Wednesday, December 31, 2014

"In Fact, Fiction" - THE GOAN: I'm Not Here (20 December 2014)

At the recently concluded fifth edition of the Goa Arts and Literary Festival, I was compelled to attend a panel with the intriguing title of “Goa’s First Diaspora.” What followed, however, was a perplexing display of cultural hubris and the obfuscation between fact and fiction. In conversation with Dr. Kiran Budkuley, the head of Goa University’s English Department, writer Gopalkrishna Pai discussed his Kannada novel Swapn Saraswat (2009) which chronicles the alleged sixteenth century exodus of 22,000 Hindu families from what we now know as Goa; this, it was averred, was due to the conversions that ensued with the arrival of the Portuguese. To be clear, there is little historical doubt that conversions occurred and people were displaced. Nonetheless, what is less certain in Pai’s version of events is the questionable reality in which these claims are grounded. What Pai’s project entails, then, is the remaking of events in order to claim a history of persecution for a contemporary community of religiously and culturally elite, namely the Saraswats.

In turning a critical eye to the way in which Pai translates assumed fact into fiction, my purpose is not to deny the Saraswats their identity, although others have successfully argued that the very category of the Saraswat is not one that emerged till recently. Rather, what is up for examination is the manner in which Pai uses fiction to establish a Saraswat past. Operating from his own standpoint as a descendent of the diasporic community he fictionalises, Pai – a heritage Konkani-speaker – claims evidence of the persistent existence of this tongue, despite exile, as proof of origin. What is notable here is the equation formed between language, geography, and persecution, which the writer melds together to explicate origin.

Not only does this origin-story rely on the postcolonial idea of language-based states that are the hallmark of Nehru’s vision of modern India, but this linguistic basis of nationalist Goan origin is remade in Pai’s reclamation of a past Goan geography for the Saraswats of his novel as an undisputable homeland. This is curious, because “Goa” of the early modern period at the time of the Portuguese conquest was only the Velhas Conquistas, and one would be hard-pressed to believe that any one language was spoken exclusively in any region. Apart from geographic closeness, if the exiles chose Karnataka, it would also have been because of pre-existing kinship networks and linguistic familiarity. In other words, while colonisation may have caused exile, its routes were pre-ordained.

What this also speaks to is a power-base that extended beyond any one location; so, if such linkages can be traced through language, as Pai does, then they must also be traced through caste. During his panel presentation, neither was Pai questioned about how he dubiously arrived at the figure of 22,000 exiled families from a Goa that would have been far smaller than the region we know now, but also what it meant for such a group to continue to exercise power as an upper caste elite group. It would appear that the panel was more interested in foregrounding Saraswat identity as one of the community having been victims. In such an uncritical mode, no room was left to enquire into the possibility that the purpose of the migration might have been to maintain hierarchical caste power, especially with the advent of a new political force in the shape of the Portuguese. History is replete with examples of power operations shifting to other locations in moments of crisis and the elite continuing to function in such capacity even when in exile.

Pai did make some passing reference to the colonial displacement of other communities, such as the Kunbis. But as is common in all considerations of Goa’s First Peoples, that community is given short shrift in Pai’s evocation of diasporic Goanness, and were mentioned only as an afterthought. One wonders what Pai would make of the fact that African-descended slaves also escaped Portuguese India into Karnataka. Surely they too should be accounted for as being part of “Goa’s first diaspora” if they found themselves in the same region as the Saraswats and in the same general timeframe. Yet, what passes for research in Pai’s mythification of a community is not overly concerned with accounting for “facts” that have little to do with destabilising the ethno-racial and religious supremacy of the people he chooses to centre.

What is one to make of Pai’s strange assertion that he is in possession of a photograph that shows the
Hindus of Goa handing over keys to the Portuguese in the sixteenth century? Later during his talk, he corrected himself and said he meant a painting, instead; but at any rate, whatever the alleged visually symbolic proof of the handover of power, that this serves as research evidence for his novel should raise eyebrows. In lieu of this, Budkuley asked Pai why he felt his novel had received so much acclaim. Pai basked in the moment. Perhaps the answer is that people love stories of the resilience of the persecuted, especially ones that traverse fact and fiction as if they were one and the same.  

