4,000 ethnographic artifacts that help map everyday life of Goans
By Savia Viegas
Call him what you will. Banavlecho pisso ( mad man from Benaulim), Bhatkar (owner of landed property) or Don Quixote with a penchant for riding yesterdays’ roads. Visit his museum and you see the spark of genius that made him save tools and technologies from extinction. Listen to him and the collection of what he terms the ‘material culture’ begins to open up vistas of the life before. Meet Victor Hugo Gomes, 40, the creator of soon-to-be-opened Goa Chitra museum at Pulwaddo in Benaulim.
Since the museum is at an incipient stage, not signage’s but landmarks of bars and Kingfisher advertisements lead you to what could be a quinta of the old days. An unpaved road, horticultural trees and then you come upon a field with a fresh water pond in it.
Workers are busy breaking up the clods of a rich brown earth moist and grainy like pieces of jaggery fertilized with a mixture of humus, bovine dung, urine and jaggery. A brindled cow stands at the farthest end of the field chewing cud as she idly flicks away the flies with her tail. One cannot but
appreciate the whole setting within which womb-like the embryonic museum unlocks the secrets of Goa’s past.
The museum has the necessary vibhuti — the kaleidoscopic assemblage of material from 300 houses all over Goa. Windows, door jambs, roofing material and the elaborately-carved wooden pillars have been fused into the new building structure lending it an eclectic stylistic diversity.
What better karseva could embody a resting-cum-nesting place for the Goan spirit that could kaleidoscope its material culture through settings that offer the vignettes of its religious past, its agrarian technology, its food production apparatus, and its earth friendly vessels exhumed from a time
now relegated to the cobwebs of history.
The displays are mounted on bamboo panels like ‘stillifes’ of the past. Victor walks us through them offering insights into his collection, the
restoration process and curatorial perspective. Whoa! He has built an insider’s ethnography museum! And that’s not all. This fine artist and
INTACH-trained restorer-conservationist has not only created a museum but written four volumes on situating his work and correcting faulty
Why is he doing this?
Victor has curated the Rachol Christian Art Museum and worked on the restoration of Agra’s Taj Mahal. He could have been somewhere in India like other Goan specialists. Or he could have followed his class — the elite landlords to the cities of the world leaving behind a trail of fallow lands to be
encashed at will while they let their careers take root someplace else.
But Victor chose to stay and in doing so he let the madness to collect artefacts posses him. Nothing could then come in the way of his relentless pursuit and exhumation. He approached the past with certain integrity and not bent on plunder but preservation — a worthy approach at a time when many configurations are making a pastiche of Goa’s past. In modern times it is necessary not only to connect to material objects of the past but also to explain them.
This passion for the past made him a stalker camping in interior villages of Dhangar and Velip communities bargaining for their castaways and trying to disinter remnants of technologies heavily marginalized by the processes of modernisation.
“The task was daunting to say the least,” quips Victor. “It’s a collection that has taken years and cost a fortune.”
For days, the collector lived in the open trying to salvage works of a dying ‘way of life’. Small vignettes of his acquisition forays slip out as he walks us beyond the museum space into the living quarters where some of the additional artifacts are stored in glass display cabinets.
He takes out an ebony club from the shelf and shows it to us: “The dealer was very skeptical about selling me this colonial mace,” he says, but did so after a great deal of persuasion. I brought it home and when I studied it I noticed that it was covered by old dried up stains and probably had been use as a bludgeoning tool.”
Victor also spent his earnings from restoring old houses to buying up anything that was being towed away from old homes to hold back what was Goan in local territory, and in a very unconscious way, planted the early seeds for his eco-museum.
The idea of eco-museums originated in the early seventies in France where a group of museologists argued that museums had maximum impact when
artefacts were displayed in the region of their provenance rather than travel and be aesthetized as a museum object in different surroundings.
Victor too abhorred the idea of rare treasure from the region of his past being locked up in a private collection. He was like a flaneur visiting his cultural terrain picking castaways and trying to understand why people were frittering away an eco-friendly lifestyle for one that was leading the world into a charm-less, irreversible destruction. Thisendless churning has helped him put together 4,000 ethnographic artifacts that help map everyday life of Goans.
Alongside, Victor collated the dying knowledge from elders to nuance symbiotic relationship that early generations shared with nature and unlock the secrets of practical and scientific wisdom before these nuggets are erased.
He sought to create a museum classroom where children and adults could walk into their past, not only to retrieve it from everyday tradition and to aesthetize it but also to preserve and nuance it in the knowledge archives of the future.
True, it does open up a way of life which is now a memory fragment for older generations and a quaint novelty for younger Goans especially those who live someplace else.
I walk through the displays. Constraints of area have made him shrink the flow of space that traditionally divides the displayed artifact from the viewer in the museum and allows a reflective distance. The curatorial flow is tight and the museum would need touch screens for younger visitors to dabble and take home images that compel them to visit the museum again and in doing so get in touch with their genetic past.
Museums have been the storehouses of the past times which imbue such objects with symbolic power of the classes that used it. For much as one looks with nostalgia on the past, it was a time of unequal relations and objects therefore carry a patina of that relationship and need to have a critical engagement with the past.
Just to give a small example, museum practitioners in London realized that Asian communities did not identify with Asian displays in galleries because the curatorial perspective was very colonial.
In other places, spectators have been asking difficult questions about museums. Is there a magical power to a commodity which, when stripped of its basis in historical social relations of unequal power, appears merely as the consequence of a contractual exchange between equivalents?
How does Victor come to terms with his own past and the assemblages he creates? There is no denying the fact that Goa’s old elite has aged socially and the new power class does not respect that past. Also things of the past are no longer simply visual pieces to be moved from a live but dying tradition onto a museum space. “They are items with organic relationships with the past whose complexity has to be explained, as Eilean Hooper-Greenhill states in her book, Museums and the Shaping of Knowledge.
Glimpses of the non-hierarchical nature of his collection and a similar curatorial perspective is evident when he walks you through the displays where upper class husking stone grinders are juxtaposed with those of the labouring class and typologies of iron implements hang together in a tight
composition. Or the technology of a nail-less ghano is highlighted. Or still the konde, the palm-leaf rain-cover, which marvels at the subaltern ways of life.
The vast collection of measures highlights transactional practices. Endless typologies of buyaos and urns and rogodos and actories, while they trip the magic carpet into the past for the experienced, can have the opposite experience on kids poised in take off mode for the future. It is indeed refreshing to have a display that does not valorize the past but retrieves it without writing a hagiography within a disenchanted present.
Goa Chitra is assembled with so much passion that it does beg a donor with a heart of gold who would allow Victor to work with freedom on the collection he understands best. The setting is apt for not only does the space around it create a very well designed cultural centre for the South but a museum as well.
Victor is keen to establish a memorial trust in the name of his mother Dona Angela to run the museum and manage its upkeep. Cash constraints and space crunches are something that future funders will have to look into and generously allocate since this collector has scraped rock-bottom trying
to put up this magnificent show.
It is indeed the pride of the State but museums are not cheap to run. Restoration processes for some of the ephemeral materials from which the artifacts on display are fashioned in are ongoing and expensive. The ministry of culture and the head of state should perk up their ears and be willing to listen and give.
Savia Viegas is former professor from the University of Mumbai. She had designed and introduced a three year degree course in Heritage Management for the University of Mumbai. In 2003-04 she was awarded the prestigious Senior Fulbright Fellowship to research on Museums in the USA. She is also author of fiction book Tales from the Attic.
This article was earlier published in The Herald (Goa), under the title ‘Goa Chitra: instituting a sense of place’.