By Jugneeta Sudan
“What happens when you lose everything?” asks R. Benedito Ferrao.
“You start over again,” replies Vamona Navelcar, the octogenarian artist from Goa.
There is an emphatic quality to Vamona’s response, deriding any ambiguity whatsoever. His steadfastness stems from a Quixotic take on life. In some ways, Vamona is Don Quixote incarnate - a knight of faith, whose inspirations came from his multifarious readings of chivalrous texts such as Ramayana; and writings by Confucius, Mahatama Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, Bertrand Russell and Fernando Pessoa to name a few.
Vamona painted portraits of Don Quixote in three different styles in Nampula, Mozambique (1974).
In a letter to Anne Ketteringham, Vamona said, “I had to face a row of gaulers in my life. I didn’t fall prey to them. Courage was my shield! Something benevolent will come to my aid – I did think always and that something came into being. An artist on the march, full of vigour/determination. The tumults that I faced, I did compare to Cavalry of Christ. Mine was a drop to Christ’s cavalry. God was a sentinel in my life.”
Quixotically Vamona read chivalrous texts passionately and then implemented the ethos into his existence. Regrettably, reality had moved away and become inequitable, random and prejudiced. It did not share his faith in codes of chivalry. Every time he was subjected to physical abuse and psychic tortures, he drew courage from his readings, for what is read and what is lived must coincide translating faith into renewed enactments.
In the book, The Many Lives of Vamona Navelcar, (Fundacao Oriente; 2018), edited by Benedito Ferrao (which accompanied the December 2017 retrospective on Vamona's work, also curated by Benedito, at the Fundacao Oriente Goa), the knight Vamona Navelcar is scrutinised by multiple eyes. With his ideals of ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,’ in spirit and mind, he became bound by his dedication to knight errantry. He was left with no resource but to prove his own existence, not in the univocal reading that gave him his original being, but in the verity he lived. If Spain was in the throes of Counter Reformation, expunging Jews and Moors after nine centuries of life together (when Don Quixote was being fleshed by Miguel de Cervantes), Vamona’s own sojourn became divided between three places – Goa, Portugal and Mozambique.
Although he forged chivalric communities in all three, yet the harsh chorus embedded him in no man’s land. The inviolable Vamona exercised free will and then transcended it. This was in a literary and secular sense and not religious, finally coalescing the Quixotic into a Vamonotic quest with a clarion call to morality.
In keeping with the spirit of, The Many Lives of Vamona Navelcar, and having added my own voice to its polyphonic composition, I now set out to illuminate the varying melodies of this Serenata, which has been supported by Al-Zulaij Collective and Fundacao Oriente, Goa.
The book is the exhibition catalogue, The Many Lives of Vamona Navelcar, comprising of a graphic sketch, The Destination is the Journey, and a few previously published essays. Benedito, the editor of the project, provides the beginning (curatorial essay), the middle (text of the graphic book) and a concluding essay. He is trying to gain a perspective into Vamona’s multi-layered life, a search for his core - of what compelled and fired Vamona’s soul in the face of heartache and loss? A closer scrutiny irrefutably establishes that Vamona’s heartbeats resonated with the rhythms of the varied lands he lived in. Much as this indicates the cultural ethos of Goa, it also relays the tapestry of Vamona’s mystical thought pattern. Vamona becomes the mascot of the syncretic idiom of his birth place, irrespective of the contrarian strains of myopia strangling alternative and secular identities.
Benedito is struck by the perilous loss of Vamona’s suitcase, containing almost all his artworks and sketches during his exit from Mozambique in the late 70s. Giving it an allegorical twist, he firstly makes it emblematic of colonial and postcolonial violent transitions, and later in the graphic novel, personifies it to recount Vamona’s multiple exits and entrances into different zones, directed by political and personal turmoil. The saga of the lost suitcase acquires a performance arc in the artist’s life, executing troughs and eddies in tumultuous times - where journey becomes destination for a nomadic life. Things happen, come together in brief intense segments of time and conflicts are interspersed with periods of grace.
The polyphonic pitch of the book largely stems from Vishvesh Kandolkar’s contributing essay, Uma Pessoa: The Poet in the Painter, in which he introduces his concept of Goa - variegated, megalithic culture undergirded by multiple civilizations of the world - “tinged by the traits of these several traditions” (Jose Pereira). Vishvesh metonymically introduces Vamona’s transcontinental vocabulary, an embodiment to behold in Vamona’s art (in paintings such as ‘Mother and Child’) and his lifeline muse Fernando Pessoa, the most acclaimed Portuguese writer after Camoes. Jason Keith Fernandes’s essay, A Cure for Foolishness, further consolidates the multifaceted refrain in Vamona’s oeuvre by drawing attention to his calligraphic text etched in Arabic. Vamona’s acculturation in Arabic, the language of erstwhile traders, began in his childhood, as traders arrived in numbers at the east-west entrepot, Goa, the tiny trading port situated on the western coast of India.
