Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Gift of the Magi: The Goan Catholic, Romi Konkani and the Edge of Faith

On the second of January, Literati a rather charming bookstore in Candolim hosted the release of ‘Edge of Faith’. A collection of photographic images by the eminent fashion photographer Prabuddha Dasgupta, ‘Edge of Faith’ captures images from the lives of Goan Catholics. He photographs them in their drawing rooms, their inner chambers, at church, their homes and their shrines. While some of the photographs in the compilation speak to the continuing vitality of the Goan Catholic, the work and the artist are both troubled by the specter of the impending, and slowly unfolding, disappearance into history of the Goan Catholic.

If the overwhelming sense at the release of ‘Edge of Faith’ was that the requiem was being sung for the Goan Catholic, there was another event where the sense could not have been more different. Earlier that same evening, the Black Box in the Kala Academy hosted the commemoration of the birth of Lucasinho Ribeiro. It was the result of Lucasinho’s innovations in Bombay in 1892, that resulted in the Tiatr, a dramatic art form that would (and continues to, if we look at the Dogui Bodmas Colva episode!) shake the Goan cultural world.

Organized by the newly formed Tiatr Academy of Goa, this event was perhaps the first official commemoration of Lucasinho’s birthday by a government-sponsored body. This commemoration should be seen as a part of a series of events that have been organized by a group of activists, led by the redoubtable Tomazinho Cardozo, to gain official recognition and respect for what is called Romi-Konkani and the literary and cultural forms it has produced.

Since at least the year 2005, this group of cultural activists has been demanding that the official recognition of Konkani be extended to that written in the Roman script, and not restricted Konkani written in the Nagari script alone. It has been their argument that with the official recognition of the Devanagari script alone, the cultural productions that stem from those who write Konkani in the Roman script; Cantar, Tiatr, the novels written in Roman script, have been actively spurned by the State. Since 2005 this movement has gone from strength to strength. It has managed to rally a constituency for this variant of Konkani and secured official recognition for its art forms.

Despite the charge of deliberate erasure that this linguistic group asserts, almost every event they organize is marked by a huge amount of vitality and determination. They recognise that they are being kicked while they are down, and yet convinced of the vibrancy of their cultural productions, are willing to fight it out, and garner the recognition they believe they deserve. The commemoration of the birth anniversary of Lucasinho Ribeiro was no different. It was filled with the piquancy of political satire, of the joy that comes from cultural creativity, and the recognition of the continuing relevance of cultural traditions.

If both these events stem from the cultural experience of the Goan Catholic, and both recognize a threat to cultural existence, how do we make sense of the radical difference in the emotional states of the two gatherings?

Perhaps the key to unlocking this mystery lies in the explorations of connections. In the first case, it appears as if the people that Prabuddha photographed saw themselves as objects produced solely by colonialism, unconnected to the land, and with colonialism’s demise, dying a slow death. In the face of the suffocating embrace of Indian nationalism, and bereft of a vibrant argument, they must necessarily wait for their time in the sun to pass. This seems absolutely not the case with the Romi activists. While largely Catholic, these activists, refuse to have their movement labeled as that of Goan Catholics alone, their alliance composed of Hindus and Muslims. Their argument is that what they have to offer is a popular culture that can, and is in fact embraced by all Goans.

Rather than stress separateness, the Romi activist stresses connection. In the course of their activism the Romi activists are forging a new public culture. It is contemporary, it is political, and it exudes the aroma of a living Goa. It is not one that excludes all of the established practices of new-Goan culture established by the post-integration State. It adopts these and adds to it; continuing practices, manners and language that may have been abolished by State practices, but otherwise resonates with the people. There is the recognition of threat here, but no fear of death, there is hope and there is faith.

Interestingly enough, it was faith that was on

display at both the events that evening. At the chronologically prior Tiatr Academy event, faith (as opposed to religion) was unselfconsciously introduced to popular culture in the manner in which God was invoked to shower blessings on the audience that had gathered as one family. This faith was made manifest in the example of conduct of right action that the Cantarists sang about as they critiqued contemporary society and politics. In the images that Prabuddha displayed later that evening, once more it was faith that came shining through. And this was not because a number of his images are located within the precincts of churches. The subjects of the images exuded a quiet determination that Prabuddha remarked on. There was a sense that ‘this too shall pass’.

The image that closed the display of Prabuddha’s photographs that evening was of a freshly white-washed cross, somewhere in the Goan country, emerging, from a pile of roughly hewn stones, almost swayambhu from the ground. The image is polyphonic. One can read it as a symbol of the foreign, or one can see it as a faith, rooted solidly in home-soil. There are those among the Goan Catholics, who see Christianity, not primarily as faith, but as religion. With this materialist understanding, they see a foreign history, unconnected to the soil and are unable to reconcile that with the present. For these people, it is true, the final pages of the Goan Catholic are being written. For others however, this faith, is an unselfconscious part of their being. It is not merely an identity. For these people, rooted solidly to the ground, the past is a rock on which they stand in the present, and from which they look toward their future. For these people, the story of their evolution is only now being written, and there is a lot more to look forward to!

(First published in the Gomantak Times, 6 Jan 2009)

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