Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Itinerant: From Pais Vasco to Panjim

If you were a student, living in the mid 2000s in Oñate, a mountain town of the Basque country, then your entry into San Sebastián would be via train. As you pulled into the station, and then subsequently headed out of the station into the city you would pause for a moment. Was there not a faint resemblance to Panjim city? Did it not feel as if the train station was located where the Patto development now is? Did the bridges across the Rua do Ourem not correspond to the bridges across San Sebastián’s Urumea river?

The resemblance of Panjim to this Basque city can be quite confounding. Not only do both cities lie at the mouths of rivers, but they both also encompass a stretch of beach that is actively used by its denizens for recreation. Add to these coincidences the Miramar palace that sits above the city’s famous beach, echoing Panjim’s own Miramar. Like Panjim, the city too is marked by a number of elegant promenade spaces. This latter feature however, dates back to the royal patronage that it enjoyed in the not too distant past, laying the basis for much that is spectacular in the city.

What makes San Sebastián truly breath-taking however is not the drama of its geographical location, a combination of being encircles by beach, river, sea and hills. Neither is it the food; Basque tapas (pintxos) are arguably the finest in Spain. Nor is it the spectacular architecture that constitutes a good amount of the centre of the city. What makes the city breath-taking is when you realise that a good amount of effort and energy has gone into making the city accessible to users of non-motorized vehicles. It is perhaps this reaching out in multiple senses that makes this city all the more enjoyable. 

It is, however, more than spatial features that create the sense of similarity between these two widely separated towns. Indeed, both San Sebastián and Panjim share an uneasy relationship with the country within which they are today located. If Goa superficially rests easy within the embrace of Mother India, then the same need not necessarily be said for San Sebastián. Part of the restive Basque country (Euskal Herria), one could, in the period of this itinerant’s visit, find much graffiti on the streets that testified that not all Basques thought themselves Spanish. Slogans like “Gora Euskadi” cheered on a sense of a distinct Basque identity, while other slogans (Euskal Presoak Euskal Herrira) dragged ones attention to the fact that all too often political prisoners were incarcerated outside of the Basque country, so as to make visits by their families a complicated affair.

Another feature that both San Sebastián and Panjim share is that they both enjoy more than one name. San Sebastián also has a Basque (Euskera) name Donostia, while Goa’s capital is known as Panjim in English, Ponnje in Konkani, and Pangim in Portuguese. What perhaps distinguishes San Sebastián from Panjim, is that the former city, following a feature common in the rest of the Basque country, provides space for both versions of the name. This usage is a result of Spain’s efforts to accommodate a variety of regional identities, and indeed nationalisms into the idea of the Spanish nation-state. Now here is something that one would want to see replicated in Goa! This replication would make sense given that in recent days there has been some talk of sharpening the similarity between the two cities. If this is a project that is to be taken seriously, then this is not a project that should end with physical infrastructure. On the contrary, this is a project that must include an agenda that will balance the skewed directions of Goa, and Panjim’s cultural policy.

(A version of this post was first published in The Goan on 23 March 2013)

Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Itinerant: Saint Christopher’s wardrobe

St. Christopher in the Cathedral in Toledo.
The Cathedral of Toledo, in Spain, hosts on one of its walls a monumental painting of St. Christopher. St. Christopher, legend tells us, started out as Offero, offering his services to people to help ford a river. He remained Offero, until one stormy evening, he forded the river with a child on his shoulders. Particularly insistent on crossing despite the storm, on reaching the other side, the child revealed himself as the infant Jesus and indicated to Offero, that since he had carried Christ that evening, he would hence forth be called Christ-offero.  In offering his shoulders to Christ it turns out, Offero not only gained a name, but provided for the Catholic church, the patron saint of travelers.

The depiction of Christopher in the Cathedral in Toledo wears what medieval depictions of European saints are normally depicted wearing, a long tunic, that is, in the case of Christopher, hitched up at his waist so as to not get too much of the garment wet. The same saint is depicted, on a somewhat smaller scale, but no less dramatically in the Cathedral in Old Goa. This depiction of the saint, at least with respect to his garments differs dramatically from the depiction of Christopher in Toledo.

Detail of the image of St. Christopher in the Se, Old Goa.
This Christopher in Old Goa, hangs immediately to the left of the main entrance of the Cathedral, and has been the subject of some excitement in the field of art history. Amateurs and professionals have pointed out that this St. Christopher wears what some would call a dhoti or a langoti. What is often left out however, is that this is not the only piece of native clothing that the Goan Christopher is wearing. If one looks very closely, one realises that the shirt that Christopher is wearing in this version, has rather peculiar features. It looks akin to the many versions of the Persian jama that filtered into the sub-continent. This shirt, does not boast buttons, but the front of the shirt is held together by knotted strings, just like the many varieties of the jama or angarakha are even today held together.

