Wednesday, 13 April 2016

SHAKY SEMANTICS? A THOUGHT ON GOAN HISTORY



Languages evolve, words are borrowed from one language to another, and as time passes by some words acquire new meanings while others are abandoned altogether. What words mean can tell us about the things that they represent. Thus, for instance, a word like ‘communidade’ can tell us not just that it represents a system of land tenure, but also indicate that this system was either created or modified through the intervention of the Portuguese. But this process of deploying semantics for understanding and explaining the larger processes of history is not easy, fraught as it is with inconsistencies that may lead us to errors.

The occasion to have these thoughts was recently provided when I came across an interesting documentary on the Goan music and dance form manddo, ‘Amchem Cantar Aum Mhuntam’, by Ruth Lobo, a graduate of the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad. This documentary is available online (it was released on 15 September, 2015). The purpose of this article is not to review the documentary. Rather, I would like to focus on two comments that the documentary provides on the history of the origins of the manddo, in a bid to reflect how Goan history is understood in the popular domain.

The first comment is by the cardiologist and manddo-enthusiast, Dr. Francisco Colaco (also a Herald columnist). On the origins of the manddo Dr. Colaco has this to say, taking stock of the socio-political conditions prevailing in the nineteenth century,  “The manddo came [into existence] because Goa was going through troubled times. There was a feudal society…these people who belonged to the elite – especially the Brahmin and the Chardos – they wanted to live in a world of their own. It was a fanciful world that would bring them…consolation. So composers started composing and dancers started dancing”. Dr. Colaco further states that the mandde were sung at weddings where the bride had to sing, surrounded by the guests in the ballroom, where marriages were generally celebrated. According to Dr. Colaco it was from the arrangement of people or “mandavoll” in Konkani, the word manddo came into existence.

What we can immediately understand from Dr. Colaco’s comment is the importance of the historically accurate context for the emergence of the manddo. Indeed, it were the Catholic elite in the nineteenth century, who, imagining themselves as having a Hindu ancestry, created a form of art with the amalgamation of eastern and western characteristics. Thus, the song Hanv saiba poltoddi vhoitam…”, though a dekhnni, sung by Catholics, which has a kalavant and a boatman as the main characters is a good illustration of the syncretic project and developed on similar lines as the manddo. Of course the fights amongst the Catholic Brahmin and Chardo factions, and also with the Portuguese government for power also provided the political context – the “troubled times” that Dr. Colaco alludes to – for the emergence of the manddo. For the manddo is an invention of the nineteenth century.

Immediately following the claim of Dr. Colaco, the documentary juxtaposes a counter-claim, by Prajal Sakhardande, who teaches history at the Dhempe College of Arts and Science, Panjim. “The word manddo comes from the word mandd”, he says. “Mandd is the village square – the sacred village square – where…shigmo and other performances took place. So it [manddo] has come from there. I do not believe it is mandavoll…”

One is a bit confused after listening to Sakhardande, because his interpretation seems to ignore all known historical facts pertaining to the origin of the manddo. One wonders what nineteenth century Catholic elites would have to do with the mandd, since the manddo even today is not sung on the mandd, neither has the manddo any ritual significance – unlike ceremonies performed on the mandd do. The manddo emerged in elite, landlord settings whether in urban centers like Margao, or in villages like Benaulim and Curtorim in Salcette. The mandd is especially used by bahujan and tribal communities for religious/ritual purposes. Of late Christian tribal communities – such as those in Quepem – have started working towards a cultural revival of the mandd, in order to assert a Christian-tribal identity. Thus, the mandd seems to be restricted to certain communities and ritual practices, and is related to historical processes that one can easily pin-point.

To be fair, both Dr. Colaco and Sakhardande use semantics to understand the history of the manddo. While the former grounds his understanding in known history, the latter seems to be giving merely an arbitrary opinion buttressed by a general desire to locate Goan authenticity in a pre-colonial Hindu past. Such a model of understanding history and culture was used from the nineteenth century by British orientalists and philologists, and civil servants. Following the popularity of Romanticism the assumption was that historical memory best survived in the grammar and semantics of languages, which can provide evidence for the history and culture of peoples.

The larger issue that we can broach here is that more often than not, Goan history is attempted to be pushed back in time, that is, to before the Portuguese rule. If such a popular narrative is existent, one needs to seek the possibility of its correspondence with known historical facts and reality. If such an exercise is not carried out what we have is a history that is overpowered by mythical narratives. A good example will be of how Goan history always begins with the myth of Parashuram. Rather, as we have seen in the case of the manddo, there is a way out of avoiding the mythification of history.

See also 'Dancing to the Same Old Tune', here.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 13 April, 2016)

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