Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Reviewing Moda Goa: A story of how the choice of style makes a difference

Released early this year, Wendell Rodricks’ book Moda Goa: History and Style , a work that presents a history of Goan costume, clothing and accessories, has garnered a good amount of unstinted praise from the popular press.  This review will not however follow suit, but will attempt instead a more critical position on this work.

To begin with, one should recognize that in having consolidated the plethora of views on ‘Goan’ style and costume, Moda Goa has effectively created the foundation for a discreet line of study; style and costume in the areas around what has come to be called Goa. With the lavish images, and acknowledgement of sources, Rodricks provides future researchers with a starting point to commence their discussion of the themes that he attempts to consolidate. We should also acknowledge that unlike so many other books, a good number of the images in Moda Goa point to the identity of the individuals, who are otherwise unfairly left without mention. However, some credit for this democratic act should perhaps also be shared with Rajan Parrikar, given that these acknowledgements accompany Parrikar’s photographs in the book.

By popular accounts, Moda Goa would in fact live up to its promise, of presenting a narrative of History and Style. The book continues the grand tradition of understanding and writing about Goa that was first established by Goan public intellectuals in the late nineteenth -century. Toward that end, Rodricks must rightly be held to have joined that company, demonstrating also the continuity of intellectual traditions that Rodricks is heir to. The problem with this tradition however, is that it is one that is in severe need of updating in light of theories propounded by scholars working outside of the narrowly nationalist, orientalist and racist frameworks that marked nineteenth century scholarship. 

Rodricks’ work would have benefited immensely had he engaged with contemporary scholarship. Indeed, had he done so, it is more than likely that Rodricks would have crafted a remarkably different book. For example, Rodricks currently attempts an encyclopedic presentation of style and design, presenting a narrative of a linear history of Goan costumes, stretching from the prehistoric to the contemporary. The result is a work that is markedly thin in a number of areas, allowing him to suggest for example, it was the Emperor Ashoka’s Greek wife Helen who ‘set the style for Indian women who continue to drape their saris in much the same way even today’. While this may be a part of the story, failing to mention research that indicates the more contemporary origins of the story of the sari leaves us with the idea of a pristine garment that has come down to us. Contemporary research suggests that the contemporary Indian sari, along with the blouse and petticoat, was a Victorian era adaptation in nationalist Bengal, this model being popularized through Raja Ravi Varma’s wildly popular depictions of brahmanical goddesses. Another example is his suggestion that ‘The Muslims who traded with Goa after the Inquisition was lifted wore traditional fez caps’  challenging the suggestion from scholarship that the fez gained popularity in the sub-continent around the time of the Khilafat movement, the deliberate adoption of a fez cap being a mark of solidarity with the deposed Ottoman Sultan-Caliph. It is possible that, given the general disregard for the nuances of sub continental histories outside of British-India, Rodricks is in fact overturning established scholarship through reading the largely ignored Indo-Portuguese archive. However his failure in following standard academic norms of citations prevent us from ascertaining if this is the case, or if Rodricks is simply extending commonsense back into time.

Engagement with this body of research would also have ensured that at the very least Rodricks would have problematized the linear history he makes use of. Linear history is eminently suited to nationalist agendas that see the culmination of history in the idea citizen for the nation. Once this ideal citizen has been identified all else is held of dubious value. Given that the ideal citizen for the Indian nation is largely imagined as the upper-caste Hindu, the history that Rodricks crafts is an upper-caste history that often runs counter to the evidence that he himself provides. Thus for example, the departure of groups from Portuguese controlled Goa, was not necessarily that of Goans, but often of upper caste groups, especially those who had already, prior to the arrival of the Portuguese, established themselves as a dominant group along the length of the West coast. Further, the presence of the (Mangalorean) Catholics in Kanara was not merely the result of Goan Catholics fleeing Inquisitional terror, as Rodricks suggests, but also the result of combined factors of peasant abandonment of villages when faced with excessive taxes from the Portuguese State, and Maratha incursions into the same territory. It is not as if this fact is not recognized by Rodricks, but so great is his verve in telling a nationalist mythology that he fails to make this, and other facts, cohere with the larger narrative he weaves.

