How Portugal became chic

It took almost half a century, but as India opens up to the lusosphere everything Portuguese is now cool and profitable in Goa

Constantino Xavier | OCTOBER 20, 2012, 12:29 PM IST

I met “Chico” Fonseca in my teens, in the early 1990s,during family holiday visits to Goa, where my grandmother Dona Henriquetahosted us in her yellow house on the Rua de Natal, in the “Latin” quarter ofFontainhas, in Panjim.

Chico is a Goan fadista, a singer of fado, the nostalgicPortuguese music that gave Amália Rodrigues her fame. Chico had been aclassmate of one of my uncles in school and because he is a fanatic footballsupporter of Portugal’s FC Porto (rivals of my team SL Benfica), we would oftenmeet up to watch a late-night match on RTP Internacional or discuss theweekend’s results over bhaji-puri.

Chico would sometimes perform in a restaurant or a hotel,but he used to be seen more as an amateur, a merry neighborhood singer who sangin a strange foreign language to Indian and foreign tourists and occasionallyalso to Goans.

In 2011, while browsing the Internet, I accidentally cameacross a video of him on YouTube performing with his guitar. Searching for“Chico Fonseca” lead me to pictures and audio files with his “Luso-Goan” musicand references to his new Lusostalgia album. His music is now even posted onthe global website, with a personal artist page featuring apicture of him in an exotic red and flowery Hawaiian shirt.

I was happy for this sudden discovery of Chico, ourneighborhood fadista, but also intrigued: surely, his voice and music had notchanged in just ten years. He was the same old Chico I had met in the early1990s, singing the same old tunes, but now just more popular, giving concertsall over Goa, and even presented on GoaNet as a “singer-guitarist [that] keepsalive the music of another era in this former Portuguese colony”. So what hadchanged?

Chico’s discovery is also the story of how Goa isrediscovering and reengaging with Portugal. Suddenly, everything described inGoa as “colonial,” “Portuguese”, “Latin”, “European, “Western”, or“Luso”-whatever is seen as a prised asset, an intrinsic part of Goa’s “other”identity, especially from an Indian perspective.

One such area is that of Portuguese language learning inGoa. Until the mid-1990s there were only a few dozen students learningPortuguese at Goa’s secondary schools. The Indo-Portuguese Friendship Societyoffered an annual private course. The Fundação Oriente also started to supportPortuguese language at schools and colleges. But for young Goans, Portuguesewas largely seen as a language of the past, of the elites, one that you wereperhaps exposed to while listening to your grandparents, but actively avoidedin school, where even French had higher standing.

This changed dramatically over the last few years. Forexample, since 2006, a record number of students have registered for the MA inPortuguese offered at Goa University (36, almost as many as in the previous 20years altogether), and two colleges now have a BA in Portuguese. Many localtutors and language institutes now also offer Portuguese courses, including tostudents who come from all over India in search for linguistic expertise thatwill increase their prospects in the booming job markets of BPO, call-centers,interpretation and other sectors in which Indian companies deal with theemerging Portuguese-speaking economies of Brazil, Angola and Mozambique.

Another example of this rediscovery are the Jogos daLusofonia, the Lusophone Games, similar to the Commonwealth Games but for theworld’s Portuguese-speaking athletes. In an unprecedented move, in 2006 theIndian Olympic Association became a member of the Association of thePortuguese-speaking Olympic Associations. This was the first-time ever that theIndian Government officially recognised, even if implicitly, the lusophonecharacter of Goa at the international level. New Delhi has since then agreed toparticipate in the first two editions (Macau and Lisbon), and it also backedGoa’s successful bid to host the third edition of these games to be held in2013.

These are historic developments, signaling a radicaltransformation in how New Delhi’s officials and representatives now see Goa’sdistinctive colonial past as a valuable asset, and no longer as a possibleproblem. This was expressed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who, in 2007 notedthat “the richness of Portuguese culture in Goa, Daman and Diu is well known toevery Indian, and we celebrate this legacy.” This was during the ambassadorshipof Luis Castro Mendes, who during his years in Delhi always kept Goa in hisheart (and poetry!) and devoted much attention and time to understand whatpositive role the state could play in Portugal-India relations.

In Goa there are now similar indications suggesting that thestate may serve as India’s hub to the lusosphere, in a similar way to whatBeijing has done with Macau. For example, in 2009, Eduardo Faleiro suggestedNew Delhi set up a “biannual structured dialogue” between India, Portugal andthe CPLP, the organization that formally brings all eight Portuguese-speakingcountries together (similar to the Commonwealth or the Francophonieorganizations), an idea that I had previously proposed to the Portugueseminister of foreign affairs. All this would have been unthinkable, or maybeeven unmentionable, ten or twenty years ago.

A final indicator of change is how “Portuguese” culture isnow celebrated in Goa. Until a few years ago, the annual balls of the ClubeNacional, Clube Vasco da Gama, or Clube Harmonia used to host a miniscule eliteof Goans to celebrate the Portuguese dimension of their identity. Portuguesemusic festivals, poetry competitions or culinary and social functions wereoften hosted at the initiative of these local clubs, the Indo-PortugueseFriendship Society or the Portuguese Consulate, and attracted, at best, a fewdozen or hundred people. Barring a few exceptions the audience at such eventswould be almost exclusively composed of the same old faces, year after year.

