Thursday, 11 January 2018
Tuesday, 13 June 2017
(With thanks to R. Benedito Ferrão for his critical input.)
On one of my first visits with the octogenarian artist Vamona Ananta Sinai Navelcar in 2015, he gave me a book of Portuguese poetry by Fernando Pessoa. I happened to mention to him that I had taken up a beginner’s course in Portuguese. At first, I thought Navelcar’s message was only a literary one, to not just study a language but, rather, relish it through its poetry. Later, I realised, there was much more to the artist’s gesture. It was an implied message from this fellow-Goan, hinting that Pessoa is also a part of Goa’s history, and therefore learning about the Portuguese poet would only enrich my understanding of our past. Navelcar’s art, though, is far more specific in conveying similar meaning in being a wonderful reflection of Goa’s complex global connections. The Portuguese poet Pessoa is one of Navelcar’s many muses, which include Christ, Rabindranath Tagore, and Mozambiquan women. Navelcar’s fascination with Pessoa, however, signifies something far more profound. Pessoa is not just a muse and an inspiration to Navelcar. Rather, their lives bear remarkable similarities.
Just as a young Pessoa had left the shores of his homeland Portugal and moved to South Africa in the 1890s, Navelcar too had to leave his home in Goa to study art in Portugal in the 1950s upon receipt of a scholarship. That Navelcar subsequently worked as an art teacher in Mozambique, further marks the similarity in career trajectories between the artist and his poet-muse in the continent of Africa. In his article, ‘Vamona Navelcar as Performance Artist’ (Muse India, Jul-Aug 2013), R. Benedito Ferrão writes, “Navelcar’s very life, in its historical and geographical entanglements, cannot be separated from the artistic labour it has inspired”. Each of the figures in Navelcar’s work are a reproduction of his global exposure. Pessoa’s emblematic formal attire is in glaring contrast to the artist’s depiction of other figures. Navelcar often exaggerates the poet’s thin bodily frame, dressed typically in a fato, a bow tie, a hat, and with his signature round spectacles on his nose.
Navelcar’s working methods also seem to mirror those of his muse. Pessoa is known to have been hooked to writing, as he often jotted poems on whatever writing surface was on hand, be it books, loose sheets or scraps of paper, used envelopes, and even receipts. Navelcar demonstrates a similar trait as his choice of canvas seems to be inconsequential: the backs of pages of calendars, bits of cardboard, and pages of magazines have all been the recipient of his artistry. He even drew a sketch of Pessoa on the inside cover of the book he gave me.
The book, Poesia de Árvaro de Campos, is now witness to another common trait demonstrated by both these figures of the Lusophone world: their use of pseudonyms. While Pessoa wrote this book under the fictitious name of Álvaro De Campos, Navelcar signed his sketch of the author with the name Ganesh, which he adopted in memory of his deceased brother. The use of a local deity’s name, though, is not random, as it reflects a more ‘authentic’ version of the Hindu local names that are popular in Goa. Vamona on the other hand, is such a Portuguese name, in that in Konkani it would be Vamon. One wonders if the choice of pseudonym Ganesh is a desperate measure by Navelcar to gain recognition in his native land. In tandem with India’s move to the far right, Goa’s support of cultural production reveals its religio-nationalist biases, and is to the exclusion of an artist like Navelcar whose art incorporates Christian and African themes among others. That such remarkable talent and hard work like Navelcar’s goes unrecognised speaks to the lack of imagination of the State and the ways in which it seeks to limit how Goa itself can be imagined through the art of its visionaries.
Pessoa left behind trunks full of writing, many pieces of which are still awaiting publication. Similarly, many of Navelcar’s works also lie unseen in multiple portfolios and have not been archived or exhibited. Without State or institutional support, Navelcar has to make a living by directly selling his work, which is a huge loss to the Goan public, as only select audiences enjoy his art. The tragedy is that recently many of the artist’s works have fallen prey to white ants, that endemic scourge of Goa. Setbacks, though, have not dimmed Navelcar’s enthusiasm to produce art, as he continues to paint every day.
It is remarkable that Navelcar’s experience of Portugal, during his time of study there in the 1950s, is emblematized by his portrayals of the figure of Pessoa who was not as popular in his homeland then. This is especially because, during that era of the dictatorial regime of António de Oliveira Salazar, the Portuguese State was actively promoting the classic seventeenth century poet Luís de Camões, as a part of their nationalistic propaganda, while ignoring modern poets like Pessoa, who died in 1935. Nations generally look for ‘authentic’ symbols to represent the country. Pessoa did not fit the bill because “his first writings were in English with a South African tincture” and “he turned to Portuguese only in 1910” (George Steiner, ‘A Man of Many Parts’ The Guardian, June 3, 2001). For the Salazarian regime, the diasporic Pessoa did not possess the commensurate amount of “Portugueseness” in the fashion that de Camões did. It is also easier to use “heroes” from antiquity as symbols, because those in power tend to manipulate the politics of these deceased legends. Pessoa’s writing was not nationalistic enough, whereas de Camões was useful to the State precisely because his works are in the epic tradition and speak to the glories of the Portuguese empire. Perhaps Navelcar relates the side-lining of Pessoa by Portugal to his own mistreatment by the State of Goa – a ‘postcolonial’ Goa that has deemed Navelcar to be not ‘authentic’ enough to be officially recognised.
