The newly released biography Vamona Navelcar: An Artist of Three Continents, published by Reality PLC Pune with the support of Village Sanctuary Arts, is as much about the life of a Goan artist as it is about interrelated histories within Goa’s geography and beyond. Anne Ketteringham, the author, a retired British aeronautical engineer and birdlife photographer, attended the April release of her book at Fontainhas’ Gitanjali Gallery where a retrospective of Vamona Ananta Sinai Navelcar’s art was on display. The now octogenarian’s eclecticism is apparent in the multitude of styles he employs, from line drawing to painting, that match equally varied themes, including religious iconography, contemporary issues, and cityscapes as could be seen in the exhibition. Navelcar, also in attendance, had little to say, but there was a palpable sense of the meaningfulness of this belated recognition in his own homeland. His biographer noted the difficulties of her writerly task, which included researching Navelcar’s life and dealing with her sometimes reticent subject. Ketteringham spoke of the inevitability of miscommunication during the process as she is “hard of hearing and Vamona is a soft-spoken man.” This conjures up an image of silent pauses full of intense meaning which, along with the theme of miscommunication, aptly characterises Navelcar’s life as the book represents it.
Ketteringham’s text chronicles Navelcar’s life story and his evolution as an artist who was affected by such historical events as Goa’s decolonization, Mozambique’s freedom from the Portuguese and its post-independence struggles, as well as the Carnation Revolution which ended Portugal’s Estado Novo. In 1950s and 60s Lisbon, Navelcar was a starving student. His art scholarship had been temporarily revoked, allegedly due to his refusal to become embroiled in Goan diaspora politics. Throughout the text, Navelcar’s avoidance of thinking of himself as being political is highlighted, but the events of his life prove otherwise. If not always through his own direct participation, it would appear that Navelcar was embroiled in political goings-on that were of national and even international import. A case in point is the scholarship the then young artist received to study in Lisbon, which was bestowed, as the book informs, “by the prime minister of Portugal” himself – one Dr. António de Oliveira Salazar. Conjecture might allow that this was a propaganda move on the part of the Portuguese dictator, especially as it came in the years following India’s independence from the British.
As a teacher in 1970s Mozambique, despite his artistic support of anti-colonialism, Navelcar was hauled offto a “rehabilitation camp.” Though offered release, he would not leave without his students. The artist’s diasporic history raises interesting questions about the nature of Goan immigration through colonial networks. While there has been some scholarship on the movement of Goans between Portuguese and British India and, from there, to other British colonies, how might the picture be seen differently through the lens of migrations via Portuguese territories themselves?
Deeply hurt by his experience in Africa, Navelcar returned to Portugal when, tragically, much of his art disappeared en route. The lack of opportunities in post-Estado Novo Lisbon had Navelcar make his way back to Goa where he has lived an exilic life in his native land. Ketteringham’s book and the retrospective are important steps in bearing witness to Navelcar’s legacy while he still lives. Though the biography could have benefitted from better editing and a sustained critical perspective, it speaks to a Goan identity hewn beyond its own boundaries and the significance of an artist capable of painting that complex picture.
The print version of this article can be seen online.