Saturday, August 9, 2014

The Itinerant: Claiming the Indo-Portuguese for Goan museums

Every year the Portuguese Association of Antiquarians (APA) holds the Feira de Arte e Antiguidades de Lisboa, a fair that unites antiquarians from across Portugal for a week-long sale of antiques and other slightly aged objects d’art. 

It was at one such exhibition that I became overwhelmed with emotion on seeing an exhibit. The object of this emotional excess was a chest of drawers that formerly stood in the sacristy of the church of Nossa Senhora da Graça adjoining the Augustinian monastery in Old Goa. This chest screams out its Indo-Portuguese heritage, marked as it is by inlay work, elaborate handles and the Augustinian symbol of the double-headed eagle. A year later, at the subsequent Feira this chest was once again on sale. It had clearly not found a buyer the year before.

Caressing the chest on the second year a thought that first struck me the year before recurred, why should the state of Goa, through its State Museum, or Department of Archaeology, or indeed the Directorate of Art and Culture not purchase such a fine, and restored, work of art? The object started its life in Goa, and was clearly worked on by local artisans. In itself a fine piece, its provenance would add value not merely to the holdings of the State Museum but perhaps spur us on to rethink our own international location vis-à-vis the art form that is called “Indo-Portuguese”.

In the year 2013 a rather unique object was up for sale at an auction conducted by Sotheby’s. Titled Caquesseitao or 'ancestors of the devil', this object, said to have probably been modelled on a fruit bat, was a container made entirely of silver with bird-like feet, scale-chased body, dragon head, prominent tongue and hinged wings. While apparently a popular ornament in Indo-Portuguese art in the late 17th-early 18th century, there seem to be very few exemplars remaining. Because the Portuguese state did not have a representative of the ornament, Portugal’s National Museum of Antique Art (MNAA) was authorised to purchase the object in auction. The tale ended sadly, however, since the institution was authorised to procure it for a sum less than the 181,500 Euros for which it was eventually auctioned.

There are two points that I seek to make here. The first is that despite its bungling of the purchase, the Portuguese state was actively interested in acquiring the object, since it sees the Indo-Portuguese as a part of its own oeuvre. This is to say, we have the example of a state actively committed to spending large amounts of money to assemble a cache of wealth in the public interest. 

The second point that I seek to make is about ownership. Merely because the Portuguese claim this history as a part of their own does not mean that the contemporary state of Goa, once seat of the Indo-Portuguese world should wash its hand off of this heritage. On the contrary, the state of Goa, as a location that continues to enjoy international attention ought to make its own efforts to appropriate this history for itself. The history of Indo-Portuguese Empire is both Portuguese and Indo (i.e. South Asian). It was crafted by not only by different kinds of Portuguese, Europeans, and also by different kinds of Asians, South Asians and natives of Goa, all of who operated within a system that had its nerve centre in the city of Goa.

Born in the subcontinent, and with a specific location in Goa, both of the objects discussed in this column should rightly be the kinds of objects on the state government’s list of ideal acquisitions for the Goa State Museum. Despite the fact that the State Government seems to be contemplating putting its existing antiques away in storage, the fact is that the State government has, through the Directorate of Art and Culture, been spending a good amount of money in acquiring art works from Goan artists.

Extending its operation to acquiring, and displaying, these kinds of older art works would allow the state of Goa to achieve a number of goals. To begin with, it would allow us to claim ownership of art forms that emerged from the genius of artisans of the past, and would allow contemporary artists the stimulus for a more exuberant dialogue with the past. Secondly, the acquisition of history and artifacts is not merely the preoccupation of bored rich people. On the contrary, it is the basis for the generation of further and future wealth. For example, at an entirely superficial level, the aggressive acquisition of such artifacts makes eminent sense for a state that makes money off tourists as it would offer tourists to our state more options than the rather limited sun, surf, sand and gambling that is currently on offer. If we are keen on developing cultural tourism in Goa, then a museum with, a substantial permanent collection and a dynamic series of temporary exhibitions, is an absolute must. Indeed, one could make a substantial argument that Goa's failure to attract the "well-heeled" tourists that so many seem to crave rests squarely on the refusal to embrace the cultures that existed in Goa between 1510 and 1961, and a failure to integrate them into a sophisticated cultural programme.

In sum, rather than ignoring Goa’s antique heritage, the State government should actively be pursuing a policy that would highlight this past, and a critical part of this policy rests on re-reading the Indo-Portuguese to stress the fact that the South Asian element was critical to this art style.

(A version of this post was first published in The Goan on 9 Aug 2014)

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