The small village of Curdi in Sanguem, Goa, has been serving as a muse for artist Sahil Naik for several years. This is no ordinary place; it’s imbued with stories, myths and legends. In the 1980s, it was submerged by the Salaulim dam. In April-May each year, though, Curdi returns—for this is when parts of the village rise above the waters.
This is also the time when the original inhabitants—who were rehabilitated in neighbouring villages but are now spread across Goa—return to relive their memories. Naik has been working with such families to document the landscape, oral histories and songs. And he is showcasing sculptural work based on these in the online viewing room created by the Kolkata-based Experimenter gallery as part of his solo exhibition, All Is Water, And To Water We Must Return.
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This series emerges particularly from his interaction with the last set of villagers who knew Curdi before the submergence. They are growing older and their stories have remained largely undocumented. Naik’s sculptures invite you to bear witness to this time and loss—to a home that cannot be returned to—and a landscape that’s changing by the moment. It offers intimacy, suspended in time.
This is in sync with his practice of looking at the way sites and structures can bear witness or serve an evidential function. “In 2013, I moved to Baroda (Vadodara) for my postgraduate studies. At that point, I was already thinking about the possibilities of space and architecture,” says Naik in an email interview. “I was interested in the gap between forensic, hard facts and inspired versions of time and incident, the fabricated image and truth.”
This is what really led to Ground Zero, his first exhibition at the Experimenter in 2017. Central to that exhibition was Lazaretto, a scale-to-size model of Delhi’s Khirkee area, abandoned, living in the aftermath of contagion. During a residency at Khoj Studios, he had walked around the neighbourhood, and he couldn’t help but notice how architecture filled space to contend with urgency, need and function—windows opened into windows, lanes narrowed until no sunlight percolated. “The truth of unorganised neighbourhoods such as Khirkee is that they are constantly rendered invisible by the system, leaving them vulnerable,” he says.
In 2017, Naik also began working on Monuments, Mausoleums, Memorials, Modernism—ongoing research that takes the form of multiple essay exhibitions. It extends from questions and conditions of public and political architecture, heritage politics, ideas of utopia and development, legacy and erasure. “It seemed apt to begin with Curdi, which was sacrificed and submerged due to the building of the Salaulim dam—a modernist structure in line with Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s aesthetic and Dayanand Bandodkar’s memorial to Goa’s liberation, and as a signpost of development,” says Naik.
He believes Curdi, like Khirkee, was home to people whose way of life was considered dispensable, whose history could be washed over and “whose lands ultimately ‘belonged’ to the state”. “Here was also abandonment, a village reduced to a mere conglomerate of ruins, mostly submerged through the year. On social media, it began to be referred to as the Atlantis of Goa, turning it into a haunt, an eerie destination distanced from its actual story, its significant life and ancient history,” says Naik. “But Curdi is still alive and its stories continue to resist erasure.”
The artist first visited Curdi about a decade ago—and he has returned every year since. Year after year, he has met the erstwhile inhabitants of Curdi, and their children, who return in April-May in a pilgrimage of sorts. They point to the landscape and tell him about a house, a tree, a shrine, a school, which once stood there. “Some would clean the remains of their houses, offer flowers or just touch the walls and pray. We would take walks, trace the village roads, its peripheries, structures, fields and forests that don’t exist any more,” he says.
Over time, these conversations have developed into relationships Naik is grateful for. He feels this is a story that needed to be told—one not just of sacrifice but also of resilience. “It was a story that wasn’t told enough yet resisted erasure because the inhabitants refused to let the government forget. Curdi was submerged to solve ‘Goa’s water woes’ but the people who gave up their lands for it don’t have water yet. It was also a story of a community that believes in the spirits of their land and forests and fields and water; in nature, and how it preserves their histories. So we began to document these stories, sing these songs and build a people’s archive,” he adds.
Besides anecdotes, songs and archival material, Naik has also been documenting the physical landscape and architectural ruins. Using photogrammetry, archival images collected from people, press clippings and Archaeological Survey of India data, as well as computer-generated imagery and photographs and videos taken by visitors over the years, he has been developing the landscape bit by bit. All Is Water, And To Water We Must Return presents all that was once part of this landscape, sculpted to detail using soil, stone and bark, and then cast in fibreglass.
The sculpture is both a site of encounter and a study that documents change. It’s also kinetic—the waters rise slowly and recede, submerging and returning the landscape over time. Among other things, the idea was to propose the submergence and re-emergence of the landscape as a measure of time for her people.
All Is Water, And To Water We Must Return can be viewed till 30 June at https://bit.ly/3bW4e7x