Saturday 15 Jun 2024

The sacred and the subversive

An artistic representation of Goanness over the centuries still prevails, across the globe

R. Benedito Ferrao | OCTOBER 20, 2012, 12:35 PM IST

As a child, I was told a story by a relative about thefrescoes and statues that adorn those Goan churches of the Portuguese colonialera. Commissioned by the Church, these earthly renditions of heaven on high, Iwas informed, were meant to appear ethereal, radiant, and sacred. Instead, theylooked Indian. The Indian workers employed to make manifest the European-tintediconography of a Semitic-originated Christianity, could only interpret thedivine in a corporeality they were familiar with. Their depictions of the godlylooked less like the colonizers, who cast themselves as purveyors of the faith,and more like themselves, the colonial commoner.

I share this, perhaps, apocryphal tale from my childhood notto centre the role of sacred Christian art in the legacy of Portugueseinfluence in colonial and postcolonial Goa but, rather, to consider how artfunctions as a measure of such culture. Art, like other cultural production,encodes the impact of its time, both as the weight of authority and resistanceto it. In this vein, I consider here the capacity of art, often deemed thepurview of the elite, to evoke its originary circumstances and, thus, put intorelief the everyday, the mundane, and its importance.

For example, as Savia Viegas points out, when Angelo daFonseca (1902-1967) attempted “to give a new ‘visual lexicon’ to Christian art”in India, his “attempt to root Christian imagery in local culture and arttraditions” was met with “[t]he Roman Catholic Church [taking] umbrage againsthis renderings of a brown-skinned Madonna and various saints ... Moreover, forthe [Goan] Catholics, the classical Mary was a source of identity thatconnected [them] with ‘white society,’ and da Fonseca’s work was deemedthreatening.”  So much for theegalitarian idea of being made in God’s image...

What Viegas points to is not only the elitist intertwiningof the charade of faith with Eurocentrism and phenotypic bias, but also thepolarized deification of the figure of Mary. Robert Newman notes that“[a]lthough modern Europe has only pale memories of Greek, Scandinavian, andCeltic goddesses behind their patriarch-dominated religion imported from theMiddle East, it was not always so,” implying the gendered difference betweenSemitic religious traditions, such as Christianity, and their counterpartswhich tend to revere a Mother Goddess figure rather than only a paternalicon.  In the missionising process ofcolonial Christianity in South Asia, “[m]any sites that had been sacred to theworship of goddesses ... were re-sacralized by making them important to theVirgin Mary,” Newman opines. He also adds that “[t]he Indian goddess ... is notan intercessor, like the [Europeanised] Virgin Mary, between people and amasculine deity, but a power in her own right.” In her Indianisation, Mary,like other South Asian Mother Goddesses is a deity unto herself – anindependent manifestation of female divinity. Hence, while the Goan elite mayhave taken offence to da Fonseca’s brown Madonna because this had disconnectedher from them, he had actually portrayed an icon who in appearance was closerto the masses that had adopted her as their own.

While artistic expressions of religious iconography speak tothe identificatory processes of a people grappling with colonial legacies intheir everyday lives, it is even in mundane objects that such historicalinfluences reveal themselves. Known as kawandi, quilts created by Karnataka’sSiddi women are of import to an understanding of Indo-Portuguese history andits extant traces. These quilters are descended from Africans enslaved by thePortuguese in the sixteenth century and brought to Goa. Fleeing most notablyduring the Inquisition (1560-1812), the runaway slaves set up free communitiesin nearby Karnataka which still exist. Kawandi are not primarily created asart. Instead, pieced together from older garments, the use of brightly-colouredfabrics purposefully functions to brighten rural living spaces with littlelight. The recognition of the artistic talents of Siddi women has drawnattention to the community’s history where the quilts themselves bear hints ofthe past.   Kawandi may containcrescent-shaped ornamentation to signify the maker as a Muslim while the worksof Catholics utilize cross motifs, bearing testament to conversion. Common toall kawandi is a mark of completion in the form of a corner embellishment madeof layered triangular pieces. These are called phula, which in Konkanni –spoken in Goa and Karnataka – means flowers. The adornment, incorporating thelinguistic with the artistic, recalls the Siddi community’s past in Goa. Indelivering the legacy of quilting from one generation to the next, Siddi womenmaintain cultural traditions, and also the community’s history as AfricanIndians who defied colonial Portuguese authority to liberate themselves.

Fabric as art also evokes the Portuguese legacy in Goabeyond India’s borders. At the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in LosAngeles, California, John Nava’s “Communion of Saints” is a tapestry thatfeatures among its subjects a Goan missionary. The Blessed Joseph Vaz(1651-1711), an Indian priest with a Portuguese name, blends in with thetapestry’s other multicultural figures which also consists of unnamed people.This mélange represents the indecipherability between the holiness of everydayfolk and the anointed. At the same time, Vaz’s inclusion in the artisticcomposition as one beatified, but not yet canonised, raises the question ofwhat role race plays in the recognition of venerability. Again, what thissummons is art’s interrogation of the complexities of cultural legacies. Theselegacies are represented in the sacred and the mundane and as a record ofauthority and resistance, where Portuguese and Goan heritage are imbricated inthe complementary and clashing hues of art that does not simply choose toplease the eye.

R Benedito Ferrao is an academic and writer whose collectedwritings on postcolonialism, and culture can be found at

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