FN Souza As Never Seen Before
Everybody in the art world has a Souza story. Modernists like Akbar Padamsee and Krishen Khanna have anecdotes about their intimate acquaintance with the Goa-born artist that go all the way back to 1947, when Souza formed the now-legendary Bombay Progressive Artists group. Representatives of a younger generation, Subodh Gupta for instance, might recount the time Souza signed a drawing Gupta had made of the artist with these words: “For Subodh Kumar Gupta, whose drawing of me is fine”. Gallerists like Ravi and Uma Jain of Dhoomimal Gallery in New Delhi have, as proof of their relationship with Souza, numerous paintings of themselves, which he’d gifted to them. Collectors, like Ebrahim Alkazi, saw the artist through his later years in New York, when he was down on his luck and had taken to the bottle.
Each story is precious because it substantiates the myth that has always surrounded F. N. Souza, the enfant terrible of Indian art. For the longest time, one had to rely on spoken and written narratives for any indication of Souza’s mythic personality. While most of us, through photographs published in newspapers and journals, have always known what Souza looks like, there have been few iconic portraits of the artist. One photograph by the late art critic Richard Bartholomew came closest to capturing the rebellious energy that surrounded the man and his work. Bartholomew’s portrait captures Souza mid-sentence in an animated pose with his finger pointing towards the lens, almost dwarfed by his spectacular, grotesque canvases that form the backdrop.
Today, Mumbai’s Pundole Gallery will play host to a series of seven portraits of Souza taken by the legendary Armenian photographer Ida Kar. The exhibition, which continues until the end of October, has been brought to India by Grosvenor Vadehra to coincide with a major retrospective of Kar’s photographs at the National Portrait Gallery in London. The images, taken between 1957 and 1961 when Souza lived in London, have never been published or exhibited before.
Though scant in number, each photograph in the series depicts the very young artist in his studio dressed like a gentleman in well-tailored clothes and standing or sitting playfully in front of his not-so-gentlemanly paintings. The contrast is beguiling, the effect, theatrical. Which is not surprising considering Kar started her own career making portraits of young actors. Before her own London years, and after her Paris years, Kar established her own studio ‘Idabel’ in Cairo. There she met and married Victor Musgrave who, in 1944, opened the famous Gallery One in London, where Souza was to have his first solo show in 1956.
During her career, Kar photographed a number of artists and writers. Over time, her portraits became definitive and important social documents of cultural life in post-war Britain. “Forty Artists from London and Paris in 1954,” her first solo show at Gallery One featured portraits of Le Corbusier, Alberto Giacometti, Man Ray, Stanley Spencer and Tsugouharu Foujita, the Japanese painter and print-maker. She was the first photographer to be honoured by a major retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1960.
Pundole Gallery is perhaps the most fitting location for Kar’s photographs of Souza given its long-standing relationship with the Bombay Progressives. Expect to see a rarely captured side of Souza: young, daring, playful, rebellious, full of promise and ambition and an unflinching faith in the veracity of his art.