Portrait of an unknown Artist

In a sleepy village in Goa lives an artist whose oeuvre spans three countries India, Portugal and Africa. Now, Vamona Navelcar's life and art have been documented in a biography

There's something romantic about obscurity. In case of Vamona Ananta Sinai Navelcar, one is also intrigued by how little is known about an artist whose works have left an imprint on the histories of two foreign countries Africa and Portugal.

Though he has been living in India for the past three decades, Navelcar's is a sweeping tale in the early '50s, he was appointed by the Portuguese government to study art in Portugal; a few years later, he was made a professor in the then Portuguese colony of Mozambique. Here, he was arrested for his controversial works during Mozambican War of Independence. The 82-year-old lives in the sleepy village of Pomburpa in Goa and art is the reason he gets out of bed every day.

Navelcar has created more than a thousand works, showed at numerous exhibitions in London, Lisbon, Macao and Goa, and found mention in the Dictionary of 20th Century Portuguese Artists as well as Encyclopedia dos Artistas de Portugal. Now finally, a biography has attempted to capture his life and the worlds he inhabited. The book was launched in Goa's Gallery Gitanjali on April 12, and coincides with a retrospective of 31 works by the artist.

Titled Vamona Navelcar : An Artist of Three Continents (Rs 900, Reality PLC Pune, supported by Village Sanctuary Arts), the biography is by Anne Ketteringham, a retired aeronautical engineer and photographer. With the zeal of an art ignoramus, who wants to know more, Ketteringham delves into the life of the feisty artist, who was constantly in trouble with the Portuguese authorities. "What I did not want was for the book to become was a catalogue of Vamona's work. I wished to produce the book while he is still with us," says Ketteringham, adding that the biography was triggered by a chance meeting with the artist four years ago.

As Ketteringham travelled from the attic of Navelcar's Pomburpa house to Portugal, the portrait of an artist takes shape. Born in Goa on May 5, 1930, Navelcar comes from a Brahmin family that frowned upon his art. Not one to give up, he created works on the sly, sometimes behind calendars. Some of these works were spotted by the then Governor General of Goa, Paulo Benard Guedes, and Navelcar found himself setting sail for Portugal to study art. During his stint as a professor in Mozambique, the artist found himself sucked into the whirlpool of politics. Mozambique was rife with racism and prejudice and the artist responded by creating several controversial works, among these being a studio that he built in a public toilet as an act of defiance. It was here that he created award-winning pieces such as Angoche Woman (fisher woman), a simple oil, completely in yellow with a black figure of the woman, as well as the protest art and murals that resulted in him being detained for 81 days.

Navelcar's oeuvre comprises paintings, murals and bas-relief composed of metallic, wooden and glass structures. "He has been back in Goa since 1982, so I think he has created thousands of works as he works on a daily basis," says Ketteringham.

As much as Navelcar is known to be a recluse ("It's an etiquette, not an attitude," he says), he is also oblivious to the condition of his works. Ketteringham found that the work he had created as a post-graduate thesis in Portugal a vibrant 1963 interpretation of the Ramayana in oil, with Sita flanked by Ram and Hanuman being used to cover a pile of coconuts. "He does not store his work properly in his home. They are just stored in large files or even in the open mezzanine floor," she says.

For the past 37 years, Navelcar started signing his paintings as "Ganesh", urging some to think of this as his alter-ego. He explains that he was returning to Portugal from Mozambique in 1976, when he lost a suitcase containing over 1,000 works, trophies certificates and degrees. He uses "Ganesh" as an auspicious sign.

Navelcar's return to Goa did not have the impact he thought it would. "I felt lost and ignored," he says. "Vamona returned to Goa seeking peace from the turbulent years in Portugal and, in a way, expected to be received back in his homeland like a prodigal son. But it did not happen. Even his family misunderstood him, he tells me," says Ketteringham. Though Navelcar cherishes the years he taught in Mozambique, he never continued it in his hometown. "After spending 81 days in the prison in Mozambique, I decided to renounce my career as a professor," informs Navelcar.

The book seeks to return the lost glory of Navelcar. While the Directorate of Art and Culture, Goa, has announced a retrospective on a national and international level, the book will also be launched in Portugal in English and Portuguese.

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