Elucidating the multiplicity of colours on his canvas, through her extended interviews, writing and photography of his life and works, Anne Ketteringham, the biographer of the book, Vamona Navelcar – An Artist of Three Continents (2013), penetrated the silence around Vamona’s work, after being cued by Anthony Athaide, an art collector in his own right. Had Anne not made the effort, Vamona would have anonymously continued to work in his tiny village Pomburqa, Goa, without much further recognition. She is quoted extensively through the present book, besides her catalogue essay, Cue the Clown, where she reflects on Vamona’s latent melancholia writ large in his wry, macabre clown portraiture. Here a comparison with avante garde French artist, Bernard Buffett, ‘Clown Serialism’ would not go amiss. Comparative study takes his art to an international level par excellence.
Drawing attention to the originality in Vamona’s work, Anthony Athaide persistently questions, “Why does a man from a traditionally Hindu family devote so much of his time to painting the figure of Christ, signing those works with the name Ganesh?” The answer culminates in Vamona’s painting titled,’Devotion’. The transcendence of Vamona’s faith merges Madonna and Child with Parvati and Ganesha, becoming non-descript through a uniform silhouette rendered in a single colour that extends interminably. Such mysticism is beautifully articulated by Karishma D’ Souza in her poem ‘Map Leaves’. “Art as a space of a continuous weave, minds which can hold it all. The richness of colour in monochrome ..,” she continues in her poem venerating Vamona.
A larger share of Christian iconography in Vamona’s oeuvre equally delights and leads to disapprobation, impelling Apurva Kulkarni to decode matters. Delineating on Vamona’s rendition of ‘Pieta’, Apurva calls it a “rare interpretation – underscoring Christ’s loneliness and suffering”. The intrigue of this unique work gets solved when he further sheds light on Vamona’s eclectic selection of three interrelated themes – ‘Pieta’, ‘The Man of Sorrows’, and ‘Ecce Homo’. Savia Viegas similarly revels in Vamona’s articulation of ‘The Last Supper’ and his singular perspective “of locating his artwork in an amorphous yet euphoric fraternal unity, away from rigidity of social structure and trappings – a yearning for an elemental encounter, emotional catharsis, without civilisational accoutrements – maybe a communion of wayfarers, Bauls, yogis or dervishes ….” Informed imaginings of Vamona’s artistic commentary mirror the belief that leads to one unity. But the amalgamation angers a certain parochial puritanical ethos.
To solve the conundrum in Vamona’s works, literary voices synergize their creative processes using fiction, non-fiction styles of writing to unravel the skein of information surrounding Vamona’s life. Jessica Faleiro writes about Vamona in the first person in her story titled Un/Shelled, “I lived in a place called Mozambique. I was a teacher there”. Anne Ketteringham continues this segment on Vamona in her biography, “I spent much of my spare time there in my studio (toilet converted to an atelier) and invited students to join me to see my work and try some painting and drawing themselves. It became a place both for inspiration, creation and camaraderie, between me and the students I mentored. Many of my paintings I gave to Sheriff, my helper in Mozambique, to pass on to those who would use them as posters for liberation of Mozambique. They were of course unsigned and done in a style unlike mine”. “When the revolution came in Mozambique in the early seventies, it was clear that the Portuguese would have to leave, and that included myself,” writes Margaret Mascarenhas, reporting her interview of Vamona (2007). But the school girl in the story Un/Shelled, innocent to the ways of the adult world is persistent – “Why did you leave?”
“I didn’t like it anymore,” said Vamona. Then shifting the weight of his body as if one part of it had fallen out of balance with the other and he was trying to re-establish the order of things as they should be, he added, “Or maybe it stopped liking me.” With “Plumb lines, shape-shifting between positive and negative spaces” (Karishma D’Souza)) we make, unmake ourselves. Difficulty arises when our meaning making, our multiple registers, become disruptive to others around us.
Though the basic path is laid out, it still allows for self-discovery along the way. That discovery along the way is what makes the process so fulfilling. As much as Vamona’s canvas tends to globalization, a common humanity and secular faith - a resultant parochial resistance is born in its interstices. If Vamona had chosen to take sides, belonged to one religion, one state - matters would have been easier, even prosperous. But his quixotic zeal to mix, crosshatch, muddle shades across borders confuses senses brought up on ideas of nationalism, provincialism, fenced borders, class, race and caste.
Can the knight of faith, Vamona answer existential questions such as, “Knight, where do you belong? What is your mother tongue? What is your religion? “
“Well you see, I was born in Goa, but I belonged to Portugal for 16 years, then to Mozambique for 13 years and now I am back in Goa but they ask me, where was I for 29 years?,“ says Vamona.
A group of culture creative are beginning to answer the questions on behalf of the knight in the book ‘The Many Lives of Vamona Navelcar’.
Jugneeta Sudan is a writer and literary critic based in Goa. She also contributes to Daily O' and India Today Group. She is currently working on a book, titled, A Philosophical Quest into Human Sexuality.' She writes on literature in dialogue with art, music, films, philosophy, psychology, sciences and theology. Follow her blog here.
The Many Lives of Vamona Navelcar (Fundacao Oriente; 2017) can be purchased from the Fundacao Oriente in Panjim or Dogears Bookstore Margao. For online purchases click here.