Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Learning from the Ganesh fiasco: Temples, Churches, their demolition and reconstruction

The issue of the demolition of older structures, be they temples or churches and the erection of new buildings is a topic that causes much consternation in heritage sensitive circles. The attempt at demolition, renovation is invariably opposed by heritage circles leading to a standoff between the demolitionists and the conservationists. As with all standoffs, neither side will blink first, there is no communication, leaving all of us that much poorer for the situation. Given that the Ganesh fiasco from last week was framed along the lines of the right to the freedom of expression (of artistic sensibilities) I wonder if it would not be instructive to study the heritage debate from this angle.

If the argument of the Hindu Janajagruthi Samiti (HJS) is that the appropriate form of Ganesh has been fixed in the past and we would do better to turn back to the past for inspiration, then the argument of the Kerkar supporters was that artistic creativity is constantly evolving and must be allowed to flower. The issue of creation of new temples and churches over older structures can similarly be looked at from this angle. These new temples and churches stem from the innate desire of people to create. This creation does not necessarily stem from an older idiom, but it nevertheless represents their aspirations, their emotions and their vision of themselves.

None of these arguments should be construed to imply a personal validation of these projects of demolition and reconstruction however. On the contrary I would find myself on the side of the heritage activists on the issue of preservation. And yet, there is another point of view that I believe needs to be understood and respected.

The issue was perhaps captured best when the priest of some slated-for-demolition temple told this prominent heritage activist “So! You’re the one they call Deshmukh? You guys are very xana! You live in Panjim, in bungalows, and drive cars and you want our God to live in a hut!!” The problem with most approaches to heritage is the strange relationship it has with the past. While appreciative of the past, a good number of heritage activists are not willing to use it to mount a critique of the present. Thus the preservation of heritage is the preservation of a few artifacts as representative of the past, while ‘development’ is allowed to rumble on undisturbed. The problem with the temples is that for the managements of these temples, as captured by our priest above, the deity is not apart from modern and contemporary life, S/He lives in it. As such, as the most esteemed member of the community, it cannot do that the rest of us live in concrete homes, tiled with granite and marble, lit with electric light, and the deity be made to live in a tiled mud house, red cement flooring and oil-fed lamps. The management of these temples does not recognise a distinction between the modern and the archaic, that the heritage activists do, for them the temple and ‘real life’ are a continuous part of one whole and the temple has to be articulated within the idiom of the contemporary. The new temples that are coming up therefore, are an expression of contemporary creativity, and our engagement with it needs to be along lines similar to what we proposed in the Ganesh fiasco.

It is for this reason, that these kinds of heritage activists would do well to perhaps rethink their relationship to the past, using their fascination for the past to mount a stout critique of present practices of development. To the credit of some of our activists in Goa, going by their participation in the movements of our times, this is already being done. However there is perhaps one more engagement that is possibly necessary before we can persuade communities across Goa to not pull down their temples and churches. This would be an active engagement with the larger public in Goa, communicating the basis on which we see structures of the past as beautiful and worth preserving.

Another one of the possible reasons why these structures are coming down, is that communities in charge of their management are unable to read the buildings for the statement that they were (and are) making. Or perhaps the statement that needs to be made is changing. There is clearly, a break with tradition in a manner that the new development does not speak to the older. One possible way to remedy the first situation is to flood the public domain with information regarding the manner in which one can read Goan structures. Dr.Paulo Varela Gomes, the soon-to-depart Delegate of the Fundac√£o Oriente has done a wonderful job of proposing a manner in which we can read the specificities of the Goan Church. He argues that the Goan Church is not merely a reproduction of foreign elements thrown together, but a confident articulation of a local sensibility, not found anywhere else in the world. Subsequent to his explanation of the buildings, it is impossible not to look at the Churches and chapels across Goa with new eyes. Indeed, the very placement of stones start to tell you elaborate and complex stories! With such knowledge, the destruction, or even an alteration of a Church becomes an extremely difficult proposition.

How does one supply this knowledge to people across the Goan territory, such that they the language of the stones is made comprehensible to all, and not just an erudite few? This perhaps is the challenge for heritage activists, and the lesson from the Ganesh fiasco, that there is a need for active dialogue and conversation, not merely at the time of the confrontation, but as a part of daily life itself. The responses at the time of confrontation are invariably not amenable to dialogue. The time is too late for that. Indeed, what we often resort to are legalistic responses. These responses may use official force to prevent a punch-up but nevertheless leave gaping wounds in our psyche, making us prime ourselves for another confrontation. The challenge before us then is, to we create viable options and systems for dialogue that are not one-off events, but perpetual engagements. Such engagements would allow for creativity to continue to march forward, but always in a healthy engagement with the past.

(Published in the Gomantak Times August 26 2009)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hmm, my first thought when I read what you wrote, Jason, was that this time you had fallen into a phalacy.

It goes this way: The build-up of new temples is not an issue on itself. It only becomes an issue when it entails the destruction of the old structures.
Likewise, Kerkar's depictures of Ganesh should not be an issue as long as Kerkar is not scraping old drawings of Ganesh in order to apply his art in the same canvas. Kerkar Ganeshes exist by the side of older depictions. That's not the case with the temples or churches, so your parallel does not hold true.

Yet... Images are images. What's important about an image is not simply the fact that it exists, it's also the impression it makes on people. In this sense an effective presence of Kerkar Ganeshes will impose itself on peoples' minds on and above the impression that was made by older images of the god. If Kerkar is successful he will displace and destroy the inherited perceptions and impose a new vision of the god.

From this hangle there's an heritage side into memory and thus you're right on target.

Sergio