Friday, 13 July 2012

SACRED ART, MODERN PERCEPTIONS


A span of 450 years of colonial experience has provided Goa with numerous cultural interactions from many regions and countries of the world. These cultural interactions, be they in food, music, art etc, have enriched the Goan culture in ways that many of us may not know. Influences from Persia, Africa and Europe inter alia are little known facts. In the architecture of Goan churches, these influences, be they Islamic/Islamicate, Persian and European have fairly been numerous as is suggested by scholarly research, particularly by Dr. Paulo Varela Gomes’ latest book Whitewash, Red Stone: A History of Church Architecture in Goa (2011. New Delhi: Yoda Press). But what if this centuries-old heritage in the form of church buildings and the art they house is not preserved and is withering due to ravages of time, neglect and the elements?
Agnelo Fernandes (C), Nickson (R) and Glen (L)
            The answer to preserve and protect our heritage is obviously to conserve and restore such buildings and art. But since Goa is a small place with too many churches and specimens of art and since every one of us has seen such buildings and art being neglected and destroyed, such a situation merits the asking of a very pertinent question: do we have the skill and the consciousness required to preserve our heritage? A common complain in Goa is konn monis nant or there are no skilled people that are easily available. But I feel such a view results from our own ignorance of the people involved in conservation/restoration of sacred art as well as the failure of such people in building networks that would facilitate the movement of information.
The altar of the Quepem church that needs restoration
            Agnelo Fernandes and his two sons Nickson and Glen are engaged in the conservation and restoration of sacred art heritage. Originally hailing from Borda but now settled in Arlem, Margao Agnelo Fernandes’ tradition of restoration and conservation stretches back to his great-grandfather; making Nickson and Glen the fourth generation heirs to carry forward the family tradition. Agnelo and his sons are fondly known as the Bicos because it was the nickname of Caetano Fernandes, who had started this family tradition. The Bicos are a very passionate lot about their trade. One could go on-and-on listening to them – especially Agnelo Fernandes –about their latest projects and other experiences of the past. When I visited them, the first thing Agnelo Fernandes and his sons did was to bring one specimen after another and explain to me the technique and patience that went in working on each art object.
            We settled down to chat about various issues that I was most interested to learn from them. Agnelo Fernandes, the father is not much of a talker. I got the impression that he prefers to allow his work and art to speak for him. Nickson on the other hand is the most articulate and illustrative. It was from the experience of Agnelo Fernandes and his sons that I wanted to know what are the hurdles and problems that are faced by them. How do the lay people react and respond to their own heritage and why it is important for us to urgently start thinking about creative ways to take the issue of the heritage, and particularly of sacred art, right to the people.
The painting in the sacristy of Quepem Church needing restoration
            The most recent major project that Agnelo Fernandes and his sons have completed is the painting and partial restoration of the Holy Cross Church in Quepem. Earlier, the Bicos had worked in Bombay (St. Andrew’s Church), Cochin (Church of Our Lady of Hope) and in Mangalore (Bethany Convent) amongst others.
            According to Agnelo Fernandes and his sons, the interior decoration of the Quepem church is “unique” and “rare” in Goa. The church need not be destroyed, Nickson says, as it would be a mistake. They are of the unanimous opinion that the beautiful, gold-gilded altar should be conserved and reinforced as it is about to be spoilt.
            “It [conservation and restoration] is a long process and people need to be educated,” Nickson says when asked about why such projects are not taken more freely by the lay parishioners. “Lay people have no knowledge of restoration/conservation and they want something new,” he further adds. ‘New’ in the sense of how lay people desire the end result to be jazzy and kitschy.
            If Agnelo and his sons try to argue otherwise, then the oft-repeated pretentious phrase ‘We are paying’ is directed at them. If such is the behaviour of the lay people, then what about the priests of the churches that they have worked with? “Some of the priests want to put their own tastes in the project,” they say. As a result Agnelo Fernandes and his sons have walked away from many jobs for a reason that can be euphemistically referred to as creative differences!
Another painting which needs attention
            So is there a policy regarding the sacred art of the Archdiocese of Goa and Daman, I ask. “No, there is no policy,” I am informed. Talking to Agnelo Fernandes and his sons, I got the feeling that much of the problems stem from our ignorance. But Nickson is especially hopeful, for he feels that the heritage scene is showing signs of change. Last October, the Fundação Oriente had organized a workshop which brought together priests, academics and technicians – like the Bicos – on one platform. Nickson is of the opinion that such efforts could lead to an increased awareness in heritage matters.
            Our heritage and how we understand and view it would define us as a community. With a cohesive and practical policy regarding sacred heritage yet to be on a sound footing coupled with the general apathy of the laity, it is high time that we start thinking of sustainable models to preserve our heritage for the future

