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The Saligao Blues: Goa’s global village

  • Saligao is struggling to preserve its open-minded cultural fabric. Due to the impact of migration, native Goans have become a minority in their homeland
  • Residents feel there’s a crisis brewing in Saligao. There’s unemployment, and land sharks are running amok. There’s also a huge problem of garbage

HT image
HT image

In 2008, my family left our home in Goa to spend the summer vacation in London where we came across a poster advertising Sotheby’s annual sale of Indian art. That’s how I ended up in the front row at the auction house in Bond Street, when they announced The Red Road and white-gloved liverymen carried out the massive, magnificent oils-on-canvas by Francis Newton Souza. I found myself breathless, pierced to the core as recognition flooded my brain, “Saligao!" Here was a straightforward rendition of the landscape of the North Goa village where the artist was born. Barely able to contain myself, I watched in mute agony as it sold for just over a million dollars, then swiftly disappeared out of sight forever.

When you think of Indian villages, you don’t generally associate them with record-setting modern art sold in London. That’s because when you think of an Indian village, much of what comes to mind doesn’t apply to Goa. To be sure, there’s unlimited pastoral beauty here, complete with gleaming paddy fields leading up to hillside cashew plantations.

But right alongside is an astounding history of migration dating back over three centuries. Much is made of the native ‘Susegad’ or devotion to leisurely contentment that characterizes the Goan world view, but that attitude has been hard won by generations of hard strivers all over the world. This is the story of Souza’s village, and also the singularity of India’s smallest state.

Precisely this distinction struck Graham Greene, when he visited immediately after decolonization. His 1964 essay in The Sunday Times entitled Goa the Unique points out, “The houses in the Goan village were built with piety to last. There are few extremes of poverty and affluence: most houses, however small, are constructed of laterite blocks with brown tiles of great beauty. They were built by Goans, not by Portuguese…often by Goans in exile, in Aden or in Africa, who hoped to return one day, for the far-ranging Goan has loyalty to his village you seldom find elsewhere." Inevitably, “on the first Indian village outside Goa on the road to Bombay you are back to the mud huts and broken thatch".

What explains these fundamental differences between Goan villages and those across the state border? One reason is the age-old Gaunkari (later Communidade) tradition of collective land ownership with distributed dividends, called by the polymathic scholar D.D. Kosambi, “this remarkable form of profit sharing, which is not known in so clear-cut and recognizable form elsewhere in India". While still riddled with inequalities, the economic relationships derived from this ancient system are less feudal than other parts of the subcontinent.

However, it is above all waves of migration that defines the contemporary cultural history of Goa’s villages. Then and now, the unshakable bedrock of Goan identity remains the international passport. Most people here are born with the right to at least two: Portuguese (thus European Union) and Indian passports. Official statistics reveal Souza’s village now has less than 10,000 residents, but there are undoubtedly at least twice as many Saligaokars scattered in diaspora.

(Top) The Red Road by Francis Newton Souza is a straightforward rendition of the landscape of Saligao village where the artist was born, and (above) Leticia De Souza portrait from Saligao ladies 2007.  Photo by Dayanita Singh
(Top) The Red Road by Francis Newton Souza is a straightforward rendition of the landscape of Saligao village where the artist was born, and (above) Leticia De Souza portrait from Saligao ladies 2007.  Photo by Dayanita Singh


The history of the western coastline of India is written in confluence. Dig as far back into recorded time as the written word allows, and you find the name of Goa already inscribed, as open for business.

But it was unexpected events in Europe that set Saligao and its neighbours permanently on the road. The initial trigger was the rise of Napoleon, his ambitions reverberating panic throughout Europe. Fearing (accurately) the French would target their precious Raj (rule) by collaborating with Tipu Sultan, the British sailed into Portuguese Goa to pre-empt use of its port against their fleets. In the end, their garrisons remained put from 1799 to 1813.

That lengthy stay provoked epiphany. The British were delighted to discover skilled cooks without taboos about handling meat, adept clerks who had already mastered the Latin alphabet, proficient musicians in the western tradition, experienced tailors who knew all about gowns and coat-lengths. Even better, this hard-working bonanza came without the usual Indian proscriptions about travelling abroad. In his quirky 1962 monograph Goan Emigration, the Saligao writer J.B. Pinto exults “Goan cooks, butlers, pantry boys, dhobis, bakers, tailors, shoemakers, musicians, clerks, ayahs, were given exclusive monopolies throughout the length and breadth of then undivided India".

The Goan 19th century following this fortuitous alignment of supply and demand belongs in the foremost annals of globalization. Some 20% of the population territory steamed out with alacrity, many of them to Karachi. Even while city’s initial plans were being formulated, Manuel D’Abreu landed up, quickly summoning dhows filled with Saligaokar relatives. Today, Karachi is the fifth most populous city in the world, and in between is the making of thousands of Goan families.

The tapestry of meaning that connects generations of disparate and far-flung villagers to homestead, locality and faith practices persists to an unusual degree in Saligao. Recently, I was surprised to see the smartphone screen saver of Shivanand Salgaocar (whose father was among the pioneers of iron ore mining and export in 1950’s Goa) displaying the unmistakable ‘roinn’ sacred anthill deity of his distant ancestors, despite the fact his family left the village long before he was born.

