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4,000 ethnographic artifacts that help map everyday life of Goans

By Savia Viegas

          Call him what you will. Banavlecho pisso Bhatkar 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

"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 used 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. This
endless 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'.

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