In 2013, when Goan industrialist Dattaraj Salgaocar acquired a set of 16 works by the late Goan artist Antonio Piedade da Cruz, he knew he had a treasure in his hands. The works had been lying inside, forgotten, in what was then called the Cruzo Studio in Mumbai’s Brabourne stadium. During the years of neglect, the paintings had also been subjected to the vicissitudes of the city’s humidity and the unfortunate attention of pigeons. Yet, under the grime of decades could be discerned the genius of an artist, also known as Cruzo or D’Cruz, who was once the toast of cosmopolitan Bombay and had thrived at the centre of the city’s intellectual and cultural life.
Salgaocar’s first move was to engage the services of Mumbai-based conservator and restorer of oil paintings, Kayan Marshall Pandole. His next step was to seek out poet, curator and cultural theorist Ranjit Hoskote to curate an exhibition to commemorate da Cruz and celebrate his homecoming.
Despite the prominent position he once held in Indian art, da Cruz, who died in 1982, has long been forgotten by a nation that celebrates a narrow canon of Indian Modernists. Encyclopaedia entries have scanty information, and the records from da Cruz’s student years in Berlin were destroyed during World War II. In order to bring this once-celebrated artist back into public prominence, Hoskote pieced together what he could from contemporary accounts, the artist’s own annotations to his work, as well as inputs from da Cruz’s son, Ivan, who generously shared photographs of his father at work. What emerges from ‘The Quest for Cruzo’ — which is on display at Panaji’s Sunaparanta-Goa Centre for the Arts till July 20 — is not necessarily a complete picture of the artist.
Yet, it presents a complex portrait of a man, and hints at his many facets. We see da Cruz as someone who pursued art as both a commercial activity as well as a means to express his anguish towards a collapsing social and political order; an artist who not only drew heavily from the Catholic imagery of his childhood in Portuguese-ruled Goa, but also fashioned a new artistic idiom with which to portray the nation’s new hope for redemption.
Born in 1895 in Velim, Salcette, in Portuguese-ruled Goa, da Cruz’s training in art began at Sir JJ School of Art, Bombay, followed by the Akademie der Künste (Academy of Arts) in Berlin. He was one of the first Asians to be accepted as a student there, and he went on to become a “Meisterschuler” or the “master student”. This is when he started making portraits, eventually holding an exhibition, which received much praise from the German press. He travelled with his works to Paris and Madrid, and in Lisbon, he received a royal reception. His travels in Europe during the cultural revolution of the interwar years also brought da Cruz in contact with emerging thoughts and trends, such as Expressionism, particularly in Weimar Germany, the Dada and Surrealist movements, as well as the paradigm-shifting works of artists such as Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Piet Mondrian, Marc Chagall, Pablo Picasso and Georges Bracque.
These years in Europe are likely to have acted as a catalyst that shaped da Cruz’s political and social concerns. This was a period when the continent, just out of World War I, was sliding into yet another nightmare of economic and political turbulence, one that would lead to the rise of fascist regimes across Europe and plunge the world into another, more calamitous conflict. Confronted by these realities, da Cruz, despite Portugal claiming him as one of her own, chose to identify himself as a colonial subject from India. As Hoskote points out, da Cruz’s defiance is significant, particularly when seen in the context of the progressive policies of the First Portuguese Republic (1910-1926), which bestowed full citizenship rights on all colonial subjects of the Portuguese Empire. The fascist regime that was inaugurated with a military coup in 1926 and which eventually led to the establishment of the Salazar dictatorship, was far less tolerant of da Cruz’s assertion of his Indian identity, resulting in the artist returning to Goa only after the state’s liberation in 1961.
So it was, that when da Cruz came back to India in the late 1920s, he chose to settle down in Bombay, a city that prized his European education and experience, and, thus, afforded him enough professional opportunities to sustain a thriving artistic practice. It is here that one can see the beginnings of what Hoskote describes as the artist’s “double life”.
On the one hand was a successful salon artist, whose clientele included worthies such as Maharaja Hari Singh of Kashmir, Lord Brabourne, Governor of Bombay, industrialist Sir Cowasjee Jehangir and his wife Lady Jehangir, and India’s last viceroy, Lord Mountbatten and his wife, Lady Mountbatten. But he was also an artist with anti-colonial inclinations, whose studio — once a landmark at Stadium House near Churchgate — became a hub for artists, writers and activists. During the Goa liberation movement, the Cruzo Studio was also a refuge for those resisting the Salazar regime.
Many of da Cruz’s work reflects his sympathies, with pieces such as After the 15th of August: The Wound, The Tears, The Blood and The Robbery. Their condemnation of social ruptures is stylised, yet the theatricality of the works doesn’t detract from the anguish that the artist clearly felt.
Da Cruz’s hope for a better, more just, social order can be seen in the cycle of works he did on Gandhi, who he viewed as a redeemer, a heroic, Christ-like figure for a newly independent, secular nation. Christ himself is a recurring figure, frequently placed in an Indianised context — whether appearing as himself in Jesus Speaks to the People, or when his presence is indicated through gestures and symbols, like in the Madonna and Child-esque composition of Come to Me.
A stroll through the galleries at Sunaparanta in Goa, which is exhibiting da Cruz’s work, show us an artist who was as strong in his convictions as he was skilled with his brush. But one of the keys to understanding his life lies in the enigmatic self-portrait, Between, which the artist made in the 1940s. The painting depicts the artist wearing what looks like a doctor’s coat and holding a palette smeared with paint.
Holding on to his right arm is the figure of a woman dressed like a nurse, and on the other side is a skeleton grasping a violin. In the catalogue essay that accompanies ‘The Quest for Cruzo’, Hoskote writes, “I like to think of it as a self-portrait with rival claimants… to his right [is], a nurse and, to his left, a lively skeleton with a violin, clutching at his shoulder with a bony hand. Is the nurse Life, or Love,or Inspiration, or Stasis? Is the skeleton Death, or Art? Does sanity ossify or is art fatal? This painting suspends us in a state of paradox.”
Da Cruz offers no easy answers — perhaps, because there were none, and it is entirely right that he should have left the choice of interpretation to the viewers of this work. To repurpose what writer Henry James once said about his stories, if the artist were to give an explanation, the work would be poorer, because alternative explanations would be left out.
We may never know every single fact about da Cruz’s life, but as long as his art remains available to us, the possibilities for understanding him and his work remain endless.