By R. Benedito Ferrão
(Based on the Painting Esther Reclining (n.d.) by António Xavier Trindade)
You, yes you there. Don’t think I can’t see you. Do me a favour, will you. My toe – no, not that one … the big toe, left foot, pointing at you! Could you scratch it? Oh, come on! What do you mean you can’t touch the painting? But you’ve been staring at me all this while. I can feel your gaze trailing over me like the heat of slow-burning embers. Look, I won’t tell anyone: just the tiniest flick of a fingernail will do the trick. This infernal itch has been killing me, and I’ve been stuck in the same position on this bed for what feels like a lifetime. I’m not even sure how long exactly. I think I fell asleep a couple of times as Pai was painting. Be a dear and have a look at that little placard below the frame. Undated? No date? Nothing! Mãe de Deus! So, I could have been here from last century or just yesterday? No wonder my foot feels like it’s on pins and needles!
I never get to go anywhere, and now I’m trapped in this gilded frame. Quick, tell me, how do I look? Is my hair ok? You say you think it’s too short for someone of my family’s stature? Nonsense! What do you think this is? The dark ages? Plus, you’re not even sure when this portrait was painted. For all you know, it’s probably not even done. Besides, I’ll have you know that Mai and Pai approve of my style. I mean, just look at Mummy in that portrait over there, hair almost the same length as mine, sensuous as ever, and she knows you’ve been checking out her curves as well!
Just the other day, Pai and I were discussing – what is that word? It has something to do with voting and rights …. Suffrage! That’s it. So odd that a thing so positive should sound so terrible, but then that’s politics for you. But I digress. So, you know this lady Annie Besant who’s in that painting on that side? I guess she was famous in the Home Rule movement or some such and quite the champion of suffrage. Pai thought highly enough of her to do a portrait. He’s funny that way. Kind of a traditionalist at times like when he insists that his girls should only think of marriage prospects in keeping with our family’s background. But then he’s not like my friends’ fathers when it comes to what he thinks women capable of. Take my sis, Angela – the epitome of a confident woman because Mai and Pai believe in her. Maybe when I’m as old as she is now, they’ll let me go out more often. Can’t you see how longingly I’m looking out of this window?
It’s not like Pai and I don’t have our tussles. I worry sometimes about how challenging it is for Mai to manage the household. She says Pai is generous to a fault. Though he gives her his salary, he spends lavishly and tells us never to be beholden to money. We’ve become good at making do, but that’s largely thanks to Mai. I find it amusing that Pai’s so big on keeping up appearances, but then I hear the whispers of how, more than once, he had to trade his paintings for tea and other household necessities. Nothing is as it seems. Case in point, this beautiful silk I chose to drape myself in; its jewel tones reminiscent of the wedding finery of a young Indian bride.
Now art critics will tell you that my father was the one who chose these colors to adorn me with, contrasting the traditionalism of the East with the modern western sensibilities of our family’s Catholic origins, as mirrored in the shortness of my hair and my dress. How dull.
An Indian nawab acquired my father’s services because he’d heard so much about his abilities. He was so pleased with the outcome that in addition to Pai’s fee, he also presented him with a number of gifts. I’ll tell you about the others in a second, but back to this gorgeous sari for now. I asked Pai if I could use it for my sitting. Perhaps I can see how the conclusion might be arrived at that “red and orange are colors of the wedding dress for Hindu and Muslim brides, thus offering an additional message to Indian viewers” as someone might say one day in an exhibition catalogue .… And what exactly is this additional message? That I am soon to be marriageable? That even if some Goans are Catholic, no matter how short their women’s hair or their clothes, at the end of the day they are still tradition-bound Indians?
What is in short supply here is imagination. It’s as if people forget how sensuously evocative Indian clothing can be: the caress of silk, the baring of a curvaceous midriff, the sheerness of finely woven cloth. Compared to these, my simple, supposedly Western shift dress, as petite as it is, is a mere backdrop to the drama of this rich drape. Your eyes linger over the folds of the material as it forms over my nubile body, from shoulder to waist, falling away from the rest of my body. So deep am I in this reverie, that I don’t even notice the effect my sartorial choices have upon those who secretly view me. I’ve successfully distracted you, even as you wonder about the Freudian possibilities of this charade.
