Balcao: A showcase of influences on Goa’s artscape  



New Delhi
The colonization of Goa by the Portuguese in the 14th century led to a distinctive cultural milieu in the island state — that coloured Goan life, art, culture and society with the rites of fusion. The old Hindu natives of Goa — made of immigrants from the neighbouring regions of Maharashtra and Karnataka of Konkani and Kannadiga origin — were forced to convert to Roman Catholicism by the colonizers under the leadership of Alfonso de Albuquerque, who sailed up to the Mandovi river on March 3, 1510 on his ship Flora de Rosa.

Goa remained under Portuguese rule for 450 years after Albuquerque’s landfall on the Goan coast till the Indian army marched to liberate Goa on Dec 19, 1961. The mass conversions and the court of inquisition set up by the Romans in 1560 to correct the following of the faith by the native converts — however barbaric they might have been under coercion — brought to Goa the first wave of intellectual and cultural emancipation, away from the shackles of rigid Hindu conventions of pre-colonial era. It led the foundation of a cultural bridge between India and Europe and witnessed the birth of new hybrid group of people with a refined global outlook— despite claims to contrary by several cross-sections of native and mainstream intelligentsia in the state and across the Indian nation.    

The Balcao is one such icon of freedom. A neo-Christian architectural improvisation in the Goan homes, the “balcao” is an open “verandah” that flanks the house in a wide circle. It is the reincarnated avatar of the traditional “chowk”— an open arcade like pathway (leading out from the living quarters/rooms) that opened into the “rajangan” or the central courtyard that was nerve of family communion in the old non-Christian homes of the Goans — especially for the “zenana”.

The arrival of the Portuguese and the spread of Christianity changed the architectural layout of the traditional Goan home. It took the chowk from the sanctum of the home to outside in a long circular “balcao” or a balcony verandah (encircling around the house). The “balcao” became the Goan port to the world outside — where even the women of the home could assemble and watch the world pass by. The “balcao” was the conduit in as well — of a culture and ritual of a medieval and classical Europe that crept into Goan homes changing their hearths, cuisines, mores of existence, culture and arts irrevocably.

“Balcao” — an exhibition of contemporary Goan art by 18 artists opened in the national capital’s Dhoomimal Gallery — explores the imprint of the 450-years of Portuguese colonization on the contemporary Goan visual arts using the “balcao” or the open verandah as a metaphor for the cross-cultural currents in Goan aesthetics which has evolved into a distinct oeuvre in this century; different from the mainstream Indian art in its response to colonialism.

The attraction of exhibition curated by artist Subodh Kerkar is a selection of art by Goan legend F.N. Souza that pertain to the contemporary master’s Goan roots. Some of the works — curated from the Dhoomimal’s archives — have not been exhibited before. Francis Newton Souza was born in the little village of Saligao in Goa to Roman Catholic parents of Goud Saraswat Brahmin ancestry. He developed a style that was shaped by the modern art movements like Cubism, Expressionism, Surrealism and radical realism of early 20th century Europe, the deep spirituality of the Byzantine Christian art that adapted to the iconography of his native Goan Christianity and his Hindu genealogy.  

Souza, one of the founders of the Mumbai Progressive Group, displayed a bold streak of figurations in his works — in which suits, sluts, priests (Christian) and “rishis (Hindu seers) were treated alike in a irreverence to tradition — shocking the conservative Indian audience. He was influenced by Pablo Picasso, whose Cubist style of figurative art often explicitly sexual found an Indian interpretation on Souza’s canvas. On Picasso’s death, Souza was said to have commented, “Now that Picasso is dead, I am the greatest.”.

