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|
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|
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).