FN Souza’s London years by Ida Kar in Delhi

New Delhi: He struggled to make ends meet and battled demons in his head... But Goa-born artist FN Souza, the founder of the Progressive Artists` Group of Mumbai, painted with a manic zeal during his tenure in London in 1950-1960s.

A collection of rare photographs of the legendary contemporary painter shot by master camerawoman Ida Kar, known for her portraits of famous artists, opened at the refurbished Queen`s Gallery in the British Council here Tuesday.

The exhibition, ‘Ida Kar: Portraits of FN Souza’, has brought to India a slice of the Souza`s life between 1957 to 1961 that had not been revealed to art lovers in the country before.

It is also the first time that Souza`s photographs have moved out of the Ida Kar archives in London for public display.

The exhibition is a collaboration between the Grosvenor Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery in London, the Vadehra Gallery and the British Council in the capital.

The black-and-white photographs, composed like an artists` canvas, show a frail Souza clad in an ill-fitting formal suit and tie in his little studio and London bedsit amid dirty laundry and portraits of nude women, Biblical portraits and morphing city-scapes.

The photographic essay begins at a time when both Souza and Kar were struggling to find their feet.

It, however, ended on a positive note in 1961 with Souza exhibiting solo at Gallery One in London to wide acclaim.

Kar, often described as the bohemian artist with a lens, captured the artist seated on an armchair in a collage of moods - pensive, smiling, mischievous, introspective, gentle and finally assured.

"Souza lived in a bedsit in London that belonged to a Punjabi woman married to an Englishman," art critic and curator Yashodhara Dalmia recalled at a discussion at the inauguration of the Souza showcase.

"Ebrahim Alkazi who was in London around the same time had told me something very funny about Souza. The artist was hard up and had to pay for his keep. One day the land-lady told him that Souza was ruining her children`s life. She said,`you make sketches and throw them in the dustbin. When my children go through the dustbin, they find foul pornographic sketches`," Dalmia narrated.

Souza initially supported himself with art, odd journalism and patronage from the then Indian high commissioner to London Krishna Menon. He fought bouts of alcoholism.

Born in Goa, Souza was one of the early masters who made it big in the west with his portraiture of low life and expressionistic style.

The artist painted controversial evocative nudes.

Scarred by small pox in childhood, Souza studied in St Xavier`s College in Mumbai and later at the JJ School of Art. He was suspended from art school in 1945 for supporting the Quit India Movement. In 1949, he moved out of the country to London.

He was associated with Gallery One in London, run by British soldier-poet and art dealer Victor Musgrave.

Souza died in 2008.

"We came across hundreds of Ida Kar`s photographs 10 years ago. While looking through them, I found seven photographs of Souza and decided to publish them...cataloguing the photographs took us almost a decade," Conor Macklin, director of Grosvenor Gallery, told reporters.

Kar was the only woman portrait photographer who was elevated to an artist - and hosted a solo exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in London in 1960. She came to be known as the ‘Photographer of the Famous’.

The photographs have been compiled in a book, ‘Ida Kar: Portraits of FN Souza’.


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