Two oil paintings, “Coconut Trees” and “Self-Portrait” on display places Souza in the landscape of Goa as the “salt of the soil” – sad, confused but resolute in his pursuit of expression. Yet another series of untitled landscapes in oil and acrylic tries to catch the soul of the Konkani village life with its brown-skinned natives, sometime insulated from the white-skinned colonizers. “Gargi and the Rishis” — a rebellious rendering of the Vedic myth of “Gargi” (woman seer) as the bearer of knowledge — intelligently debunks the Vedic mythology by “painting a voluptuous Gargi in the nude accompanied by a Brahmin sage and a Christian priest”. It is Souza’s response to the “cultural fusion” and “desecration of a traditional society” with the arrival of Christianity.

“Souza influenced several generations of artists in Goa,” curator Subodh Kerkar said.  

“The whole exhibition is like a thread of a necklace in which all the beads are matching. The thread is the influence of the Portuguese culture in Goa’s history. Goa’s history is more colourful. Right from the Mauryan emperor Ashoka to the Portuguese, the influence of the Marathas and the Mughals, Goa’s history has been moulded by so many dynasties. But the Portuguese influence is the most obvious,” Kerkar said throwing light on the curatorial objective of the show.

The subject of Portuguese influence on Goa is very complex, the curator observed. “It has numerous currents and undercurrents. It is also a very sensitive issue with some sections of the Goan society. Creating an exhibition dealing with this subject was a challenging task,” Kerkar said. The smallest of the state in India has contributed more than its fair share in the field of art. Stars like — V.S. Gaitonde, F.N. Souza and Antonio Xavier Trinidade — are Goan natives. Not to forget the iconic cartoonist Mario Miranda, whose humour has been assimilated by many younger Goan artists to express the contemporary spirit of Goa.  

Kerkar regrets that the “present generation of Goan artists” have not received the exposure they deserve in the Indian art scene”. “My curatorial act began with organizing lectures and interactions about Goa’s history. I took the artists to a typical Indo-Portuguese home at the foot of the Saligao Hill with a balcao, Across this house was a small lane that led to F.N. Souza’s childhood home. Bobo, one of his childhood friends, remembered that Newton was a ‘nice guy’. We decided to include some of Souza’s works which connected the artist to Goa,” Kerkar said in a note on his curatorial process. Souza, who began his career as an artist in Bombay, moved to London in the 1950s and later to New York.

Artists Fernanda de Melo e Souza and Julio D’Souza’s art assemble from Souza’s “sombre expressionism”. Two of de Melo’s works, “Goencho Saib” — a patron saint of Goa (in charcoal on paper)— and Carmelina – a patron angel probably descending from the notion of the lady of Mount Carmel — bears the tortured human angst of Souza’s Christian figurative iconography and self-portraits. They come across as redeemers and parent mascots having evolved from the Roman Catholic perceptions of saints as guardian spirits. De Melo, a graduate of Central University of Hyderabad, combines elements of Indian folk language in her predominantly Christian imagery.

Julio D’ Souza’s charcoal and pastel works on paper are reminiscent of Picasso’s and Salvador Dali figurative interpretations on a young Goan art scape — heavy with memories of the great Portuguese dictator Antonio Salazar in masks of split personas and the “decadent lives of Goan-Portuguese elite”.  

Artist Pradeep Naik has always used imagery of angels and Christ in his works, Kerkar said, introducing Naik’s works. His favourite past-time is wander in cemeteries and “photograph the memoirs of the dead”. His works in the exhibition deal with the “auto de fe” — the acts of faith and the court of inquisition.

“I like to explore the pre-Portuguese history of Goa,” artist Sonia Rodrigues said. Two of the artist’s works from a solo exhibition on the pre-colonial history of Goa “depicting human slavery” reveal another aspect of Goan culture. “Lot of people from outside Goa like the Karnataka Brahmins came from the outside to settle in the state – creating sharp caste hierarchies,” she explained about her “pen and ink works”. Bulk of the art works on the show hints at this conflict between the native non-Christian Goans — striving to restore the state to its Hindu pre-Portuguese  nativity —- and the colonial legacy of the erstwhile Portuguese rulers which endows the new Goans with an inclusive socio-cultural-politik. It bears on the world and the nation without chauvinism.

Madhusree Chatterjee





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