From The Goan.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

"Gaitonde between Goa and Guggenheim" - THE GOAN: I'm Not Here (22 November 2014)

The wait outside the iconic coil-shaped landmark seemed interminable as the autumnal weather grew colder, wetter, and windier. I reminded myself that I had been looking forward to this exhibition since it was first announced. When the doors were finally opened to the Saturday “Pay What You Wish” crowd, I dodged through the throng. I steeled myself as I entered the gallery on the fourth floor. Perhaps it was because of the miserable weather outside that I expected to see a bleakness of expression in the man’s art. Indeed, I had let myself be prejudiced by the knowledge that the artist had been distant from his family and a recluse. Instead, face to face with his work for the first time, I realised that nothing had prepared me for the profound simplicity of the art of Goan painter Vasudeo Santu Gaitonde (1924-2001).

Curated by Sandhini Poddar, this first major retrospective of Gaitonde’s oeuvre brings him to world attention, just as one of his pieces sold for the highest amount ever paid for a work of art in India at a Christie’s auction last year. Titled “V. S. Gaitonde: Painting as Process, Painting as Life,” the exhibition at New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum opened in October and will run till February 2015.

Having spent the earlier part of the evening taking in The Metropolitan Museum’s Cubism exhibition and seeing still more abstraction at the Museum of Modern Art, it was easy to see how Gaitonde’s paintings might sit side by side with that of his Western contemporaries, such as Klee and Rothko. In the book of the same name as the exhibition, Poddar quotes art critic Geeta Kapur’s observation “that modernism as it develops in postcolonial cultures has the oddest retroactive trajectories … [which in] crisscrossing the western mainstream and, in their very disalignment from it, … [restructure] the international.” This view is bolstered by critic Hal Foster, whom Poddar refers to as saying of abstraction that it has no “single origin … [A]bstraction was found as much as it was invented.” Surveying earlier Indian, Chinese, and Japanese art – the last mostly because of her subject’s own interest in Zen Buddhism – Poddar successfully demonstrates how Gaitonde, his Indian contemporaries, and Asian art in general, must be accounted for if modern art is to be understood as a comprehensively international phenomenon.

And, yet, despite the retrospective’s desire to posit Gaitonde as a notable exponent of modern abstraction of an international ilk, it can only do so by resolutely claiming the artist as an Indian figure. While little may be known of Gaitonde due to the limited recognition he received in his lifetime and having died in near-obscurity, the exhibition further obfuscates the painter’s origins. A timeline that intersperses events in Gaitonde’s life with South Asian and Indian national history can be seen by those that come to the exhibition. It notes his birthplace as Nagpur, Maharashtra, but it also states that he spent part of his childhood in Goa, where his parents were from. Curiously, even as the timeline records India’s independence from the British in 1947 and, then, the independence of Bangladesh in 1971, nothing is said of the transference of Goa between Portugal and India in 1961.

It is not that one should expect that an exhibition of this nature would necessarily underscore Gaitonde’s ethnic origins even as it mentions them in passing, but it is also noteworthy that it
constantly reiterates his Indianness for specific purposes. The first is to fix Gaitonde as a product of the artistic milieu of the formerly British India, especially because of his time from 1948 on at Bombay’s Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy School of Art, and so, consequently, to highlight how Gaitonde and his peers fit into a schema of art history that proves Indian modern art should be considered as being on par with its international counterparts. That other artist of the post-Independence Progressive movement, F. N. Souza, finds mention in Poddar’s book, but nothing is said of his Goanness or his friendship with Gaitonde. To be clear, it is not the lacunae around Goan identity that I am calling out here, but how the retrospective’s binary of India and the West can only be created by eschewing any consideration of the cosmopolitanness of being Goan. 

Certainly, Gaitonde may have spent most of his lifetime outside Goa and a brief stint in New York, but one wonders how Goa may have influenced his art. As I take in the vision of this master of balance as it communicates itself to me through his work, I notice how he plays with depth: it is like looking into a boundless ocean at times. “Gaitonde missed the sea…,” his friend and fellow artist Ram Kumar says in Poddar’s book. And though Goa is disappeared in this presentation of his art, one may speculate how inescapable the trace of it is when Poddar shares the words of Burmese Indian critic Richard Bartholomew, who writes: “The landscape of memory is the subject of painters like … V. S. Gaitonde.”  

From The Goan.