A sense of loss and conflicted identity, with glimpses of paradise thrown in, permeate a new exhibition on Goa, hosted by the Sunaparanta Goa Centre for the Arts in Panaji.
Goa: A Time That Was, features work by photographer and writer Waswo X Waswo, photographer and filmmaker Ipshita Maitra, and architect and historian Vishvesh Prabhakar Kandolkar.
Goa is different things to different people: beach paradise, place of pilgrimage, weekend destination, home of the rave, home of the flea market, just home. The former Portuguese colony joined the Republic of India in 1961, has been overrun by tourists from around the world through most of the year for decades, and even in the pandemic has been the target of work-from-anywhere hordes from across the country. What, then, does it mean to be Goan today?
“The show explores how cultural identity is formed and whether history affects perceptions of belonging. Do habits define a culture, and how much do we reinforce and question it?” says Leandré D’Souza, curator and programme director at Sunaparanta.
While Kandolkar and Maitra live in Goa; Waswo, an American, has spent about 10 years, on and off, in the coastal state. They’ve all watched the state change as tourism and real-estate development have expanded outward from a narrow strip along the shore to invade even interior villages.
In his trademark black-and-white and sepia tones, Waswo’s two-part project, Longtimers and Remembrances, in collaboration with miniature painter Rajesh Soni, is a personal memoir told through vintage studio portraits and traditional photo hand-colouring. In his photographs are some of Goa’s first bohemians, who came from far and wide and made Goa their home.
Maitra’s two-part project, Lost Addresses and Once Was Home, represents the changed ethnographic, ancestral and geographic landscapes of the state through photographic collages. Images of six old Goan homes and their interiors are layered and distorted, reproduced as handmade emulsions or prints, to represent a sense of loss.
“Using the rather intimate space of home, and extending it to the larger concept of a neighbourhood and community, the collections draw attention to a systemic erosion of cultural and ethnic identity and a gradual gentrification that is taking place in Goa,” says D’Souza.
Kandolkar’s site-specific installation This is not the Basilica! represents his ongoing research into the post-Portuguese afterlife of the Basilica of Bom Jesus, the 16th-century church in Old Goa that houses the tomb and mortal remains of St Francis Xavier.
Since the 1950s, when the state was still controlled by the colonial Portuguese government, the external plaster on the church has been eroding, leaving the underlying laterite stone exposed and exposing the structure to damage from the elements. No efforts were made to re-plaster the church, and because this is now how it has looked for decades, restoring it would mean altering its appearance, which has added to the complexities of conserving this precious monument.
“Today, a generation of Goans has grown accustomed to seeing the Basilica’s exposed laterite walls, but this is not the way the building was designed, nor indeed the way it looked until about 70 years ago,” D’Souza says.
This is not the Basilica! is a large print of the church hidden behind a protective covering of palm fronds, to indicate the fragile nature of the structure and the weak efforts made to protect it. A second installation, (T)here is the Basilica, is a mixed-media installation that shows how the building, in most cases shown without the plaster, has been part of popular culture for decades, featuring in photographs, advertisements, local art and Republic Day floats.
In a paradox typical of the dilemmas of loving and living in Goa, it is the basilica that saves the state from being represented entirely in clichéd images of sun, sand and sea in these ads and pictures. But even the saving-grace visual of a beloved monument holds within it a danger to itself.
(Goa: A Time That Was is on view at Sunaparanta from September 8 to November 20)
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