Behold the Heritage – O Heraldo Sunday Review
By Vishal Rawlley
Goa has a fair share of tourists visiting its heritage sites. After they have “done” all the beaches, they descend in busloads and scooters to visit the churches, temples and forts. Still in their beach wear – bright floral clothes, flip flops, goggles and hats – they take a quick ‘selfie’, share it on social, light a candle, have a snack, throw the packet and a can around, and they are “done” with this too.
To make this process even more efficient the tourism department is planning on air dropping tourists from hot air balloons, helicopters, and ropeways. For the tourists, they realize, it’s the journey that matters, not the destination.
As such, these heritage destinations benefit in no way from the hordes of tourists visiting them. Huge crowds visit the Portuguese-era churches of Goa. These 16th-17th churches are still in use: services are held and ceremonies are performed regularly. These churches have several original and priceless paintings and sculptures adorning its interiors. These lie quietly tarnishing in a corner,or have been overzealously restored in garish colours. The tourist parade marches past all this, stopping briefly, only for a ‘selfie’.
But there was one visitor who could not just walk past all this. Caterina Goodhart was making a casual visit to Goa on a holiday. But the state of the neglected heritage stunned her. She is, after all, a restorer by profession, with more than 30 years of experience, and runs the London School of Picture and Frame Restoration. She wanted to do something to restore this valuable heritage. She decided to meet with the church authorities. They welcomed her and appreciated her concern. Over the course of a year, a plan was formulated.
Another organization at the forefront of heritage conservation in Goa, Fundação Oriente, became a partner in this program. Maria Inês Figueira, the director of the institute, feels that this heritage does not just belong to Goa. As a Portuguese person living in Goa, she too can relate to it very much. “It is part of world heritage. Conserving this should be an international effort,” she says.
Fundação Oriente invited Rita Gordo, a young restorer and conservationist from Portugal, to join this program. Rita had earlier done some voluntary restoration work in Goa and was familiar with the situation. However, in Goa, the small number of restorers compared to its vast heritage is hugely disproportionate. Where does one start?
Fr. Joaquim Loiola Pereira, from the Bishop’s palace, was the key driver of this program. He suggested that they first start with the Portrait Gallery of the Archbishops of Goa next to his office- with Caterina Goodhart taking charge, along with some of her students from London. St. Michael’s Church in Taleigao was chosen as the other site – thanks to the enthusiasm shown by their Socio Cultural Centre. Rita Gordo was chosen to work here.
But how much can a handful of restorers do in just a few weeks?
With the key things in place, the problem of shortage of trained craftspersons was handled with the most ingenious solution. It was decided to ask volunteers to apply to become part of the conservation effort though a workshop program. It is one of the most unique efforts of this kind in the world!
“Something of this sort cannot be imagined in Europe,” Caterina Goodhart testifies. A group of trainees were to work hands-on, handling original heritage pieces, under the guidance of limited number of experts. But given the ad hoc process happening otherwise, this was still a much better option. Rita Gordo agrees that it was a daunting task, but she felt that “even if I could convert one person, I would have made a start.” And when they did start, there was no stopping.
The motely of workshop participants that finally assembled turned out to be a rather special bunch of people. Who dreams of spending three weeks of their time working painstakingly, without incentive, to clean grime, scrape paint and fill cracks? There came a businessman from Mumbai, a student from Bangalore, a merchant navy officer, a retired bank employee, and artists, sculptors, designers and architects from Goa. Allof varied ages and experience. But none of them were prepared for what they underwent.
Deborah, a senior artist, loves to paint on old wood, but spent more time peeling off layers of plastic emulsion from badly restored sculptures. But for her it was “magical to see the original shades show through”. Sandesh, a young painter, learned so much about the history of the painting process. “More than what I learned in all my years at art school,” he said. Liza, a dexterous crafts person, had to re-learn to wield familiar tools.“I had to adjust to the idea of becoming a conserver, instead of a creator.” Rhea, a young architect, has discovered so many insights that she says “I now look at historical art in a whole new way. There are so many layers of meaning and context in each work.” Karen, a successful interior designer, has learned a lot about organic pigments and the property of natural materials. “I would like to employ this rich information in my contemporary work,” she says. But none of them had imagined that the workshop would be so rigorous and so rewarding. Working on these ancient sacred art pieces “has been a blessing” for every one of them.
The expert restorers have been more than giving. They have pushed the limits of what can be achieved if one can train and motivate a good team. They have had to ride over cultural differences and inculcate a different work ethic. They have had to find alternative solutions when plans have not worked out. “In this profession there are no shortcuts,” say Rita. “If you do something wrong, you have to just re-do it all over again.” Caterina has made sure that the students “not only know how to do a certain process, but also know why they are doing it.”The restorers have made sure that things are as thorough as can be. This workshop has gifted Goa a new crop of personnel well informed in the conservation and restoration process.
The restored pieces look very different from what they were. The dullness and grime is gone, the colours look fresh but also natural, and the gold leaf has a sheen that is rich but not gaudy. There is altogether a different aura that has emerged. The restored pieces exude a sober dignity and subtle sublimity, which has almost vanished. The faithful shall now certainly have a new relationship with these holy objects. These have always adorned their places of worship, but now they look resplendent in all their glory. Perhaps the lay tourist may also notice this: the magnificent antiquity presented in its “original” form. And when you absorb with your eyes and observe with your mind, time stops. You lose your ‘self’ and forget the ‘selfie’.
(Vishal Rawlley is a media professional and urban documentarian. He creates public interventions using art and media to encourage community participation in civic issues. He has been a recipient of several grant and fellowships in areas of urban research and community building)