St. Christopher's wardrobe in Goa

Ibrahim Adil Shah, Sultan of the post Bahmani State of Bijapur
When the art historians realized that St. Christopher in Old Goa was wearing a dhoti, they forwarded the argument that perhaps the artist who painted the image of the saint, was not Catholic, nor European, but a native and a Hindu. In doing so, they seek to stress the Sanskritic nature of pre-Portuguese Goa. If however, we recognize that the garments of the saint are composed of more than just the dhoti, but this jama shirt as well, then our view of the possible identity of the artist must necessarily be complicated. There is no need for us to make the argument that the artist was in fact Muslim. However, we must recognise the fact, that if the artist was in fact native, then the vocabulary of the artist was more than just Sanskritic, but one that was at home with the Persianate and broader Islamicate fashions that had been dominant along the west coast ever since the ascendancy of the Bahmani Sultanates in the Deccan. It points out to us that Goa’s pre-colonial history, and its pre-colonial peoples were a culturally complex lot.

(A version of this post first appeared in The Goan dtd 16 April 2013)

Reflections on a Papal Transition I : Reading Pope Francis for Meaning: Culture vs. Power

There has been a great amount of enthusiasm subsequent to the election of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio to the chair of St. Peter. This enthusiasm has been generated as a result of a number of his actions that seem to suggest a desire to embrace a life of simplicity even as he occupies a position that has long been associated with pomp, luxury and power.

As welcome as these actions may be in the context of the way in which the Vatican has worked, there is need to be cautious about the manner in which the same actions are interpreted outside of this immediate context. As I will go on to argue, a blind imitation of the Papal embrace of poverty and simplicity could in fact work against the very poor and disempowered that Pope Francis seems to seek to privilege.

Two particular choices that Pope Francis made did not go unnoticed by the world. The first was his opting to not wear the ermine lined mozzetta (the red-hued cape) when he made his first appearance, and secondly his preferring to wear his black shoes, rather than the traditional red shoes of Popes past. These two actions have been among others that have been hailed as a non-European Pope’s indication of his rejection of what are seen as outdated, and European, symbols of the Papacy. In the context of the continuing contestations around the meaning of the II Vatican Council, it is possible that these actions will be seen as a Papal approval of the discarding of earlier traditions of the Church and making space for vernacular cultures. While making space for vernacular cultures is an action that should be welcomed, we should take care to ensure  that the vernacular does get swallowed by the national. Furthermore, we should eschew any moves that suggest that all older traditions of the Church are colonial European relics and have no space in decolonized space. Too often this has been the case with the Church, especially in India (and Goa is no exception but in fact an exemplar of the rule), where older traditions of the Church have been cast aside as colonial and instead of promoting the vernacular culture that has digested European introductions into local culture, symbols that are in conformity with national (i.e. upper caste Hindu) culture have been introduced.

What needs to be recognized, not just for India, but in places as diverse as Africa and Latin America, is that the “European” is welcomed by the disenfranchised and those outside of power. This European-ness, is welcomed not because of some self-loathing, and Euro-aping fetish of the majority of these populations, but because the European is the de facto culture of power. It is the nuances of this culture which ensures that these people can move outside of their poverty and disenfranchisement. One need only take the example of so many working (and other) class Goans, Catholic or otherwise, who have managed to better their lives essentially through their adoption of European manners, and European passports. What is perverse about the rejection of European-ness is that all too often, these projects are enthusiastically supported by upper-class elites whether within the Church or outside of it, who maintain their European manners, even while the wish the lower-classes to live without them.

Another papal action that has stirred the world is Pope Francis’ rejection of the luxury of the papal apartments, and his opting to stay in the relative modesty of a suite in the Vatican hotel for visiting prelates, the Domus Sanctae Marthae. It is the relative modesty of the suite in Domus that must necessarily be stressed, for it drives home the fact that this poverty that Pope Francis adopts is in the context of the overwhelming luxury that characterises the papal suites. The suite in the Domus is still a far cry from the poverty of St. Francis, or indeed much of the world’s poor. Indeed, it is the relative poverty of Cardinal Bergoglio’s choices even when he was Archbishop in Buenos Aires that must also be stressed.

I make this argument to recognize the relativity of Pope Francis’ actions because too often, the actions of persons like Pope Francis are used to justify, rather than fight poverty. Rather than challenge the structures and situations that cause poverty, the papal actions will be used to encourage the poor to accept their fate, and the miserable handouts that come their way. In a world that is disfigured by poverty, it needs to be stressed that beauty and luxury were created for a purpose. They should be seen as gifts from God, and as such are both earthly visions of paradise. The challenge must therefore lie not in rejecting in, but in ensuring an approach to beauty and luxury that recognizes these conditions as privileges that must necessarily be shared.

Rather than opt for these problematic ways in interpreting the actions of Pope Francis, I would suggest that all of the actions that have been acclaimed, and that I have problematized thus far, could be more acceptably welcomed if we stressed the possibility for communion that pervades these actions. Pope Francis’s actions have sought to affirm a collegiality of the Pope among the Bishops, and of an approachable guide among the laity. What Pope Francis can also be argued as doing therefore, is righting the scales of power, to create the possibility for equality. Rather than take away dubious cultural meanings from his actions thus far, we would be better served by embracing the collegial, and egalitarian message his actions contain.

(A version of this post first appeared in the Gomantak Times dated 4 April 2013)