As a further result of following these nineteenth century patterns of historiography, and having marked the (upper-caste) Hindu as the central pole, the entry of Aryans into the subcontinent is clearly specified as not an invasion, but an arrival (though to be fair, this early clarification does not translate into consistency, given that the Aryans are saddled with invasion later in the text). Such a clarification however, is not in evidence in the case of the Persianised adventurers and dynasts in the subcontinent, who are simply brushed off as ‘the Muslims’. It is perhaps this dismissal, where he fails to distinguish between the Mughals, and the Deccan Sultanates that is the reason for the plethora of gross historical errors. Take for example the suggestion that  the Vijayanagara empire fell to the ‘merciless Tipu Sultan’, when it was in fact the Wodeyar dynasty that was effectively displaced around 1761 by Hyder Ali, the father of Tipu Sultan, whose throne Tipu inherited. The Vijayanagara polity fell much earlier, subsequent to the battle of Talikota in 1565. With this dismissal, and the following the nationalist common-sense of ancient Goa as a brahmanical seat, Rodricks misses the opportunity to engage in more nuanced understandings of the Islamicate impact on the evolution of Goan dresses, such as the pano baju and the cabai, that he discusses. Indeed, almost completely missing from the 'history' that Rodricks produces, is reference to the Deccan Sultanates, especially the Sultanate of Bjiapur that played a significant role, culturally as well as politically, in the development of the Goan aesthetic. All we have in the book are references to the Delhi Sultanates of the Tughlaks and the Khiljis; and subsequently the Mughals.

Finally, as a result of falling into the nationalist trap of seeing invaders as largely having a negative influence, and, especially in the case of the Portuguese, seeing their influence largely as a rupture from what ought to have been, Rodricks is forced to makes uncomfortable suggestions. Take for example the suggestion that “The Kunbis who were converted to Christianity by the Portuguese were forced to wear a blouse.” Rodricks would have done well to reference the literature that discusses the extensive battles that depressed groups in other parts of the subcontinent (one good example being Kerala) where women had to fight against upper-caste oppression, for the right (to cover their breasts) that the Portuguese state required by law. This is just one of the many places where one wishes that Rodricks’ otherwise detailed work had benefited from deeper reading to provide a more layered, nuanced, and perhaps responsible text. Devoid of an understanding of the power relations that mesh with costume practice, at times there is the danger that this book will slip into a mere coffee-table picture book recounting mythology, not history.

Perhaps most disappointing in the book, is that as a result of making this choice to present to us an encyclopedic narrative of Goan history, and choosing the nationalist frame in which to cast it, Rodricks spends more time on the ancient, medieval and early modern periods of history. As a result, he barely spends much time on the more exciting, and chronologically nearer period of the twentieth century. One would assume that as a trained stylist, conversant if not in active dialogue with the styles of the recent past, this would be Rodricks' area of expertise, one where he would be able to shine through. Furthermore, with the liberation of the Goan underclasses from feudal dependence, as they moved abroad, bringing up money and differing fashion sensibilities, a great many changes were introduced into society. This period is thus hugely interesting. How did these fashions create different ways of being? These are some questions that could have been asked and answered, a route that Rodricks unfortunately does not take. In a similar vein, some of the more interesting stories from the present remain untold. In his final chapter, Rodricks mentions the challenges and potential for a fashion industry in Goa, but fails to mention his own challenges as he made his, at the time laughed at, leap into setting up base in Goa. Some attempt at this is made in the stand-alone piece by Meher Castelino but it lacks the involvement of Rodricks' first hand telling, and given his elegant voice, mores the pity. 

However, to gain a comprehensive sense of the value of the book, we need to ask why it is that Rodricks is attempting this linear history? In this question lies the redemption of Rodricks’ attempt, which can be seen as the effort of the Goan Catholic to find and make space for himself within the largely upper-caste Hindu narrative for Goa and India set in place by nineteenth century intellectuals. In doing so, Rodricks has chosen one of two options, to negotiate space for himself, and others like him, according to the norms that have been laid down by the dominant forces within India and Goa; rather than fighting for a more democratic and open telling of a Goan history.  Rodricks is not the only Goan Catholic to go down this road, we need only refer to the review of Moda Goa by Maria Aurora Couto in the Outlook, to see that this affirmation of the Indian-ness of the Goan, as well as the space for the Goan Catholic within India is uppermost on her mind. Take for example, the deep concern for the Goan image, one that is born from a shame that most Goans feel when Goa is represented merely as a pleasure periphery with no valid 'culture', that is in evidence when Rodricks speaks of his interventions with the Kunbi sair; "if Gujarat can have its Patola and Maharashtra its Paithani, Goa too can proudly present its Kunbi sari in a new designer avatar." While we cannot therefore, fault Rodricks for his choice, we can nevertheless lament the fact that the fine voice that he possesses did not choose what could have proven to be, the more historic option.

(A version of this post was first published in the Gomantak Times dtd 18 July 2012)

No comments: