Wednesday, June 6, 2007

No Saudades in Portugal: Reflecting on Monumentalism

The time between this column and my last has seen me move continents so that I find myself writing this column from a location within the University of Coimbra. I could begin this recounting of experiences in this medieval capital of Portugal by commenting on the sudden feelings of déjà vu, as I look outside to see a familiar hill-side, building and what have you. I will however resist falling into the easy embrace of a seductive but superficial saudades and focus my energies elsewhere.

My preferred manner of experiencing a city is to use it, encounter it like a local, and yet at times one feels obliged to go looking for the notable sights in the town. Searching for the famed Sé Novo (New Cathedral) of the town I headed in the direction of the tall domed building I could see from my office window. I could see that it was surrounded by a high crenulated wall and suggested the location of an ancient religious structure within the medieval walls. I made my way in the afternoon sun, following the wall for an entry into the complex only to realise that the building was in fact the prison for the region of Coimbra. Now what do you think of that, A prison right in the heart of town! I can’t as yet figure out if it is some cruel and perverse humour that selected a site close to the happy voices and moments of the town, or a laudable attempt at social integration that locates a prison within the bounds of ‘normal’ society indicating that the inmates within are regular people who have only fallen temporarily from the graces of a whimsical society. Perhaps it’s a bit of both. I am given to believe that the location of the prison within the town is a matter of much public debate, even while prisoners sometimes have conversations with those who live on the other side of the prison walls. I tell you no lies!

The prison building offers much food for thought though with its central tower that looks like copy of the dome of the Cathedral of Florence, the ecclesiastical suggestion of which made me amble my way toward it in the first place. More than an ecclesiastical suggestion however is the disciplinary one it makes as it rises above arms that project from it. The structure of the building conjures up the image of Bentham’s panoptican. Bentham the famed positivist jurist conceptualised the panoption as a ring-shaped building that housed at its centre an inspection tower. The periphery of the building consisted of cells, each of which was meant to hold an individual prisoner. The design of the building was such that the inspector could always view the prisoner, an option never open to the prisoner. This vision of total control over people, the French thinker Foucault would suggest many years later was instituted into modern society, where our every movement and idea is under surveillance.

Portugal has had its share of totalitarian control, a power it has done away with and just refuses to talk about. And yet as one lingers in the University square one senses the heavy weight of the past with the stern, square and muscular statues that adorn the sides of building built in the time of the Estado Novo, the regime inaugurated by Salazar. I jest you not when I recount that as I shivered involuntarily when I encountered those statues, as visions of banner carrying and goose stepping soldiers came to mind. While the fancy images can be traced to an overdose of Hollywood, the blatant monumentality of these buildings is a throw back to a time, when not only in Portugal, but all over Europe, and the mini-Europes around the world, edifices were raised to commemorate and instruct the people about the absolute power of the State.

Buildings and edifices are not simply structures with a purely utilitarian intentions, no matter what old father Bentham would have liked. They are clear indicators of the predilections of society at the point of time, the ambitions, egos and power of the commissioners of buildings. Buildings of imperial dimensions more often than not tell us stories of oppression if we are willing to look beyond the façade. The dams we choose to build, the statues we erect, even the circle marking the entry into Panjim from Old Goa inaugurated during Parrikar’s earlier regime, they all tell us something about the society we would like to see. Question is, are we reading the signs of the times, or merely taking these at face value?
(published in the Gomantak Times 7th June 2007)

1 comment:

Venantius said...

I realized that my second para was incomplete. Needless to say, I will visit your blog. So here again both paras.

As you point out, the Diaspora does continues to be so associated with Israel largely in the minds of academicians and other opinion shapers. It is a unique word alluding to possibilities as well as distractions. I do believe that others have moved on and use it as a signifier of something robust and whole — however incomplete that wholesomeness, as in a myriad of identities. But you make your point in pointing towards what can be realized, albeit negatively when the concerns of groups collude to shift the destinies of those in the hinterland or land one has shifted from, for reasons ranging from the economic or political, and other concerns at the interstices inbetween.

About being regarded as not authentic — inauthentic. Authencity does shift — and a lot! Owning land is one way of feeling rooted, however inauthentic it may appear. The State understands that and caters to the fear of being disposed, and in so doing — delaying accelerated alienation. Also, one has to consider that living outside of Goa and India, does not mean one is always class-centered. This is not to disrupt your position, but to point out that we are all very different and this point is strictly for the record. I for one have chosen to stay silent on political issues related to Goan and its politics beacause I cannot pretend to understand ground realities in Goa; and have mentioned this on a couple of occasions. Aside of that, the ones who point to class as a factor of domination, are very often those who can comfortably negotiate every corridor of influence, exact benign compromises, and duel as well as dwell in language.