Friday, December 5, 2014

Who speaks for Goa?

Seven years ago I travelled to Portugal for the first time and attended the Goan Diaspora Convention in Lisbon. Listening to Goans from Lisbon speak and make presentations I learned at that moment that there were many ways through which one could learn about Goa and Goans, and not all of these methods required that one actually be present in the territory of Goa itself.

Because of its long history with Goa, Portugal remains a site where Goan identity is produced. Given its peripheral location in the world it is not necessarily a privileged location for the production of Goan identity, but it is by no means an insignificant one. Over the course of years I have come to see how ties between the two places continue to ensure the production of ways in which Goa is understood, presented and represented. In other words, a Goan culture is produced as much in Lisbon, as it is in Goa.

One production of Goan culture was made obvious to me when I went out to dine at a restaurant that offers Goan food, ‘Jesus é Goês’ (Jesus is Goan). The quirky name stems from the fact that the owner of the restaurant, Jesus, is in fact Goan.  The food that an ‘ethnic’ restaurant serves is one way in which people learn about a culture. But this is not the cultural production that struck me. What struck me were the murals on the wall of the restaurant.

The walls of the restaurant pulsated with colour and a variety of figures who commanded that you stop and take notice of them. Across one wall a Puranic Shiva sitting in a tea-cup used a fork to paddle his way away from a funky Sri Yantra through an ocean of some, no doubt ambrosial liquid. One the same wall, a venerable tortoise supported a meditating baba who contemplated a samosa that seemed to have just appeared in front of him. Further away was a blue hand with an open mouth that seemed to pant from the chillies that were crossed on the plate in front of it. This was definitely a representation of Goa for the Goa-illiterate branco and my head was spinning from all the meaning I was taking in.

To begin with, despite the clear Catholic reference in the name of the restaurant, Goa is quite clearly represented as a Hindu space. However the Hinduism represented on the walls is one that has more than a fair share of influence from the hippy aesthetic. Growing up in the Goa of the 1980s I grew up to resent the challenge that the hippies brought to the Goan status quo and resented the spin that they put both on Goa and India. Here on the walls of this Goan restaurant in Lisbon, however, I had to acknowledge that the hippies had perhaps won the war. Their vision of Goa was now a part of how many segments of the world saw the territory.

This reinterpretation continues with the image of Ganesh head that presides over the restaurant. The cute pinkish kitschy elephant head would be familiar to, and warm the insides of any person from western India. Look closely, however, and one realises that the halo around Ganesh’s head is the crown of thorns that would have sat more appropriately over the head of Christ.

This is the kind of stuff that would make any traditional Indian secularist’s heart trill with delight. I am not known to appreciate this Hinduism meets Catholicism, we-are-all-brothers form of secularist propaganda largely because it is invariably so contrived. In this case, however, it really does come together effortlessly, perhaps because the ‘fusion’ is not so obvious. You need to look really hard, or be more than a couple of gins down for the crown of thorns to pop out at you.

Also populating the world on the walls of this restaurant is a strange animal. Quite unlikely the representation of any one figure, this animal reminded me of the composite animals that are very much a part of the subcontinent’s artistic tradition where the portions of elephants, crocodiles, lions, peacocks are brought together to create fantastical creatures. Commenting on contemporary Goan art some years ago, the art critic Ranjit Hoskote had noted this tendency among the then emerging set of Goan artists as well. In his essay Hoskote had tried to draw a link between ancient art forms and the contemporary, but I was not convinced. Even if these artists were either consciously or unconsciously continuing  an earlier tradition, they were still producing these images outside of a context of daily life. Here on the walls of Jesus é Goés, however, was this fantastical creature bounding around and decorating a quotidian space, very much like its ancestors decorated the temples of yore.

Amidst all of this largely Hindu kitsch, there is also a sign that refers to Goa’s Catholic tradition in the form of two garlanded and flaming hearts struck through with a knife. References, no doubt,  to the sacred hearts of Mary and Jesus it seemed as comfortable here in a Goan restaurant, as it would have in the kitsch Catholic art that populate Central America, or any other part of the Catholic world for that matter.

There is a certain Goa that is being presented to diners at Jesus é Goés. It may not be a Goa that Goans may recognise, but it is a Goa that nevertheless has a certain validity because it reinterprets various strands that in fact exist in Goa. That Goa is framed as primarily Hindu is true, and this remains problematic. However, it is also a fact that the presence of this Hinduism is not necessarily an imposition but the result of an engagement. This interaction is not necessarily piously reverential, but able to joke with it, play with it and in the process emerge with something that is actually interesting and stimulating.

(A version of this post was first published in The Goan on 6 Dec 2014)

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