By Vishvesh Kandolkar
On one of my first visits with the artist Vamona Ananta Sinai Navelcar in 2015, he gave me a book of Portuguese poetry by Fernando Pessoa. I happened to mention to him that I had taken up a beginner’s course in Portuguese. At first, I thought Navelcar’s message was only a literary one, to not just study a language but, rather, relish it through its poetry. Later, I realised, there was much more to the artist’s gesture. It was an implied message from this fellow-Goan, hinting that Pessoa is also a part of Goa’s history, and therefore learning about the Portuguese poet would only enrich my understanding of our past. Navelcar’s art, though, is far more specific in conveying similar meaning, in being a wonderful reflection of Goa’s complex global connections. The Portuguese poet Pessoa is one of Navelcar’s many muses, which include Christ, Rabindranath Tagore, and Mozambiquan women. Navelcar’s fascination with Pessoa, however, signifies something far more profound. Pessoa is not just a muse and an inspiration to Navelcar. Rather, their lives bear remarkable similarities.
Just as a young Pessoa had left the shores of his homeland Portugal and moved to South Africa in the 1890s, Navelcar too had to leave his home in Goa to study art in Portugal in the 1950s upon receipt of a scholarship. That Navelcar subsequently worked as an art teacher in Mozambique, further marks the similarity in career trajectories between the artist and his poet-muse in the continent of Africa. In his article, ‘Vamona Navelcar as Performance Artist’, (Muse India issue Jul-Aug 2013), R. Benedito Ferrão writes, “Navelcar’s very life, in its historical and geographical entanglements, cannot be separated from the artistic labour it has inspired”. Each of the figures in Navelcar’s work are a reproduction of his global exposure. Pessoa’s emblematic formal attire is in glaring contrast to the artist’s depiction of other figures. Navelcar often exaggerates the poet’s thin bodily frame, dressed typically in a fato, a bow tie, a hat, and with his signature round spectacles on his nose.
Navelcar’s working methods also seem to mirror those of his muse. Pessoa is known to have been hooked to writing, as he often jotted poems on whatever writing surface was on hand, be it books, loose sheets or scraps of paper, used envelopes, and even receipts. Navelcar demonstrates a similar trait as his choice of canvas seems to be inconsequential: the backs of pages of calendars, bits of cardboard, and pages of magazines have all been the recipient of his artistry. He even drew a sketch of Pessoa on the inside cover of the book he gave me.
The book, Poesia de Árvaro de Campos, is now witness to another common trait demonstrated by both these figures of the Lusophone world: their use of pseudonyms. While Pessoa wrote this book under the fictitious name of Álvaro De Campos, Navelcar signed his sketch of the author with the name Ganesh, which he adopted in memory of his deceased brother. The use of a local deity’s name, though, is not random, as it reflects a more ‘authentic’ version of the Hindu local names that are popular in Goa. Vamona on the other hand, is such a Portuguese name, in that in Konkani it would be Vamon. One wonders if the choice of pseudonym Ganesh is a desperate measure by Navelcar to gain recognition in his native land. In tandem with India’s move to the far right, Goa’s support of cultural production reveals its religio-nationalist biases, and is to the exclusion of an artist like Navelcar whose art incorporates Christian and African themes among others. That such remarkable talent and hard work like Navelcar’s goes unrecognised speaks to the lack of imagination of the State and the ways in which it seeks to limit how Goa itself can be imagined through the art of its visionaries.
Pessoa left behind trunks full of writing, many pieces of which are still awaiting publication. Similarly, many of Navelcar’s works also lie unseen in multiple portfolios and have not been archived or exhibited. Without State or institutional support, Navelcar has to make a living by directly selling his work, which is a huge loss to the Goan public, as only select audiences enjoy his art. The tragedy is that recently many of the artist’s works have fallen prey to white ants, that endemic scourge of Goa. Setbacks, though, have not dimmed Navelcar’s enthusiasm to produce art, as he continues to paint every day.
It is remarkable that Navelcar’s experience of Portugal, during his time of study there in the 1950s, is emblematized by his portrayals of the figure of Pessoa who was not as popular in his homeland then. This is especially because, during that era of the dictatorial regime of António de Oliveira Salazar, the Portuguese State was actively promoting the classic seventeenth century poet Luís de Camões, as a part of their nationalistic propaganda, while ignoring modern poets like Pessoa, who died in 1935. Nations generally look for ‘authentic’ symbols to represent the country. Pessoa did not fit the bill because “his first writings were in English with a South African tincture” and “he turned to Portuguese only in 1910” (George Steiner, ‘A Man of Many Parts’, The Guardian, June 3, 2001). For the Salazarian regime, the diasporic Pessoa did not possess the commensurate amount of “Portugueseness” in the fashion that de Camões did. It is also easier to use “heroes” from antiquity as symbols, because those in power tend to manipulate the politics of these deceased legends. Pessoa’s writing was not nationalistic enough, whereas de Camões was useful to the State precisely because his works are in the epic tradition and speak to the glories of the Portuguese empire. Perhaps Navelcar relates the side-lining of Pessoa by Portugal to his own mistreatment by the State of Goa – a ‘postcolonial’ Goa that has deemed Navelcar to be not ‘authentic’ enough to be officially recognised.
What the post-‘Liberation’ State fails to realise is that Navelcar’s life in Goa, Portugal, and Mozambique, is often a reflection of a Luso-specific trend of migration that is common to many Goans of a past era. Navelcar is aware of this complexity and therefore remains proud of his multiple experiences of places across continents. He claims to be at once European, African, and Goan, just as many other Goans of his generation might. Navelcar’s art, as much as his life, is emblematic of Goa’s global connections, which is why Ferrão refers to him as a “performing artist” (Muse India). The State does not seem to embrace Navelcar because to do so would undermine their nationalist politics, which is contrary to what the artist and his art represents in embracing multiplicity. Nevertheless, the figure of Navelcar is a powerful one: he is a living bridge between histories, states, and empires. This is the poetry of his art. And his downfall.
Vishvesh Kandolkar is an Associate Professor at Goa College of Architecture and a doctoral student of Manipal University through Srishti Institute of Art, Design, and Technology, Bangalore. He is also a member of the Al-Zulaij Collective and his writing can be accessed at firstname.lastname@example.org.