Francis Newton Souza moved from his native Goa to Bombay with his widowed mother Lily Mary Antunes as a teenager. While she struggled to make a living from her dressmaking, Souza enrolled in the Sir J.J. School of Art in 1940, only to be expelled in 1945 for his role in the protests against its British Director Charles Gerrard during the Quit India movement. The artist's first biographer, Edwin Mullins describes the period, noting that Souza was becoming "Increasingly vexed by the polite inertia of Bombay society, with its borrowed aesthetic values and its indifference to the condition of India [...]" (E. Mullins, Souza, London, 1962, p. 17) Branded a 'Rebel Artist' by the critic and curator Hermann Goetz, Souza soon found himself in the company of other revolutionaries, eventually becoming member of the Communist Party of India in 1947.
Geeta Kapur describes the artist's short-lived involvement with the Party in her seminal 1978 essay on Souza, 'Devil in the Flesh', published in her book Contemporary Indian Artsits. "Souza's process of politicization led him quickly to Marxism, and soon after he had been expelled from the art school, he joined the Communist Party of India. Being by temperament a fighter every pang of humiliation he felt as an individual or as a "native" roused him to retaliation and attack. He converted this fighting spirit into revolutionary politics. The Party welcomed him on the popular front, and his art of the period did indeed merit enthusiasm from the comrades. He devised his figures according to class-types, showed them in their environment, labeled them with appropriate titles. He depicted the plight of the poor (Goan peasants, Bombay Proletariat); he exposed the villains (Capitalists in particular, the bourgeoisie in general). He painted, moreover, in an idiom belonging broadly to the Social Realist category and was more than willing, with the help of the party organization, to show his paintings in the working class colonies of Bombay. He was hailed in the People's Age, the Party paper, as a patriot and a revolutionary." (G. Kapur, Contemporary Indian Artists, New Delhi, 1978, p. 7)
It was during this period that Souza, as a twenty-three year old 'revolutionary', painted the present tour-de-force, Untitled (Indian Family). One of the artist's largest and most seminal works from the 1940s, this painting on board represents a short-lived but vital formative period of Souza's career that was instrumental in laying the foundation for his later work in India and England. Painted in 1947, the year that India became independent and that Souza formed the Progressive Artists' Group, this painting also represents a significant point of inflection in the definition and evolution of modern Indian art, and in the political history of South Asia.
Although it bears thematic similarities with Van Gogh's famous 1885 canvas, The Potato Eaters this painting offers a more confrontational perspective on the circumstances of the working class, closely allied with the work of Social Realist, Mexican Revolutionary and German Expressionist artists. Here, a poor, half-clothed family of four sits on two short steps in front of a house in which one or more of them are likely employed. Through the window behind them, looking onto a table laden with fish, fruit and wine, the viewer is informed of the luxurious lifestyle of their masters. As the occupants of the house eat and drink their fill, this family starves, their vessels lying empty at their feet. Next to these bowls, Souza paints a grinning white toad, underscoring the irrationality of the situation.
Although inspired by the Goan countryside and peasantry, and painted at a time when the artist still frequently visited his home there, this painting is very much a product of Souza's time in Bombay and was likely one of the highlights of his exhibitions in the labourer colonies of the city. The two alternate titles that the artist considered for this painting, as reported by Kapur and confirmed by Souza in a later letter, were 'After Working in the Field All Day We Have No Rice to Eat' and 'The Proletariat and the Plutocrat's Dinner'. These politically charged, graphic titles added to an already provocative image, substantiating Goetz's claim that Souza "thought it his duty to place his art in the service of propaganda to alter such deplorable conditions. No wonder he believed that this should be an art of the people for the people." (H. Goetz, 'The Rebel Artist: Francis Newton', Baroda State Museum Bulletin, 1949, unpaginated)
Included in Souza's first one-man exhibition at the Bombay Art Society's Salon in 1948, Untitled (Indian Family) was recognised nearly immediately as a seminal work and politically potent gesture. A contemporary review of the exhibit, boldly entitled 'Propaganda Confused with Art' rails against Souza's capacity for social critique through art, noting '[...] this fanaticism is Newton's weakness as well as strength. Because this intensely strong feeling in the artist has led to a very powerful and direct mode of expression.' (R. Chatterji, 'Propaganda Confused with Art, Francis Newton's Progressive Paintings', January 1948). Including an image of this work in the review. Chatterji unbashedly locates Untitled (Indian Family) in the realms of challenging art.
Souza quit the Communist Party before he left India in 1949, explaining later that it was because they "told me to paint in this way and that. I was estranged from many cliques who wanted me to paint what would please them. I don't believe that a true artist paints for coteries or for the proletariat. I believe with all my soul that he paints solely for himself." (Artist statement, Words and Lines, New Delhi, 1997, p. 10)