The image of the pale-skinned Madonna, clad in a simple blue and white robe, with a halo around her head, is a familiar sight in every Goan Catholic household. But, how many members of the Catholic community are acquainted with the picture of the Virgin Mary wearing a red and white saree, with traditional Indian jewellery, standing in what appears to be the interior of a Hindu temple, flanked by two indigenized angels holding clubs, and the Infant Jesus in her hand reminiscent of little Lord Krishna adorned with ornaments?
This is a painting from the oeuvre of the great Christian Indian artist, Angelo da Fonseca.
Born in 1902, in St Estevam, to a family of Catholic landowners, Fonseca was the last of 17 children. During his childhood he displayed artistic talent, but decided to study medicine. Two years on, he got so sick that he couldn’t continue and shifted focus to agriculture.
Lost in prayer one day, he realized that his love for art surpassed everything else, and immediately decided to pursue it at the JJ School of Art, Mumbai. But Fonseca despised the purely western academic training imparted there, and moved to Shantiniketan in Kolkata, under the tutorage of Abanindranath Tagore, nephew of the poet Rabindranath Tagore. Here, Fonseca learned more about his Indian heritage. He left the ashram with a mission to create Indian Christian art.
As a Christian artist painting during a period of hyper-nationalism in a predominantly Hindu country, he drew immense criticism from the Indian and the Western factions. According to Fonseca, the former saw his work as an attempt to reduce Indian art to just represent the modification of western art, while the latter misinterpreted it as lowering Christian values to the supposed exaggerated human suggestiveness considered to be characteristic of Hindu art.
“The Roman Catholic church took umbrage against his renderings of a brown-skinned Madonna and various saints. Also, neither the colonial government nor common people were in any mood to re-clothe the Virgin Mother and the pantheon of saints in Indian garb,” writes Goa-based art historian, novelist and painter Savia Viegas.
In many ways, Fonseca’s art could be seen as an attempt to de-romanticize the divine. “For Angelo Fonseca the important aspect was not only to imagine gods as Asian and Indian, but also to remind of the humanness of Gods…In some way, Angelo da Fonseca’s paintings seemed to be saying ‘Gods are us’,” explains Viegas, who has curated a series of exhibitions of Fonseca’s paintings.
Fonseca introduced a bold ‘Indianness’ to traditional Christian images. The carefully-crafted Christian figures adorned in sarees and cholis with halos over their heads may seem unusual or strange, but even the most conservative critic cannot deny how this artist brought together the two cultures.
“Much before Vatican II, which brought in new and fresh thinking and a more flexible approach to the issue of culture and religion, Fonseca through his bold and path-breaking paintings brought to the limelight the relevance of ‘inculturation’ and in the process revolutionized Indian Christian art,” says director, Xavier Centre of Historical Research (XCHR), Fr Savio Abreu.
His work reflects the complexity of the modern Indian identity and the post colonial psyche, which is far from homogeneous. Through his work, Fonseca strived hard to build a space for Christianity in India, which had been present for ages in the country, but which he thought was still considered very foreign to the nation, primarily because of inadequate artistic adaption.
Fonseca’s perseverance did pay off through the encouragement of Fr Henry Heras, the founder of the Indian Historical Research Institute in Mumbai. Fonseca’s work began to be exhibited at various places. He began painting murals for churches and dabbled in grille work.
His art was not only exhibited in India, but travelled to Glasgow, Dublin, Cork, Rome, Madrid, Lisbon, and Zurich, making him world famous. Fonseca also received recognition from the Vatican, with Pope Pius XII acknowledging him for pioneering Christian Art in India.
Painting for him was purely a spiritual act of devotion. “Fonseca rejected the salon in favour of smaller exhibitions in church halls and municipal buildings. He wanted God to be drawn from within the church precincts and to live in the community,” says Viegas. He saw his art as a medium through which he could reach out to his Indian Christian countrymen as well his non-Christian brothers.
“Strength of line and the power of simple composition are the most striking features of Angelo’s paintings,” writes Fr M R Lederle. Fonseca’s paintings also showcase many female characters and numerous paintings are an expression of the female form.
Fonseca died unexpectedly on December 28, 1967 of pneumococcal meningitis. Most of his paintings had been in the possession of his widow, Ivy Fonseca, until she gave them for an exhibition to the Pilar Fathers, in 2002. Recently, the XCHR in Goa, run by the Jesuits, acquired around 80 paintings on mixed subjects, some of which were gifted to them by Ivy. Angelo Fonseca had also previously given some of his paintings to the Jesuits.
Three exhibitions of Fonseca’s paintings have been held at XCHR in recent years. Plans to put the works on display in the XCHR museum are under way.
One hopes that many such attempts are made in the near future to showcase the work of this forgotten yet extraordinary artist, whose deep faith in Christianity and the equality of men, succeeded in bringing to life on canvas, characters that would otherwise seem a distant fantasy in the chaotic reality of the modern world.