Thursday, May 12, 2011

Of Saints and Men: The Royal Wedding and the Goan connection

Having decided to skip the hoopla surrounding the wedding of Kate and William of Cambridge, and not watch the wedding live, I was glad I changed my mind and saw a recording of the event later that day. You could perhaps call me jaded, but the finest part of that wedding was the sermon preached by the Bishop of London. Particularly striking were the opening words of that sermon, where quoting St. Catherine of Sienna, whose feast day it was, he said Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.”

I was particularly taken up by those opening words because they seemed to echo the observation, that I am particularly fond of using, of St. Ireneaus another saint of the Christian tradition who said that, “The glory of God is a human being full alive.” It seems that there is a common thread that connects these two sentiments; they both connect the human being to God through the individuals’ discovery of their self and the actualization of their potential. It seems that both these lines of advice require the individual to first turn inwards on oneself, contemplating and discerning, before they may discover their potential, that will make them ‘truly alive’ and ‘on fire’. The key lesson here seems to be that the turn inward, is simultaneously both a turn toward God and a turn toward the world.

This observation managed a rather more material turn a couple of days after the sermon was delivered. As it turned out, I was in London a couple of days before the wedding, and with an afternoon to spare, lost myself in the borough of Kensington and Chelsea. It was a wonderful decision, since those streets, offer you something of the experience of what an urban paradise could mean, with its pretty buildings, thin traffic, all enveloped in the green embrace of urban gardens newly leafy with the coming of spring.

Walking through this delightful neighbourhood, one notices from time to time, little blue plaques placed by the doors of some homes, announcing their provenance. These plaques announce that the building once served as home to this or that personage from history, someone who undoubtedly, ‘set their world on fire.’

These two experiences, that of the sermon and of the walk through Kensington must have remained in my mind, for a couple of days ago I realized that there was a lesson in this for us. First that the charm of Kensington did not stem from a naturally occurring property (pardon the pun) but from a turning inward to find out what made it burn. The plaques on the front of these buildings represent a turning to its history, a respect for those who had moved on. It is this in part that contributes to Kensington’s charm, or indeed the charm of any of the historical parts of London that invest in highlighting their linkage to significant personages from the past. The spaces are no longer just any ordinary space, but special, and made important by their linkages with those who were truly alive. Something of the charisma rubs off, not in some magical way, but because of our respect for the individual, that drives us to build an aura around the space she or he inhabited.

It seems that there is a lesson for those of us in Goa who are interested in preserving the architectural heritage we believe is being rapidly erased from existence. As this column has pointed out at other times when dwelling on this theme, heritage is important not merely for the building, but for the people around it. Recognizing the value of a building then, by recognizing the presence of significants who have since moved on, is another way of placing the individual at the center of the heritage conservation exercise.

There would be a number of benefits to our heritage activities if we were to mark Goan buildings with little plaques indicating their connections to significant people from the past. To begin with it makes a building that much more difficult to tear down, when you can create an argument that it is a materially significant part of history. On the other hand, you are also simultaneously creating a history, a history that is thick with local detail, and that strangely enough, does not as yet exist. Too often our history is obsessed with the long dead dynasties whose links to our present we struggle to suggest. We forget the hundreds of men and women, closer in time, who have contributed both internationally and locally in no insignificant way. We forget for example the achievements of the men who manned the orchestras of Bollywood in the old days, when Goan men crafted the music that India continues to sing. We forget the examples of women who ventured on to stage and Konkani film. The list could go on.

This ignoring of the more proximate individual is not surprising. Goan society lacks mechanisms through which it can recognize the merit of its members either when they are alive, or when they are dead. This is unfortunate for a plethora of reasons, not least of which is that we lack the challenge to ‘set the world on fire’ when we feel that there is no one who will recognize the light we bring to the world with our fire. The turn inward, is not merely an individual decision, it must also be supported by a social framework that allows us to do so.

This column has on multiple occasions attempted to suggest that heritage is not about our past, or at least not only about our past. Neither is it about our future. Most importantly it is about our present, and the recognition and valuing of people in this present. Thus just as an individual requires to turn inward, to contemplate before he or she can become fully alive, after having discerned what God wants them to be, so much we as a society turn inward, to recognize those in our past who have contributed to our collective present. This turn, this recognition of others, will set our social community, on fire.

(First published in the Gomantak Times 11 May 2011)

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