F.N. SOUZA: The Myth, the Fury, and the Silence . . .

by Dom Martin

          The risk of entering existence is that there is no coming out of it alive. Once enmeshed in existence, we find ourselves harnessed to the yoke of survival and plowing relentlessly through the fields of convention. Fear, diligence and piety keep us on course and orient us to conformity. Materialism, valor and the mythical, allow us to transgress and hopefully establish our place in time's hierarchy.

          Francis Newton Souza's myth began before he even took the first existential gulp of air. According to him, he was painting murals in his mother's womb. Interestingly enough, this feat was earlier eclipsed by Salvador Dali, who reputedly began the tradition of decorating the maternal cavern. Such foetal prowess certainly defies the natural, overlaps the supernatural, and leads the rest of us to seriously probe the anonymity of our own foetal endeavors!

Born in the village of Saligao on April 12, 1924, Souza's coming was without any celestial signs or manifestations. The loss of his father at a tender age and a personal bout with smallpox, virtually obliterated the Catholic seal of faith he was imprinted with at the baptismal font. Disillusioned with the significance of Heaven versus the painful realities of the present, he vowed to go about life his own way. He was no longer going to wait in line for a piece of pie in the sky. Whatever it took, he was going to aspire for the whole pie, and that too, here and now!

For Souza, reality was merely an infrastructure that could be broken down - and which one needed to hastily break down - in order to accommodate one's insurmountable needs and  aspirations. In that context, he was a gun-toting maverick, gunning down customs and dogmas with his rhetorical brush and pen. At other times, he would transfigure himself into a bulldozer, leveling down friends, relatives, foes and anything else that stood between him and his next landmark.

          An avid reader, his mind became a sleepless foundry, churning information into thoughts, and thoughts into diatribes. He loathed the smug banality of the bourgeois, took pungent delight in exposing our vulnerable addiction to the hallucinogenic effects of faith and hypocrisy, but was quick to self-absolution when he caught himself snorting some of these very same banalities.

Gentleman, 1955 - by F.N. Souza

          From autographing lavatory walls to going communist and getting discharged from the party for being a misfit, Souza was not at all coy about giving his personal credo a public altar. The good, the bad or the perverse, he indulged in them, with uneasing candor. In his earlier years, he fervently believed in hunting with the pack. But when the opportunity would arise, he had no qualms about abandoning the pack and going solo for the prize                                                

          His lust for life was entrenched in several failed marriages and the rearing of progeny he remained alienated from. His pursuit of fame took him through many alleys, crossroads and continents. He was widely acclaimed for his earlier works, both at home and abroad. In the end, as with other mortals, his waning brush was an unmatched weapon against death's staggering scythe. He died in Mumbai on March 28, 2002, in   the very city where he first sowed the seeds of his creativity and over the years watched them bloom and spread, some becoming incorporated in the garden of Indian art.                                                                                                                                       
          John Berger, a noted art critic said of Souza: "He straddles many traditions, but serves none." Max Sequiera -- an art collector and former manager of the Roopa art gallery (now the Taj art gallery) -- was even more concise in his summation of Souza: "A cartoonist in oil". Souza's historic 1963 art show at the Taj was put together by Max Sequiera.


Dom Martin, 1980 by F.N. Souza

However, unlike Picasso who spent his last years doodling, and Dali, who wound up signing blanks -- Souza in the end was "surrounded" by fakes . Word is hobnobbing around that the workshop for these fakes is situated in Goa! Perhaps, subdued by age or wisdom, Souza refrained from using the trademark of his fame and influence to send the Bin Ladins of the art world into exile and extinction!

At an interview in Goa - two months prior to his passing - Souza remarked to journalist Fred Noronha that he "wasn't amused by the fakes". He went on to state that in one house, he encountered a roomful of "Souza fakes", and the gullible owner of the art works was very "proud" of them"!

          Fakes aside, one will never know if Souza ever acquired and devoured the illusive pie in the sky, or shared it with others. He chose to leave no glossy footage behind. I recall him being somewhat damningly critical of his peers and contemporaries, and particularly bitter in his assessment that recognition in his instance was afflicted with Alzheimer's disease since birth -- or that it wasn't proportionate to his creative genius.

          Souza was not alone in that bickering regard. As human beings, we aspire for success and recognition. As artists, we tend to take it one step further and aspire for immortality. The span from life to death can be as stretched with illusions as it can with truths and pitfalls. Ultimately, as always, the onus is upon death to sort truth from fiction, and thereafter, for time to immortalize that which is infinitely true. At the time when Pablo Picasso passed away, Souza was preemptive enough to assert: "I am the next greatest living artist after Picasso."                                                  

          In retrospect, whoever Souza was and whatever he became, one will continue to hear his footsteps in the corridors of Modern Indian art. And for those who knew him personally, it isn't without the tacit admission that the likes of him are quite an uncommon occurrence in the grand scheme and theatrics of existence.                                                                                




                                                           Dom Martin, 1980 - by F.N. Souza


May 12, 2002