Friday, July 24, 2015

Art, Gender, and Faith

So profoundly has social media changed the ways in which we communicate and form ourselves that to declare that the world of social media has changed the manner in which we interact would be to state the obvious. Social media has given many of us the option to define ourselves in new ways, granting each of us access to resources that perhaps were scarcely imaginable even a decade ago.

Like many others, I took to these new forms of moulding my self-image like a duck to water. I was particularly fascinated by the possibilities that Facebook’s cover picture options offered. For those not yet in the know, the cover picture is what one would perhaps call the banner of the web page; it is a block of space at the top of one’s personal page that can be customised to fit in an image of one’s choice.

The release of this option to Facebook users coincided with my discovery of one of the features of the internal space of the Church of Saint Roque in Lisbon. The central panel of the retable of the main altar in this church is changed according to the liturgical season. Thus, the seasons of Lent, Easter, Advent, Christmas, and Ordinary time have their own panels. The effect on the largely illiterate faithful prior to times such as ours, when we are bombarded with so much visual material, must have been dramatic, offering an icon that was appropriate to the reflections of the season. Inspired by this feature, I have constantly changed the cover picture on my Facebook wall to suit the moment, whether it be a festival, a moment in history, an art work that strikes my fancy, or suchlike.

The Catholic Church commemorated the feast of St. Mary Magdalene on the twenty-second of this month. Almost every Christian is aware that Mary Magdalene is an important figure in the story of Christ’s life. She is identified as the woman who anointed Christ with perfume, and wiped his feet with her hair—an occasion that, according to the Gospels, caused quite a stir and called for a rebuke from Christ. Subsequently, she is depicted as present at the crucifixion and the resurrection of Christ, and finally, there are representations of her as a penitent, living her life as a hermit.

The occasion of her feast day, of course, called for a commemoration of the event. I was unsure, however, as to how to capture Mary Magdalene. Should I exhibit her before the Resurrection, where she is depicted anointing the feet of Christ, or wailing at the foot of the cross, or post resurrection, where she is depicted as the penitent?

I was uncomfortable with the images of the anointing because of their patriarchal character. One image in particular, displaying a woman and her hair, and merely the feet of Christ, was quite horrifying. Focusing on a male foot, female hands and hair,  despite the best intentions of the author, so much of the context had been removed to make the image seem vaguely pornographic. This image was too far removed from the more mystical reading that Christ himself provided of the action. Rather, it seemed to suggest the servitude of women to men.

The images of Mary Magdalene as a penitent similarly displayed an often lascivious male appreciation of her figure. Further, these images seemed to stress not Mary the privileged disciple but the prostituted woman that she has been identified with. Indeed, in these images, there was too much of an obsession with the fallen woman, without any appreciation for her redemption through Christ.

Of these many representations of Mary Magdalene as the penitent, there was one image that kept suggesting itself insistently. This was a Baroque period statute of the penitent Mary carved by the seventeenth century Spanish artist Pedro de Mena. Belonging to the Spanish National Museum of Sculpture, currently housed in the Colegio de San Gregorio in Valladolid, I had the privilege of encountering the image when it was on loan to the National Museum of Antique Art in Lisbon between 2011 and 2012. There are no words that can quite capture the sublime beauty of this image, whether in the care given to the coarse garments of the penitent Mary, or the bliss of contemplation that animates her face. Unfortunately, however, none of the images on the internet were quite able to do justice to this image. In any case, as I will subsequently elaborate, this moment of penitence was not the moment I decided on. Also, there is good reason to believe that the penitent Mary is the result of the conflation of Mary Madgalene with that of St. Mary of Egypt. This image, therefore, just would not do.

I eventually settled on the moment when Mary encounters Christ after his resurrection. This choice was determined largely because of the immense importance of this moment, captured perfectly in the words of Sr. Sandra Schneiders:

“as three of the four Gospels record, she was indeed the first witness to the Resurrection, and so then for those fateful moments, hours immediately thereafter, there’s a deep sense in which Mary Magdala was the Church. She was the only person who knew the story and could proclaim it of the Resurrection.”

There are times when one is unable to understand the full import of the words one encounters. And yet one is aware that something monumental has taken place. An entire worldview has been shifted, and a new perspective has been born. In these few words, Schneiders managed to convey the central importance of this female figure in a world that predominantly focuses on male and patriarchal actors. She repositioned Mary Magdalene, not as a fallen figure of immorality, nor as a penitent (whose value I am not disputing, though penitence can be overemphasized so as to occlude grace), but as a person who, as a result of Christ’s certain choice, was privileged to be the first to be made aware of the key moment of the Christian message and, in conveying the message of new life to the rest of the disciples, she embodied the Church in those initial moments. 

