Bringing Goa’s hidden stories to life
The personal and the historical collide in ‘Goa Familia’, Lina Vincent and Akshay Mahajan’s recent exhibition, which draws from the histories of Goan families
The Serendipity Arts Festival has extended past its initial closing date of 22 December, but the Goa Institute of Management wears a deserted look. It could be that the New Year is a day away and everyone’s firming up their party plans. Yet, a more plausible explanation for why there seem to be more volunteers than attendees when we visit is the clock hands inching towards 1pm. In Goa, everything stops at siesta time.
This wouldn’t have gone down well with the Bharneys, who ran a linen store in pre-independence Goa. To secure a competitive advantage over entrenched businesses, A.S. Bharney had the radical idea of keeping the store open through afternoon sleep-time. It worked, and the owners continued to make canny decisions, switching from imported Chinese and Japanese fabrics to Indian ones after independence. Even their family name serviced a need—they were the Vardhes until they moved to Madkai in North Goa when the town needed a temple elder. Bharney derives from the Konkani word bhor, “to fill".
This is one of the many stories that make up Goa Familia, an exhibition first shown at the now-concluded multidisciplinary Serendipity festival. It was presented in affiliation with Rahaab Allana, curator of Alkazi Foundation for the Arts and co-curator of photography for Serendipity 2019. Art historian Lina Vincent and photographer Akshay Mahajan acted as co-curators. “The idea was initially to look at vernacular photography, mostly family photographs," says Mahajan. “You are creating a permanent archive of this material."
Goa Familia was a showcase... They spoke to 10 Goan families in all: oral ethnographic interviews, later edited into a 10-minute video displayed at the exhibition. The families allowed them to use their old photographs and memorabilia—the exhibition had a mix of original artefacts and reproductions. “What we wanted to do was look at people’s histories but also look at family albums as a place for keeping memories," he explains. “We don’t have large institutional archives here, unlike in the West. Archives of pictures do exist, but in the unauthorized sense. So, we are activating these archives, which are people’s houses and family albums."
“We had no particular methodology in finding these families," Mahajan says. “Our only concern was to create a wide ambit, so you could see Goa at its most diverse."
Through these photographs, you get glimpses of larger historical currents as well. There’s a photograph of Mohandas Gandhi’s dentures in the collection of the Barrettos. In 1936, Dr C. Barretto removed the freedom fighter’s teeth at the Gandhi Sevagram Ashram near Nagpur, retained them as a keepsake, and finally donated them to the National Gandhi Museum, Delhi. In the video, you can hear sisters Ada and Armida Menezes, both in their 80s, from São Mathias, Divar, talk about their childhood and their father, the poet and educator Armando Menezes. Ada learnt Bharatanatyam growing up, and one of the photographs is of her dancing in 1954 on Independence Day in Panaji—a Goan raised in Karnataka with the ideals of the national movement, performing in Goa, which was still under the Portuguese.
Goa was a fruitful place to look at family records because of its unique 400-year history and the various migrations it encompasses. Goans were the “pre-globalization globalized Indians, moving all the way from Macau, East Africa, Portugal and Brazil", says Mahajan. There’s a photograph of Marias Fernandez’s father in Nairobi, Kenya. A sizeable Goan population settled in East African nations under British rule in the late 19th and early 20th century—a fallout of Portugal’s economic troubles at the time.
There are also stories of migration within the country—and of the creation of little Goas wherever they went. Mahajan says that for Goans, their ancestral village has always remained very important. The cultural lives in most villages would centre around local clubs. These clubs would then be recreated in big cities: a Goan from, say, Salcette, could go to Mumbai and find his specific community in a club there.
Vincent and Mahajan had to make do with what they got: Some photographs were faded or damaged, others were missing information. Some, however, are perfect, like the wedding picture with the intriguing caption “Image of Antoinette with her mother and her sister, who eventually became her stepmother". Antoinette Fernandes is now in her 80s and suffering from dementia. “Her memories come to her in little spurts," Mahajan says. “She might not remember everything that is happening currently but her past is very clear. It was a very moving exercise doing the interview."
At times, one family’s collection found an echo in another’s. Pandit Prabhakar Govind Chari was a renowned tabla player and teacher. His son, sitar player Ravi Chari, couldn’t find any pictures of his father teaching local children. But later, when Mahajan and Vincent were speaking to the Bharney family, they found a photograph of Sanjay Bharney learning the tabla from Chari.
Mahajan says they plan to continue with the project. Their work till now will be collected on a digital archive, including the photographs and unedited video interviews. “The hope in the long term is that this can be a brick-and-mortar space which people can access, like a preservation centre," he says. If this happens, it will be the second home Goa’s lost stories deserve.
FIRST PUBLISHED17.01.2020 | 04:50 PM IST