Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Architecture of Perfection: A tribute to Manohar Malgonkar, Narva Saptakoteshwar and Quepem Church

The name Manohar Malgonkar should be a name familiar to most literate Goans. In my own case, this is a name remembered from my childhood; from his columns in the magazine section of the Sunday Navhind Times. Those delightful pillars of prose that he constructed regularly were one of the many contributions to my early understanding of both Goa and India. It was thus with some poignancy that I purchased his book, Inside Goa, when I learned of his passing some weeks ago.

If I purchased this book however, I purchased out of a nostalgic desire for my own childhood. A time of simple and innocent frames within which to understand Goa and the world. As I grew into adulthood, I realized how terribly biased and structured by the brahmanical Malgonkar’s intellectual frameworks had been. I did not expect therefore to appreciate much of the book, except for his prose style, even as I settled down to read the book and bid farewell to both Malgonkar and my childhood.

And yet, I was arrested by his description of the Saptakoteshwara temple in Narva. For those who are unfamiliar with the structure and its history, this temple houses a deity who used to formerly inhabit the island of Diwar. After the demolition of the original temple, the deity found its way to Narva where its home was subsequently renovated by Shivaji in the 1600’s. It was Malgonkar’s description of this temple, that I extract for you below, that made me stop in my tracks;

“Whatever really prompted Shivaji to have the temple restored, the important thing is that whoever carried out the work did so with restraint and good taste, and taking care that it did not clash wit the distinctive style of the inner shrine or with the environment.…the Saptakoteshwar temple is one of those rare structures that fit snugly into their natural settings, almost as though the hollow in the hills and the brooding jungle and the cluster of the temple buildings are part of some balanced artistic composition. There is very little scope for slapdash additions and alterations, and almost none for expansion. The slightest thing that is out of accord sticks out like a sore thumb. The electric pole put in an awkward angle in front of the traditional deepastambha or lamp-tower of the temple, might have passed muster in a city street; here it looks like an act of vandalism.”

Beautiful prose apart, one has to applaud the man for his aesthetic sensibilities. The fashion designer Wendell Rodricks has in a number of his writings indicated his horror at dresses that are embellished with bows, sequins and flounce, all piled in for good measure. Good architects will similarly tell you that when embellishing a building, one really needs to know where and when to stop. Shivaji’s architect, and who knows, Shivaji himself, knew when to stop, and this act of mercy was appreciated so many centuries later by Mulgonkar.

Mulgonkar’s words regarding the Saptakoteshwara temple could just as well apply to another building in the Goan ‘New Conquests’. My reference here is to the Church of the Holy Cross in Quepem. The façade of this church is deceptively simple and almost crude. But perhaps this is because it prepares you for the perfection of its interior. For indeed, there is nothing else that can describe the interiors of this building but perfection. The placement of its windows, their relationship with the body of the Church, the snug altars that while obedient to the restrictions of space do not compromise on elegance or grandeur. The church of Quepem is without doubt one of Goa’s finest undiscovered and uncelebrated treasures. It is a building where, to echo Malgonkar’s words, “There is very little scope for slapdash additions and alterations, and almost none for expansion”. It is a building where “the slightest thing that is out of accord” would “stick out like a sore thumb”.

If the temple of Saptakoteshwar is recognized by Mulgonkar as not just a triumph of architecture, but the result of the buildings relationship to the forest and mountains around it, then so too the Church of Quepem. Like the Taj Mahal that interacts not just with the gardens and the gateways and mosque around it, but also with the river and the now lost garden across the river, the Quepem church too sits at one end of a square framed by low-rise domestic buildings, intersected by a waterway and the Palacio do Deão at the other end of it. Indeed the entire township that the Dean of Quepem established is redolent of the romance of provincial Goa of the middle of the last century.

It is a pity therefore that the Church of Quepem is currently hostage to the well-intentioned designs of some of its parishioners. These parishioners would like to see the Church expanded to accommodate crowds that were not thought of when it was established. No matter how clever the architectural model for this expansion, it would destroy this jewel of a Church, as much an expansion, addition or change would destroy the abode of Saptakoteshwara.

But until such time as we have to mourn the death of these gems of Goan architecture, let us raise a toast to their continued existence, to the people who conceived them, built them and preserved them for us today to behold.

(First published in the Gomantak Times 7 July 2010)

1 comment:

Walter Menezes said...

Mogall Jason,

Greetings from Kepem!

It was with much interest that I read your interesting article, The Architecture of Perfection on GT yesterday which partly pays glowing tributes to our church in Quepem.

Save a few of us, not many realize that our church is ‘one of Goa’s finest undiscovered and uncelebrated treasures’ as you rightly said. The reality here in Quepem is different. The flock has increased manifold since the church was built a 180 plus years ago. Their demand for more seating space is genuine and the longer we delay the situation, the more worse it gets as time passes by.

Indirectly you are suggesting that a new church be built and this gem of a jewel be left alone. Jason, don’t you think that once left to itself, this church will fall to neglect and finally to ruin? Maybe we will not live that long to see its fall but Dale surely will. Goa is full of such examples.

Secondly, given the limited space available, a new church next to the old one would only stick out like a sore thumb. Sorry for using your words. Those of us who have seen how new churches are coming up in Goa do not want Aquem to be repeated here in Kepem!

If you are in favour of a new church next door, then I have nothing more to say. But if you think that this is not the solution, then you must suggest alternatives.

In the meantime, I request you to have a rethink on Ivor’s plan which does not in any way even touch the Body of the church. The windows, the snug altars…they remain untouched. Even after the creation of the wings, from the main entrance the church will look just like it was before. I may not be an architect but I am an artist and this much I can say: the wings will not only complement the existing church but to a great extent solve the pressing needs of the parishioners.

In my humble opinion, a new, massive church (which as per some parishioners should accommodate 2000!) will not only be a monster but an architectural disaster as well.

A small price has to be paid…the ‘middle path’ is what I suggest.

mog asum di,