(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo on 24 July 2015)

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

José Gerson da Cunha, his myths and histories: Rethinking Origin Myths in Goa IV

For some time now I have been revisiting the myth recounted by Narayan Kondiba Mane, a Dhangar shepherd from the district of Kolhapur in Maharashtra. The myth tells of the birthing of the hero Parashurama and his relationship with the Goddess Yellamma. Mane’s myth suggests that Parashurama was born of the virgin Goddess Yellamma as a punishment for her violation of the sacred grove of Mahadev. Saddled with a baby, the Goddess was given aid by the Shia heroes Imam Hassan and Imam Hussein who built a residence for her on the hill of Saundati not far from Belgaum. As the title of this series of columns indicates, we can use this Dhangar narrative to rethink the central role that is often given to a brahmanically-imagined Parashurama when recounting Goa’s mythical origins
Rethinking the now popular Parashurama myth requires that we recognize that the centrality that the brahmanical, or Puranic, myth currently enjoys is perhaps only a century old. Prior to this period the idea that Parashurama, son of the sage Jamadagni and Renuka, created Goa by shooting an arrow into the sea was not widespread. On the contrary, this was a Puranic version alone, and each Purana, or copy of a Purana, had its own peculiar spin on the narrative.  Take, for example, the fact that there is no unanimity as regards what it was that Parashurama used to push the sea back. Was it an arrow that he shot from his bow, as is believed in Goa, or an axe as is the case further down the west coast? Further those outside of brahmanical society, and this included the vast majority of society, had limited, or no access to these Puranic stories. As Mane’s recounting of the myth of Yellamma and Parashurama indicates, there were a variety of other myths, outside of the brahmanical sphere, that provided different life stories for these personalities. How is it, then, that the Puranic myth gained the popularity that it enjoys today?

The key to this question lies in the figure of the orientalist gentleman-scholar José Gerson da Cunha (1844-1900), who operated from Bombay in the nineteenth century.  Cunha’s contribution to history was to locate a variety of the Parashurama myths and establish a single version that he would publish and present as a scientific version, as the following extract from his famous work, The Konkani Language and Literature (1881), demonstrates:

"The edition of these fragments which I published in 1877, and the translation of which I have now completed, show the work to contain more mythology than history, more fiction than truth, and this embodied in a Sanskrit which has but little regard for orthography and grammar. Difficult as it is to disentangle the thread of truth from the confused web of fiction, or of those hopeless mazes of legends and myths which everywhere abound, there are still incorporated into the work some local traditions of more or less worth, treasured up for centuries by the Brahmans of the Konkan, who consider it to be their paladium. It may in consequence be utilized by patient and critical labour, obtaining some obscure hints, defective in chronological data though they be, from which grains of historical truth may be extracted." (p.8)

This extract suggests that the version we do have of the myth was the result of his editorial interventions. While it is clear that Cunha clearly saw these texts as fanciful and mythical, it is also obvious that he sought to identify history from the piles of myth that he encountered. It is because he suggested that one could find history in these myths, and because of the locations - the Gazetteer of the Bombay Presidency and European conferences - where his works were published, that his assertions came to be accepted as history.

But why was Cunha so concerned with extracting history from this myth?  The answer is pretty straight forward; Cunha had an obsession with caste, establishing the antiquity of his own caste, and his caste’s location as that equivalent to European nobility. Consider this extract from George Moraes’ obituary of the man in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bombay (1964-64: 8): “Another weakness of Dr. Da Cunha was his caste complex. In his Konkani Language and Literature he never misses an opportunity of boosting the caste of the author if he happens to be of his caste, however obscure may have been his work…” Earlier in this obituary (page 3), Moraes also credits Cunha with providing an interpretative gloss that allowed the title of Shenvi or Shenoy to be understood as that of aristocracy. 

Reflecting on Gerson da Cunha, the scholar Filipa Vicente (2012) points out that his European-ness and his brahmin-ness were critical to the way in which he sought to project himself. Both were absolutely essential to his identity and worked in tandem. Where on one occasion, he was described merely as a brahmin, Cunha manifested great discomfort because this fact of his identity was separated from his Catholicism.  Vicente points out that “this declaration of his Europeanism does not necessarily signify a rejection of his Indian identity. It was precisely his Goan origins that enabled this combination of both his identities. Goa's ‘Portuguese nature’ and his own personal and family history attributed to him with the Europeanism he acknowledged, and which he wanted others to recognise in him, while also recognising his Indian Brahman identity.” In other words, da Cunha’s Catholicism allowed him to be seen as a European in European circles, while his brahmanical identity allowed him to claim the ancient and noble pedigree that he conferred on his caste fellows.