His daughter Swati, who has degrees in architecture from Yale and Columbia, startled me by admitting she could relate. “There has always been a strong emotional draw. One of my first memories is standing in front of a tin shed, over a large anthill. It was drizzling, and I was perplexed as to how this was supposed to be a temple, but also in awe of how religion could be something so minimal, quiet and natural."

The call of Saligao

It’s not Goa I come to, it’s Saligao," says Dayanita Singh, who many people believe is India’s greatest living artist (I certainly do). Two decades ago, she plunged into an indescribably intense relationship with the village, photographing its inhabitants extensively, then hosting the pivotal exhibition De Mello Vaddo in the high-ceilinged premises of the sedate Saligao Institute.

Today, Singh’s artwork is exhibited in venues few Indian artists reach. She tells me the early exhibition in Saligao changed everything. “It was a seminal show for me, because it led to the vast possibilities of being part of a domestic archive. I made 40 laminated prints, and double-taped them to the walls of the Institute. When the exhibition was over, people peeled the images from the walls and carried them back home all over the village, where they still hang in 33 different homes. This gesture shaped forever the way I want to disseminate my work."

On and off throughout the year, Singh lives in a minimally restored (and tasteful) century-old house, hemmed in closely by watchful Goan neighbours who protect her privacy and solitude. She says, “I think of myself as only the caretaker of this house which was built in 1910 [note: the original owner was attendant physician to the Sultan of Zanzibar] and could not imagine leaving here. It has become my laboratory for thought."

Those are most winning sentiments, and it is true many other neo-Goans have also moved in with sincere intentions of maintaining the open-minded cultural fabric that attracted them in the first place. Yet, there’s no denying the impact of demographic displacement over the past two decades, as native Goans have become a decided minority in their homeland. Ramesh Ghadi, multi-talented proprietor of the popular Ghadi Fitness, told me “Crisis is building in Saligao. There’s a problem of unemployment, and because very few companies on the industrial estate [note: built on appropriated Communidade land] offer decent wages, only outsiders are employed there."

This puts pressure on precious land resources. Ghadi says, “Many panchayat members are directly or indirectly connected to land dealers. These sharks are now eyeing farming and orchard land. Hill cutting and filling of fields is becoming an everyday story. The village is on sale. Money and vote bank politics are now playing a big role in giving house numbers to the illegal constructions. If it is not stopped right now, there will be an ugly disaster. All these years we have been divided on religion, caste, Gaunkar and non-Gaunkar, but it’s high time we get united to save our village."

Ghadi’s recollections of his agrarian childhood often enliven Saligao internet groups, where loyal villagers keep time-honoured bonds alive by means of the latest technology. In fact, the first time I dialled up to the Internet in 1995, there was Saligao, in the presence of Herman Carneiro and Frederick Noronha, who created Goanet on the World Wide Web long before the rest of India caught up to the potential of the new medium.

Recently on the humming Saligao-Net group on Facebook, there came news of a brand new farmer’s market initiative to connect local farmers to consumers living nearby. Its main champion, the nurse-turned-painter Clarice Vaz told me, “It’s true there are big problems in Saligao. But we have to do something to turn things around. I am trying to break through the caste and class barriers by creating activities for all of our mutual benefit. That gains trust. At that point all Saligaokars unite."

In conclusion

I cry for my fate," the fervently adored chanteuse Lorna Cordeiro (who was born in Saligao in 1946) sings in Noxibak Roddtta, the classic Konkani lament about abandonment. That emotion is omnipresent in the villages of this tiny state, as they stagger from combined, potentially fatal assaults. A broad consensus holds that the model of development being imposed is anti-people and unsustainable, while the rule of law is trashed and undermined by the absence of accountability in a vacuum of governance.

Perfectly emblematic of the fate of this trash-strewn “tourist destination", the proximate cause of Saligao’s eventual destruction is likely to be garbage. Overruling heated protests, in 2016 chief minister Manohar Parrikar inaugurated an imported 140-crore “integrated solid waste treatment plant" on the plateau above the village. The state government claims success, and just this week announced plans to more than double existing capacity. But all those who live with the impact of the facility say this means decapitation of their way of life.

Gabriella D’Cruz is a young environmentalist who grew up in Saligao, and has just returned after studying at Oxford. She told me, “My childhood was an absolute dream, I spent most of my time outdoors, discovering new paths through the hills with my friends, fishing from secret freshwater springs, wading through monsoon soaked fields with my grandmother, and being chased by little old ladies for stealing tamarind from their gardens." But now, “we are subjected to a very unpleasant odour especially in the monsoons. The garbage leachate that runs through the soil has polluted wells, which is extremely worrying. Unsegregated garbage is both an environmental and public health concern".

D’Cruz and Ghadi and every thoughtful Saligaokar instinctively reaches back to the past when envisioning strategies to confront existential challenges facing their village. They know endurance mandates comity, and the coming together of the entire community. After all, if their ancestors and relatives could make it happen in Rangoon, Nairobi, and London, there must be a fighting chance it could happen here too, where it all began.

Vivek Menezes is a widely published writer and photographer.

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