(A version of this article appeared on Gomantak Times, dt: July 14, 2012).

5 comments:

  1. Beautiful post, but wouldn't it have been batter to display the work which is being done by 'Bicos' rather than showing what is not being done by them?

    By the way you have written that the ‘Bicos’ have done is painting and partial restoration of the Holy Cross Church in Quepem and they are of the opinion ‘They are of the unanimous opinion that the beautiful, gold-gilded altar should be conserved and reinforced…….’ You have also written that “Some of the priests want to put their own tastes in the project,” they say. As a result Agnelo Fernandes and his sons have walked away from many jobs for a reason that can be euphemistically referred to as creative differences!

    If what is written is true then why did they destroy certain things from the Quepem Church while painting? Let me ask you a question: are you happy with the restoration work they have done?

    I am sure of your positive reply; than touch your heart and explain:

    1) Where are the 6 angels which were around that alter for times unknown?
    2) What have they done to the Beautiful ‘Pulpit’?

    Easy said than done, wake up! Let what you write make sense and reflect your wisdom.

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    Replies
    1. Dear Sapna Sule, thank you for the comment and interest in my blog. You seem to have paid a visit to the Quepem Church, which is good to note. To your query of the pictures, I have requested the Bicos to provide me with pictures of their work in Cochin, Bombay, Mangalore and Quepem. I have so far not received them. On you second query, I have to disagree with you since the main pulpit is not painted over but a coat of wood primer is applied and clearly the work on the pulpit, near the main altar and the two niches in the transept area are in progress. We need to have patience, like the Bicos advice. I have full faith and confidence in their work. I hope you will pay a visit again to see the end results.

      PS: I don’t know if you have noticed the paintings of the Stations of the Cross, which were in a pathetic condition some years ago until they were restored by the Bicos.

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    2. "The most recent major project that Agnelo Fernandes and his sons have COMPLETED"

      as written by you in your Blog says it all.

      Wouldn't it have been wise to wait until the work is completed and then write your blog with beautiful work they have done in it's full glory?

      Tks. for informing that the work is still going on, I hope they will complete it soon... (from April2012 till date....)

      P.S. Although I am a Maharashtrean by birth, I am in Quepem since my marriage for the last 25 years, and I visit the Church Everyday......

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    3. Dear Sapna, I think you have misunderstood me. The Bicos had completed what they were asked to do, which did not include the restoration of the main altar. At the time of the interview there were no plans of restoring the altar. However, it is a good sign that the work is continuing. And I am sure you would agree! However, the point I tried to make was a larger one, that of developing new models of restoration/conservation of our heritage. I focused on the Bicos with the hope that others could start establishing networks, which can only happen through awareness.

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    4. Respected Mrs. Sapna Sule, I am Nickson Fernandes(Bico)
      As said by you that you have been staying in Quepem for the past 25 years, visiting the church almost everyday and showing concern towards the church and its art, I would have really appreciated if you would have come forward and spoken about your doubts to any one of us at the Church while the work was in progress.It was indeed humiliating that you jumped to conclusions saying that the work was not done properly.

      I am a born Goan and will be in Goa forever, So please feel free to come forward to any of the 'Bicos' and clear your doubts. Thank you.

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