Antonio Xavier de Trindade by Fatima da Gracias

Faces of Colonial Goa: The Work of Goan Artist Antonio Xavier de Trindade (Fundação Oriente/Broadway; 2016) is available at Broadways Bookstore Panjim.

review by Selma carvalho

On the back cover of the book Faces of Colonial Goa: The Work of Goan Artist Antonio Xavier de Trindade (Fundação Oriente/Broadway; 2016) is a picture by the artist entitled ‘Goan Fishing Boats at Low Tide, 1930’. Here the artist, Trindade paints rather than perfects his draughtsmanship. Away from the studio, he lets natural light guide him and builds it into his composition. He allows for movement and he gives in to the vitality of colour. It is still a single-point perspective, the boat on the horizon disappears from view, but he has abandoned all other constraints of formal study. During the later years of his career, landscapes appeared with some frequency in his repertoire.  For the most part though, Trindade was a much sought-after and honoured portrait artist in the classical mould.

Faces of Colonial Goa, a biography on the life of Trindade by Fatima da Silva Gracias is abundantly revelatory and possibly the first book of its kind by a Goan writer. Gracias is well placed to write on Trindade; a disciplined researcher, she writes having had access to the Trindade family archives and interviews. Trindade was born on 3 July, 1870, into a stately family, whose ancestral village was Assonora in Bardez. Trindade’s early education began in Sawantwadi where the art master encouraged him to pursue his talent in Bombay. His father Zeferino’s untimely death would have an impact on Trindade’s life; it would force the young man to live off the largesse of family and friends. During this time, his talent for drawing was gaining recognition. He began his career by teaching art at a school run by Jesuits. By 1887, he had enrolled at the J. J. School of Art.

At thirty-one, Trindade married the suitably accomplished Florentina Petronila Noronha and the family settled first in Dhobitalao and then in Mahim. The artist by now a teacher at the J. J. School made a less than modest living, a situation exacerbated by Trindade’s laissez-faire attitude towards money. One of the remarkable images in the book is a sketch of the façade of ‘Casabianca’ the family home in Mahim, which was built on money squirreled away by Florentina. What was not in doubt, however, was Trindade’s reputation as India’s leading portrait artist. In 1899, he won the Mayo Silver Medal, followed by the gold medal awarded by the Bombay Art Society, and the Governor’s prize in 1928, and again in 1930. He painted prolifically, often having royal courts and other work spaces made available to him.

The book carries a good number of reproduced images of Trindade’s work. From these, it becomes fairly obvious that the artist remained insulated from the seismic shocks the art world was experiencing in Paris. Trindade’s European contemporaries were replacing images with blocky or geometric representations, subjects were deconstructed and abstracted, studios were shunned in favour of natural light, and landscapes were favoured over commissioned portraits. Yet Trindade seems to have wholly subscribed to an earlier school of classical painters who adhered strictly to their academic training, requiring many preparatory sketches and attention to the studio finish.

Even his paintings of nudes, for which Gracias notes there was a demand among wealthy Indians, conform to the image of woman as the neoclassical Venus or la grande odalisque of the romantics. Painters in Europe, who had turned their backs on the Paris salon, had begun to view women differently – women now would be captured at their most vulgar and intimate moments. Their brutalisation on canvas was a precursor to a better understanding of their brutalised lives.

The question arises, what constraints made Trindade conform to convention and remain faithful to the colonial gaze? And yet, there are portraits such as ‘The Artist’s Family by Lamp light’ and ‘Joao, the Goan Cook’ where Trindade rises above being the native informant and becomes a cultural ethnographer. Gracias’s book is a compelling read for anyone interested in the colonial period. More importantly, it greatly lends to our understanding of that transitional space between classicism and modernism in Goan art history.