gallery holding the exhibition is London’s Gallery One. The catalogue also tells me when the exhibition took place: November-December 1962.

Which means I was at Oxford and had gone to London to see the show. I’d have gone anywhere to see a Souza show in the 60s — within limits, of course. I mean I didn’t go to New York to see any of his shows there after he left London, his home for more than 20 years. I remember after he left for good, he said — I felt deserted. I feel deserted now.

The catalogue shows Souza baring artificial fangs. They’re painted on a strip of card which is held by the artist’s mouth. The back of th catalogue shows the back of the artist’s head, a painted arrow plunged deep into his neck. Both the photographs are black-and-white so the back of Souza’s corduroy jacket on the back cover, a steep slope on which the result of the wound freely falls, is blotched with black blood.

The catalogue has a colour reproduction of a painting I’ve always loved –Landscape with Planet. It also has exquisite line drawings of the woman he was living with at that time. I must have met the couple a few years after the exhibition — in ’66 or ’67 when I was living in London myself. Souza had had another show by then, of black paintings, canvas plastered – no other word comes to mind – with thick black paint, with objects and figures dug into them with the same fierce, controlled energy that characterizes his best work.

 

A MEETING IN LONDON

The person of Souza himself was associated with a fierce but uncontrolled energy. Stories of his rudeness and drunkenness did the rounds amongst the few expatriate painters I knew, so I expected to have a difficult time when I heard that he wanted to meet me.

What had made him curious about me, if I remember right, was an article in The Hampstead and Highgate Post, which was about Indians living in London. Souza and I were among them.

He turned out to be exceptionally mild. I suspect now that he longed for thecompany of “artisitically inclined” Indians and a chord was struck. We got on very well.

Years after I returned to Bombay he sent me letters from New York, mainly detailing his belief in Redmonism and The White Flag Revolution. Two of Redmonism’s paradigms are, first, that “Nature is the sold principle, the Creator of God and the Procreator of Man,” and second, that “the moral law is not binding to all men”. He wrote about himself and Redmonism to many people in Bombay. In Bombay in the first two months of 1985 he wrote poems about Redmonism or poems with a Redmonist point of view, amateurish stuff which was published by Pundole Art Gallery to coincide with an exhibition of his paintings held there in March.

I hardly met him during his many visits to Bombay, though two of his daughters stayed with us when they were in the city. But he met many painters and critics and, on a few occasions, wrote about them publicly with characteristic savagery and scorn. Does this explain the near-indifference to his death, the mealy-mouthed praise? I’m shocked. He was more than a friend. Surely there’s little doubt that he was one of our greatest painters.

When Eunice de Souza and I were collecting material for an anthology of prose for schools and colleges, we decided to publish something he’d written for *Encounter* in 1955 and which we found in *Words and Lines*, a collection of his prose pieces and drawings, published by Villiers, London, in 1959. The piece we chose was ‘Nirvana of a Maggot’, an account of a few months he spent in a nearly deserted Goan village. Apart from its vivid descriptions, written, it would seem with the same passion with which he painted, is a passage on writing. After confessing to feeling ill-at-ease with words, to a sense of failing as a writer, he says:

“What I’d like to do first of all is to merely articulate freely
and easily. I have never learnt grammar and I can’t spell
correctly. Yet I want to say something, to make just a
sound, even a guttural sound or a grunt, an onomatopoeic
sound emitted with a clearance of the throat.What I’d want to
do is to suspend my vocal ‘cords’ on the nib of my pen like
a mouthful of food at the end of a fork; to throw my voice
like a ventriloquist’s, but over a page; to emit sounds with
gummed backs like postage stamps which stick firmly on
paper; to make the split point of my pen the sensitive
needing of a seismograph, as I can easily do when I draw…”

THE PRIEST OF PAINT

In spite of this feeling of incompetence, or perhaps because of it, Souzawrote well. And he wrote as he painted, a man with a mission. If we were fools who couldn’t see, and he truly believed we were fools who refused to, it was his business to open our eyes. What Andrew Sinclair, notorious for his novel *The Breaking of Bumbo*, wrote in the Gallery One is true:

‘Souza sees himself as a priest of paint. His job is to
show God the flawed face of men; and men the beauty
and wrath of God.”

Unfortunately, 40 years after those words were published something else seems truer – something that Souza himself wrote in another piece that appeared in *Words and Lines*.

That book was re-issued in its original format by an Indian publisher recently. Hardly anyone in a city which buys, sells and talks art all the time and which has pretensions to be one of the art’s international capitals, seems to have been interested in buying the book since copies can be bought off one of the city’s pavements at Rs 10 each.

What Souza wrote in *A Fragment of Autobiography*, the piece I referred to, is: “As for me, I was a rickety child with running nose and running ears, and scared of every adult and every other child. Better had I died. Would have saved me a lot of trouble. I would not have had to bear an artists’ tormented soul, create art in a country that despises her artists and is ignorant of her heritage.”

It’s something I read with great bitterness now.
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[Associated News Features / Deccan Herald, April 13, 2002]

© Adil Jussawalla –  Reprinted with author’s permission