As much as Pai and I have traded words about who and how I’ll marry, or if I’ll marry at all, the moment he’s captured here is not entirely of his design. What am I trying to draw your attention away from? I only reveal this now, because – like I said – I feel your gaze linger over all the details of my bedroom, of myself. But you will only know this because I tell you. You’ve been looking at me for so long – my cherubic lips, my “oriental splendor” – that you didn’t even notice it. Where my elbow rests on the headboard, by the nearly obscured bedpost? Take a closer look. Feel how finely crafted the dark wood embellishment is. But something’s amiss. What happened to the tall post that would once have fit into the socket in support of a canopy?
When Father said he’d like me to recline on the bed for the portrait he’d planned, I worried that the world outside would see through the carefully crafted image of our family’s gentility. And so, I allowed him to think that it was his idea to let the light of the window capture the sheen of silk that I would cover myself with. My bare legs would do the rest. His Indian patrons would appreciate how he’d incorporated Asian influences into his art, I murmured. His European colleagues would be awed by his ability to blend East and West in his compositions, I flattered. And all would undeniably be witness to his unique aesthetic. As much as this was true, I also know Pai to be a proud man, who wouldn’t want his audience to know that his furniture had fallen into disrepair. Surely, we can replace the posts of this bed after Pai’s next commission.
Ah, I’ve embarrassed you. You think it too intimate for me to have shared with you this little secret, and yet you’ve been looking at me so keenly all this while! I feel like you think you know me so well … I tease. That’s fine, I’ll allow you some respite. What’s caught your eye, now? Oh, yes, I did say I’d tell you about the Nawab’s other gifts. You can see another one of them in the shadows on the other side of me, the suspended Indo-Persian lamp. I love my father’s work, his ability to play with light and darkness, to capture a mood. You’ve already perceived how he’s placed me between the softly lit casement and the dramatic dimness of the room’s interior. Some might say my father’s work evokes Velasquez, in his use of chiaroscuro. But they’ll stop short there and not consider the Iberian connections between these two artists, because they’re continents apart, the Portuguese Indian artist not seeming European enough in their estimation. It’s not as if Velasquez’s canvas didn’t bear the trace of Iberia’s Moorish past; so too, I think, my father’s depictions of “India” cannot be seen without taking stock of how he also wove in the region’s Islamic, Catholic, and European influences. What’s more, they’ll call my father the Rembrandt of the East rather than seeing him as I did – an artist of his own standing.
I can see from my window that the light’s changing. Come closer. You can’t see it? A shoreline in the distance. So beautiful. What is it? Bombay? Goa? A land I am yet to journey to? A future home? Maybe you really can’t see entirely into my world. No matter. I have one more thing to tell you. After all this, you’ll still say that you’ve merely been gazing upon me benignly, and foreswear the intimacy we have shared. But that’s difficult because, try as you might, you won’t be able to escape the fact that you were looking into my bedroom. You’ll think of me tomorrow, of my father, of my family, and of my world, and then you will know that it is not only you who tried to peek into the most secret recesses of another’s being. When your big toe itches ferociously at this time on the morrow, you will know that I too have seen into you.
From a gallery presentation at, and with thanks to, Fundação Oriente, Panjim – Goa, who commissioned this piece for the event, “Celebrating António Xavier Trindade”, a commemoration of the 147th birth anniversary of the artist (3 July, 2017).
Banner image courtesy of and copyright to Fundação Oriente. Image cannot be reproduced without permission.
da Silva Gracias, Fatima, Faces of Colonial India: The Work of Goan Artist António Xavier de Trindade (Fundação Oriente, Goa and Broadway Publishing House, Goa, 2014)
Sirhandi, Marcella, “Portrait of Esther Reclining, n.d. (The Artist’s Youngest Daughter at Age 15)” in Antonio Xavier Trindade: An Indian Painter from Portuguese India (Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia, 1996)
R. Benedito Ferrão has lived and worked in Kuwait, Goa, the United States, England, and Australia. A writer and academic, he is currently an Assistant Professor of English and Asian & Pacific Islander American Studies at The College of William and Mary. Recently, he curated the art exhibition Goa/Portugal/Mozambique: The Many Lives of Vamona Navelcar (Fundação Oriente Gallery, Goa), and edited a book of the same title to accompany this retrospective of Navelcar’s art.