Few artists have had such a deep and wide impact on the art world as Vamona Navelcar (5 May 1929 – 18 October 2021) and yet been so neglected. Art curator Samira Sheth pays tribute to the iconic Goan artist on his birth anniversary
I first met Vamona Navelcar at his 250 year old ancestral home deep in the riverside village of Pomburpa in 2013. Little did I know then that I was meeting ‘A giant of the art world,’ (as described by his biographer Anne Ketteringham in her book: ‘Vamona Navelcar: An Artist of Three Continents’) in this humble unassuming artist. We had tea sitting in the ‘aangan,’ the traditional courtyard, of Vamona’s Hindu Brahmin home while the artist showed me his unfinished painting of ‘The Last Supper’, a large canvas leaning against one wall.
At my first meeting with Vamona, it was immediately apparent that I was meeting someone extraordinary – someone who bridges the worlds of the East and West with ease, an artist positioned at the crossroads of confluence, rooted in Goa yet global in his artistic vision, an artist whose art goes beyond borders.
I learned more about this unique artistic voice through the years. I learned that Vamona Anant Sinai Navelcar was born in Goa, was always drawing and sketching as a child much to his father’s annoyance; that a portrait of the then Portuguese Governor General earned him a scholarship to Portugal in 1954; that he studied art at the Escola Superior de Belas Artes in Lisbon and was the first Goan to do so; taught geometry and art in Africa, specifically in Nampula city in Mozambique, and continued through these journeys into different worlds and different continents to work with art. The artist signed his work as ‘Ganesh’, perhaps in honour of his deceased brother Ganesh. Vamona returned to Goa in 1984, continued to paint and sketch till he died in 2021 and remains largely unsung and unknown outside his native Goa, where he hasn’t really received the recognition he deserves either despite being acknowledged as possibly the only Indian included in a biographical dictionary of Portuguese 20th Century Artists. He received an honourable mention in the comprehensive ‘Dictionary of Indian Art & Artists’ by noted writer Pratima Sheth.
There are few artists that have achieved technical mastery over such an array of multiple mediums and have such a huge body of work. Vamona exhibited widely across the world including in Helsinki, London, Geneva, Nampula, Maputo, Angola, Lisbon and more and his works are in galleries and private collections in India and abroad. Among the various honours he received globally, his drawing, ‘Angoche Woman’ won an award in 1968 in Monte Carlo at the International Exhibition of Arts. In a feature on Vamona, the leading French arts journal ‘La Revue Moderne des Art’ counted him amongst the brilliant painters of modern art, highlighting that his works were highly valued by art collectors in Finland, Britain and France.
The magnitude of his artistic achievement has nevertheless gone largely ignored.
I learned this and more about the enigmatic artist as I met this master through the years. I discovered early on that Vamona’s simple modest demeanor belied a sophisticate’s free mind, finding intellectual joy in his readings of philosophy and poetry particularly by the towering literary figures Rabindranath Tagore and the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa. Vamona’s early exposure to Western art influenced his own unique perspective. His imagery has often evoked parallels to works by FN Souza and MF Husain who were his contemporaries. He was, like them, greatly inspired by Modern European Art.
I discovered that it was truly tough to pin Vamona down or pigeonhole him. If Vamona’s sparse line drawings in black and white flowed with a felicity that was astonishing, expressive of an emotive quality in their minimalism, his canvases were marked with raw and powerful brushstrokes in vivid colours and throbbed with vitality. If we have the simplicity of line in drawings of Christ and Pessoa and Tagore, often sketched as solitary figures or in intimate groups of two, where uninterrupted lines connect the figures, we have the complex compositions of his canvases emphasising colour and movement – paintings depicting a herd of vigorous horses or the sheer energy of his canvas portraying the traditional Afghan game buzkashi where horse mounted players attempt to place a goat or calf carcass in a goal. If Vamona was rooted in figurative traditions, he also made several explorations into abstraction. There was calm and a deep quiet and there was tumult and fury – held in fine balance in this master’s deft hands. Thematically too, Vamona fearlessly explored vastly different subjects. Scenes from the Ramayana form the subject of some artworks, on wood panels and textile while Christian iconography offered a continuous wellspring of inspiration. Loss and grief, the bond between mother and child, angst at the decimation of Goa’s natural beauty, the quiet struggle within, the sadness of being unrecognized in his own land, a quest for spiritual truth – these were only some of the artist’s many and distinctly varied artistic concerns.
In a career spanning over eight decades, Vamona worked with textile painting, charcoal, ink, sculpture, stained glass, murals, and worked every day till the end, reveling in the unfettered joy of the art making process. As he told me once, “My expression has no limit.”
Vamona lived almost a century, dying in his beloved Goa when he was 92. His life represents a significant era – he grew up in colonial Goa under Portuguese rule, studied in post war Europe and returned to a post Liberation Goa that was now part of India. His immense contribution to art, both in India and abroad deserves greater attention for its sheer power, originality and historic significance. He lived across three continents and while he drew from each one, his artistic idiom wasn’t limited and could not be contained by either. He remained first and foremost, true to his art. As Vamona said to me once, ““I have a universal culture, not Goan, nor Portuguese or Indian.”
And it is true… Vamona ‘Ganesh’ Anant Sinai Navelcar’s art will continue to inspire generations to come for its emotional depth, intellectual vigor and timeless universal appeal.
I count myself hugely privileged for having known this wonderful person – a seeker of truth, a gentleman and above all… always an artist.