What the post-‘Liberation’ State fails to realise is that Navelcar’s life in Goa, Portugal, and Mozambique, is often a reflection of a Luso-specific trend of migration that is common to many Goans of a past era. Navelcar is aware of this complexity and therefore remains proud of his multiple experiences of places across continents. He claims to be at once European, African, and Goan, just as many other Goans of his generation might. Navelcar’s art, as much as his life, is emblematic of Goa’s global connections, which is why Ferrão refers to him as a “performing artist” (Muse India). The State does not seem to embrace Navelcar because to do so would undermine their nationalist politics, which is contrary to what the artist and his art represents in embracing multiplicity. Nevertheless, the figure of Navelcar is a powerful one: he is a living bridge between histories, states, and empires. This is the poetry of his art. And his downfall.
[This article was first published on Joao Roque Literary Journal on 9 May 2017]
Thursday, 9 February 2017
Have you come across any Goan examples of Thomassons, lately? The word coined by the Japanese artist Akasegawa Genpei denotes any architectural relic that is found in good condition but does not serve a purpose. Today, old Goan architectural artefacts that lay forgotten and neglected amidst the spiralling growth of new urban developments are quickly falling into the category of Thomassons. Take for example the chapel behind the Hotel Mandovi in Panjim, or the beautiful baroque cross on the other side of the road from the St. Inez Church, or even the city of Old Goa and its monuments. It can be contended that the transformation of colonial monuments into Thomassons through wilful neglect is an attempt at erasure of the markers of Goa’s history.
An article titled ‘The Inexplicably Fascinating Secret World of Thomasson’ (Jan. 18, 2017) on the blog Messy Nessy, narrates the interesting story behind the emergence of the term Thomasson. The article notes that Japanese artist Asakegawa Genpei was interested in locating useless urban artefacts in Tokyo in the 1980s and wanted a term to label such relics. Around this time, the Japanese baseball team Yomiuri Giants had hired an American professional player called Gary Thomasson for a huge amount of money. However, the acquisition of this player turned out to be disastrous to the Yomiuri Giants as he did not fit their system of play and therefore they left him on the bench for most of the two seasons of his contract. Genpei adopted the use of the analogy of Thomasson, an exclusive player with a useless position on the team, for urban architectural artefacts that are in good condition, but are functionless.
In Goa, for most casual observers, architectural relics found in unexpected places might seem like Thomassons. Take for example the aforementioned cross near St. Inez Church, which shares same architectural history as the church. Today, a busy road severs the relationship of this cross to the church and, therefore, it appears to be a misplaced artefact. However, this cross was in fact a part of the church square, as can be gleaned from other similar cases such as the Holy Spirit Church square in Margao. Clearly, the road in St. Inez was introduced later. The traffic on this road has considerably increased making it difficult to imagine this cross as an element of a larger architectural setting that comprised the church square. What will further compound the matter is, over time, there will emerge plans for widening this road, leading to the demolition of this important marker of the city’s history. The Municipal Corporation needs to identify such heritage urban spaces and restore them at the earliest. While it might not be possible to re-route the thoroughfare in St. Inez, an urban design effort should be made to create at least sense of a city square. This could be achieved in multiple ways, including having common stone pavers that would connect the disparate parts of the entire area; in effect, this would create a platform, similar to the one at Kala Academy.
Goan monuments are undergoing a process of Thomassoning, as evidenced by their gradual decay. Another example of devaluing a historical structure is St. Anthony’s Chapel in Calangute, which has been reduced to a glorified traffic island. The zooming vehicles around this monument make it difficult for worshippers and visitors to approach it, making it seem like a useless relic. In Goa, town planners give high priority to roads, constantly widening them while destroying our natural and built heritage in the process. There are many monuments, which have become Thomassons, partly because of poor planning and misplaced priorities like road widening. The story of Old Goa is no different, especially because the state seems to have ignored its history while constructing a massive six-lane highway into the erstwhile capital, almost grazing and bruising the heritage city in the process.
The neglect of old monuments by the State is a reflection of the treatment of local Catholics whose heritage is marked by these structures. In part, this is precisely the process of ruination Ann Stoler refers to in the book Imperial Debris (2013). Ruination, Stoler argues, is a political project that lays waste to certain peoples, relations, and things that accumulate in specific places (p. 11). The region’s colonial architecture, as much as the Goan Catholic culture it represents - are both portrayed to Indian tourists as Thomassons - rendered useless and maintained merely as relics.
Despite these challenges, local Goans continue to engage with their monuments. The magnificent buildings in Old Goa, for instance, might appear to be abandoned relics of a bygone era to the typical Indian tourist. These visitors fail to see how Goans use these monuments, often marvelling only at the architecture. On the contrary, old buildings like the Basilica of Bom Jesus are in fact living monuments. The clearest testimony to this is the gigantic gathering of people during the decadal Exposition of St. Francis Xavier and the yearly feast. Locals continue to resist their invisibilization by venerating the monuments in large numbers because they serve as symbols of Goan identity and as a reminder of the claims of a minority on the State. Of course, national news channels and national newspapers in India conveniently ignore the coverage of these events because such images of large gatherings for the veneration of a Catholic saint would invariably challenge the brahmanical-hindutva idea of nationalism in India. Even as it is troubling that Goans are reduced to being Thomassons in their own homeland, they continue to resist.
[This article was first published on The Goan on 09th Feb. 2017]