This changed radically in recent years. The best example isperhaps that of the Semana da Cultura Portuguesa (Portuguese cultural week),whose first edition was hosted by the Portuguese Consulate but whoseorganization and funding has since then, been largely led by localorganizations and individuals, many of which do not even speak Portuguese. Thishas been the most notable example of how Portuguese culture, and its legacy,are being reclaimed by Goans. The 2011 edition, for example, attracted hundredsof people to a concert of the Portuguese hipster band Deolinda. Never beforehas Portuguese culture attracted such a large, young and new audience,including coverage by India’s national press. The 2012 edition, now renamedSemana da Cultura Indo-Portuguesa, was held in Lisbon earlier this month andshowcases the best Goa has to offer in culture, arts and business to Portugal,Europe and the Portuguese-speaking world.

All this begs a question: why did it take almost half acentury for Goa to identify and recognise its colonial legacy as an asset oradvantage? Why did it take so long for Chico’s voice to become chic, and berecognised, cherished and promoted as part of Goa’s identity? Why is Goa’scolonial heritage in and cool only now?

There are several reasons at play. First, there is theimportance of time. The wounds of the colonial past always take their time toheal. And compared to many other colonies (including India) that saw widespreadsocio-political mobilization against foreign rule, Goa did not experience sucha massive freedom movement, despite what many revisionist historians like toassert. December 1961, whether tacitly welcome or not, saw Goans beingconquered into freedom by an Indian military action. The fact that it tookthirteen long years for Portugal and India to re-establish diplomatic relations(in 1974) did not help to solve that estrangement and legitimacy deficit thathaunts Goa until today.

Most importantly, the post-1961 period was marked by a longprocess of at least passive dissociation from the lusosphere as Goans,especially Christians, were often under nationalist suspicion of not beingloyal enough to India and in need of cultural re-education “into themainstream”, and this agenda was not restricted to the usual Hindutva suspects.As noted by Vivek Menezes in his brilliant essay last year in Caravan India,“Westernised Goans found themselves treated with suspicion by equallyWesternised Delhiwalas. Their complex culture and identity became slurred asinsufficiently Indian in the popular mainstream imagination, an absurdaccusation that still rankles deeply.”

This has changed as a new generation of Goans has taken overthe scene to bust such taboos and stigmas, look more dispassionately andconfidently at the past, and reclaim the historical legacy as their own, as anasset for the present and the future. This makes it now possible for many to bea proud Indian even while celebrating and nurturing the distinctive markPortugal left on Goan identity (but others resist, including among the youth).Nobody else symbolises this bold and confident re-engagement more poignantlythan singer Sonia Shirsat, who even without being fluent in Portuguese, starteda few years ago to reclaim fado, Portugal’s most popular cultural epitome, as aGoan tradition.

But what about Vivek Menezes’ “Westernised Delhiwalas”?Certainly, Goa was often seen as intellectually backward precisely because notsufficiently “sophisticated” for India’s anglophile intelligentsia. But thishas also changed. In the scholarly, literary and artistic milieus, “Portuguese”or “Latin” Goa is now chic, a place so different from the Anglo-Americancultural bubbles that generally dominate the cultural agendas in the rest ofmainstream urban India.

For Bollywood stars a big fat villa on a Goan beach may beenough for status purposes. Indian intellectuals, however, naturally need morethan just purchasing power – they crave for “authentic” local Goan friends, andalso expertise on the region’s cultural distinctiveness to show off elsewherein the country.

Yet it would be unfair to dismiss this new Indianintellectual interest in Goa as exclusively cynical, narrowly interested in itsown status. Paradoxically, in their urge to be accepted locally as part of astill largely xenophobic society, and in their quest to be recognised asdistinctive from their peers at the national level, these Indian journalists,scholars, writers and artists that settled in Goa have made a monumentalcontribution to rediscover the state’s colonial difference, from itsarchitecture and legal system to its musical or artistic traditions.

This also reflects a larger Indian geopolitical, economicand cultural reorientation towards the “Global South”, including the IndianOcean region, Africa and South America. Goa naturally plays a pivotal rolesince it was at the epicenter of India’s first direct engagement with many ofthese regions from the 16th century onwards. As India gravitates back to thisSouthern hemispheric sphere, Goa will naturally attract more attention withinthe country.

All this should not preclude us from recognizing that thereare also important economic factors driving Goa’s and India’s rediscovery ofPortugal. For the tourism industry in Goa, it is a valuable “authentic”differentiator from other destinations in India and even Asia. The ironies of history:a few centuries ago, Indians were seen as the Oriental exotic, often paraded inEurope’s royal courts and streets. Today, you have merry and inebriated Indiantourists cheering Goans performing the corridinho and other supposedly“authentic Portuguese and European” dances on a ship cruising the same Mandoviriver that Afonso de Abuquerque used in 1510 to conquer Goa.

For the housing and real estate industry, the heritage isall about old (or new!) “Portuguese houses” that promise the new owners a senseof colonial status and entitlement, even if the “mansion” is little more than aone-bedroom apartment.

For the young students learning Portuguese, all this meansbetter job prospects at a call center in Gurgaon or Bangalore, on a businterpreting the Taj Mahal for Brazilian and Portuguese tourists, or in a newIndian business office in São Paulo or Luanda. And for local Goan artist therediscovery may also mean selling more typically “Portuguese” azulejos (tiles)and restored Indo-Portuguese furniture.

Finally, for my neighborhood friend Chico, the fadista, itmeans singing the same old tunes to larger and wealthier audiences and – whoknows – the late realization of the dream of a musical career.

The fantastic program of the Semana recently held in Lisbonsymbolised this great Goan rediscovery of Portugal. India’s own rediscovery ofGoa’s colonial legacy as chic and cool is also unstoppable. Nothing could bebetter for Portugal and India to normalise the place of Goa in their relationsand connect to the larger lusosphere.

Constantino Xavier, former editor of, is aPortuguese of Goan origin and currently a doctoral student at Johns HopkinsUniversity in Washington DC

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