A few weeks ago, in the columns of this very newspaper, I had suggested that projects which dealt with the documentation of traditional practices unwittingly or not become enterprises where modernity was interrogated. I had also suggested that such an enterprise, therefore, should also interrogate traditions in the same token. In this review of a documentary Dances of Goa directed by Nalini Elvino de Sousa and produced by Sociedade de Fomento, I shall try to grapple with such narratives in the selfsame framework.
Dances of Goa, in Konkani, English and Hindi, is resplendent with colour-rich images and soulful, mellifluous sounds of many of Goa’s traditional dances which are largely performed by the SC/ST/OBC population of Goa such as the fugddi, bhonvaddo, morulo, goff etc. Also featured are mando and khell-tiatr. In the technical aspects such as camera-work, sound and editing, this documentary is not lacking in any way. However, it is the narratives that are offered to the viewer by this documentary which need to be critically analyzed and thus will form the meat of this review.
The documentary, a series of 12 episodes, opens with the narrator observing that “…much has changed and life is no longer simple.” Thus, this sets the stage for a binary opposition between tradition and modernity; with the two worlds distinctly separated from each other. Traditional practices here are seen as fossilized, ossified entities, which I would argue creates problems as traditions do change.
The gaze that is directed largely at Goa’s tribal population is one in which the tribal is projected as ‘essentialized’ and ‘othered’ being. In the episode which deals with fugddi, we are told that “…the Velips can proudly boast of setting a fine example of living eco-friendly and self-sustainable lives. The harmony which they share with their environs is a lesson, urban man can learn from.” Elsewhere there is mention about Quepem as being “…one of Goa’s still green talukas with hills and thick vegetation…” One only has to drive towards Maina-Pirla to see what mining has done to these hills and the green cover!
Further problems emerge because this documentary tries to understand Goa’s traditional practices through a nationalistic lens where one origin is sought and where Christianity is understood and is brushed aside as an historical accident. Take for instance the comments of Pandurang Phaldesai, (then) Member Secretary, Kala Academy, Goa: “Our ancestors have the same roots. Same culture. Due to historical accidents (itihasik apghat) two religions emerged. But our culture remained the same. Our heritage is the harmony that we have maintained.”
Bhonvaddo is a form of dance that is practiced by persons of the Mahar caste. We are told that although not many persons from the Mahar caste are engaged in their traditional occupation of weaving baskets “…members still continue with the folk performances they were associated with.” Also what is interesting is the fact that when the narrator refers to the “Mahars”, the subtitle has the term “‘Harijan’”. We need to recognize the fact that Dalit groups have rejected this patronizing Gandhian term today. It is through such subtle techniques, I would claim, the seriousness of the role of caste is elided and erased in this documentary.
Since this documentary clearly understands tradition through nationalist biases, how would one fit in mando given the fact that the mando resulted due to the colonial encounter? The argument falls back on a dubious revision of history in which, “During 451 years of colonial history Catholic Goans used music as a mediator of identity negotiation. In a political context repressing musical sonority of Indian flavour, in which Portuguese was the official language, Catholic Goans created their own music, sung in Konkani and performed according to Portuguese models. Mando is a good example of this and was able to acquire an emblematic status.” Information on the mando is given through an interview by Inácio Sardinha who chose to speak in Portuguese. I am not against anybody speaking in Portuguese, but the specific context in which Portuguese is used tells us something: that an attempt is made to reclaim the mando to the elite Catholic locations in which it had emerged and have since been considered to have fallen from grace. Perhaps, the ideological under-currents that are reflected in this documentary are best illustrated by an article that Nalini Elvino de Sousa, the director of this documentary, wrote in 2012 (See The Goan on a Saturday, 28-12-2012). Being surprised that “a bunch of people jumping all around, clapping hands to the sound of a kind of Konkani rock song with lyrics of a Mando…” at a wedding she attended, de Sousa tells her husband that this is “murdering the Mando”. If people want to sing and dance to the mando de Sousa argues that there is only one way and that is to “do it the right way.” Therefore, a certain conception of ‘purity’ is demanded from all of us and any innovation, such as “jumping and clapping” is to be frowned upon.
My final comments will be on khell-tiatrs. An interesting observation that Rafael Fernandes, professor of English at Goa University, makes in the context of tiatrs is “…that as long as Tiatr is alive, the Konkani language doesn’t have to worry.” What I would like to point out is although the documentary acknowledges the contribution of tiatrs, the crucial issue of tiatrs being viewed as lacking standard and thus, delegitimizing the cultural productions of the larger realm of the Roman script is glossed over. The fact is that cultural productions in romi are considered to be ‘polluted’ by the dominant discourse in Goa and hence not capable to represent the mainstream Goan culture. While on the subject of romi, it is quite troubling to observe that the subtitles in the Konkani version are only in the nagri script.
The images and narratives that are presented in this documentary are uni-dimensional. While confining such traditional practices to a fossilized museum, the performance in contemporary times is expected to be mechanical and static. Can we look beyond such notions?
(A version of this article appeared on Gomantak Times, dt: July 30, 2013).