Tuesday, 28 October 2014

GOAN HERITAGE AND MUSEUMS OF INNOCENCE



A number of Goans tend to be very proud of their cultural heritage and traditions. With the changing political, economic, social, and demographic scenarios in Goa as well as across the globe, fears are being increasingly expressed that the cherished traditional ways of Goan life will be lost and the future generation would have no knowledge of their cultural heritage.

Of the many responses to such anxieties of losing a cherished way of life, one is to go back to these traditions and celebrate them anew, by organizing public displays of old Goan traditions, food, and cultural practices. Enthusiasts of the villages of Soccoro and Carmona recently organized the Patoianchem Fest and Ekvotacho Dis respectively in the month of August. These festivals were also given rave reviews in the media. From what was reported and broadcast on social networking sites like Facebook, it is noticed that these festivals, while concerned with showcasing and preserving Goan traditions, were also deeply affected by ecological concerns affecting Goa.



From the photos available online of the festival at Soccoro, one can observe that the organizers had managed to get people engaged in traditional occupations such as making brooms, peeling coconuts, and even massaging infants with coconut oil to create a live demonstration or tableaux. Goan food and games were also featured. What can be suggested is that a ‘makeshift museum’ was created as part of these celebrations. This is not the only time we create museums when talking about Goan heritage and culture, but many of the discussions about Goan culture are centered around preserving this culture in its pristine authenticity and purity, the way objects of art are preserved in a museum.

Orhan Pamuk’s novel The Museum of Innocence (2009), could serve as a useful metaphor for thinking about ‘museums’ – whether makeshift or otherwise – and the seemingly innocent enterprise of preserving Goan culture and heritage.

Pamuk’s novel, set in Istanbul, is about a love affair that a rich, bourgeois Kemal has with a breathtakingly beautiful shop-girl, Füsun, who also happens to be his distant cousin. Pamuk portrays the conflicts within Turkish high society, of the need to be modern like Western Europe and also balance the demands of a tradition inflected by Islam. Since Kemal is engaged to another girl who is his class- and social-equal, his love for Füsun pretty soon runs into troubled waters, just as his affair with Füsun also leads to the break-up of his engagement.

Love soon turns into an obsession, with Kemal desperately clinging to any small thing that Füsun used or touched, finding solace in them for his aching heart. In fact, his obsession goes so far that he even collects the cigarette butts that Füsun had smoked and other trinkets that she may have touched, and so great is his longing, he even starts stealing them. Füsun knows exactly the price she has paid for her love for Kemal, by keeping her dreams and aspirations of being an actress on hold. Kemal loses Füsun under tragic circumstances and decides to establish a museum in her honour and in memory of the love that they had shared, by displaying the seemingly insignificant items that he had collected over all those years.

Kemal’s museum project is not solely to commemorate Füsun, for he also has a message for the Turkish people. He says, “With my museum I want to teach not just the Turkish people but all the people of the world to take pride in the lives they live. I’ve traveled all over, and I’ve seen it with my own eyes: While the West takes pride in itself, most of the rest of the world lives in shame. But if the objects that bring us shame are displayed in a museum, they are immediately transformed into possessions in which to take pride.”

In the Goan scenario, are we not battling the same sort of problems that the characters in Pamuk’s novel deal with? Are we not also under undue pressure from the demands of tradition and modernity, albeit of a different type? Are not many of the Goan traditions also associated with shame? The argument that I would like to make is that it is because of multifarious pressures that are exerted on the Goan from various directions that the celebration of Goan traditions – indeed taking pride in them – becomes necessary. Perhaps, it is here that we need to ask ourselves: what is it that we are celebrating?

The problem is that these museums contain a selective display of cultural artifacts that we are proud of. But what they can hide is the fact that many of these traditional occupations and practices are based on caste; that those engaged in these occupations even today are not paid more than a pittance; that in trying to celebrate certain cultural practices we might forget the real people who toil behind them. While not being against the idea of celebrating Goan culture for a better Goan identity, a case needs to be made that the welfare of the Goan must be given priority before any Goan traditions and cultural practices.

Thus, taking cultural practices and people out of their specific contexts can mask certain unpalatable realties that can challenge our very understanding of Goanness and Goan culture. This masking prevents us from understanding why these practices were given up in the first place. Füsun may have been commemorated in a museum, but she suffered in real life. The problem with museums that take into consideration only a part of reality, is that they fail to look at the suffering and pain hidden behind commemorations of pride.

Photos: Joel D'Souza and Socorro Socio-Art and Cultural Association.

(First published in  O Heraldo, dt: 29 October, 2014)

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