José Gerson da Cunha was writing in very volatile times, with new identities being manufactured by a variety of groups and new orders emerging, alongside an incipient Indian nationalism that privileged a brahmanical past. That Cunha’s machinations worked and were acclaimed by so many is an indication that his work fulfilled a need of a variety of persons, both Hindu as well as Catholic, then as well as currently. Perhaps we cannot grudge them the social mobility that they desired. However, it is important that we recognise that the ‘history’ that we babble about today was born from very peculiar circumstances geared towards personal agendas of brahmanical groups. It is also important that we recognise that the social mobility that these individuals and groups sort was a mobility exclusive to themselves. It engendered a mobility at the cost of that of others, namely the non-brahmanical groups. Mane’s Dhangar myth of the Goddess Yellamma, Parashurama, and the Shia Imams indicates to us that non-brahmins have different stories to tell, stories that deserve as much credit as those told by brahmins, especially because they may engender a more inclusive world.

(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo dated 10 July 2015)

Monday, July 6, 2015

Notes of the Itinerant: Locating the best Goan lunch in Lisbon

It’s one of those standard questions when you meet someone new and they realise you are from Goa, or from a place deemed foreign; “Oh! Do you know where one can get the best Goan [insert appropriate location] food in Lisbon?” The question is annoying on so many levels. First, there is this manner in which one gets turned into an information hub on the exotic. The next thing you know, they will be asking you if we use elephants to go to school. The other reason for annoyance is perhaps because until recently I just did not know where I could find the best Goan food in Lisbon.
 It is not as if there are no Goan restaurants in Lisbon. There are quite a few, and a good number of them are in fact not bad. For example, I think fondly of Sabores deGoa, tucked away in the appropriately named Bairro das Colónias. But no matter how satisfying the meal, there was always something missing, and I could not quite place my finger on what this missing element. What I did know is that the absence was not the lack of authenticity that one finds in ‘Indian’ restaurants. Of course, there is no such thing as ‘Indian food’. The food that is so often passed off as Indian is the food inspired from the cuisine of the Punjab and other parts of the North western Gangetic plains. This is but one part of the nation-state of India. As is to add insult to this injury, most of the restaurants that offer this Indian food, may have a dozen or so offerings on their menu but the taste varies between three to four flavours. Shocking! It is for this reason that most often I steadfastly refuse to go out to dinner at an Indian restaurant. “If I wanted to eat food from home, then I would eat at home” I protest pedantically. “In any case, the food they offer is not what my mother would cook, and neither is it very good.” Mother, clearly, always trumps!
Some time ago I realised that what really bugged me about eating out, whether in an Indian, or a Goan, restaurant was the lack of an etiquette. Take a couple of European examples as illustrations. When one dines out in Portugal, there are invariably three courses that occupy the meal, soup, main course, and dessert. If one went the Italian way, one has the antipasti, primi piatti , secondi piatti and of course the dolce, the desserts.  Each of these culinary traditions has managed to articulate a etiquette such that there is an internal logic to the meal. One comes away having a full and complete meal, satisfied with the final product.

This has not been my experience with the Indian, and Goan, meals that I had in Lisbon. If I manage to bully my companions into addressing the meal my way, then we ensure that we get a couple of bowls of rice, and a variety of accompaniments. But invariably, possibly due to the fact that we are addressing not an internal logic of a culinary tradition but individual preferences of a variety of people the result is still less than satisfactory.

My search for the best Goan food in Lisbon, however, ended recently when I discovered that Lis Goa, the newest restaurant in town, had added a fish thali to its offerings. Those who have been in Goa will know of the immense popularity of the fish thali, whether for visiting tourists, or office-goers. The thali consists of the basic combination of rice and fish curry, with an accompanying vegetable. Subsequently, one can elaborate on this basic offering by adding fried fish, shell fish, dal, a variety of vegetables. The list of possible additions is mouth-wateringly endless and it is rice links all these various flavours together. Despite the elaboration, this is a peasant meal. There is no fuss to it, it is honest, and it works within the logic of the cuisine. Perhaps this is the reason for the fish thali’s almost universal appeal to Goans who eat out. And perhaps this is why Lis Goa figured that if they were going to represent Goan food, this is the one method through which they could do so best.
I have to confess that I was sold on the idea even before I arrived at the restaurant. This was the afternoon I was going to kill all homesickness with a lunch I could pretend I was having in Goa. There have been times when I have built up expectations and been woefully disappointed. This was not the case, however. This time round it was spot on. Lis Goa did not in fact disappoint.

It is not as if the offerings on the thali were exquisite. They didn’t need to be. The fact is that they were not bad. And they worked together. It offered one a full meal linked around the most basic elements of food in Goa and along the west coast – rice, fish, vegetable. My search for the best Goan meal in Lisbon had ended.

(A version of this post was first published on 5 July 2015 in The Goan Everyday)