Contemporary Goa: an abridged art ethnography

Goa, in the early sixteenth century, as the ETIC website banner proclaims, was a place of transnational traffic and colourful encounters. Comings and goings mediated through its port brought the Estado da India Portuguesa and in time, a ‘turning of each old Goa – Goa velha, velha Goa into a new one…with its own rewriting’ (Das 2014). 

As rewriting implies, Goa was a place of incessant cultural dynamism and idiosyncratic reportage. Diverse characters with their diverse conceptualisations of the world were attracted for merchant and missionary potential. A trio of Japanese teenagers, of a winter in 1538, took stock of the site and reported back to their Jesuit patrons. English explorers, preceding the Company, came and did not conquer. Bernard Picart never went but etched out the city for inclusion in the illustrious Ceremonies et Coutumes Religieuses de tous les Peuples do Monde,(Paris, 1783).

These divergent encounters which helped shaped the city, will be further explored on Tuesday 18th August 2015 at the third ETIC international workshop. Dr Rochelle Pinto (Research Fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library) delivers her paper, ‘Collective commerce – the city of Bombay, the village in Goa’ and Professor Jonathan Gil Harris (Ashoka University) speaks on the city’s sixteenth century Judeo-Muslim heritage.

For now, skipping these centuries, contemporary Goa is fostering a similar entanglement of perspectives. Rooms are being re-written at the Heritage Hotel. As the appropriated gothic red signage states, The Heritage Hotel, along Siolim’s major highway is an ’art space’. Up the double fronted villa stairs, past a mound of clay, through the lemony yellow Portuguese colonnaded porch, under the glass balloon of a light, shoes off to allow toes to touch the terracotta tiling, a series of doors are slightly ajar to reveal the inner workings of performance, sculpture, photographic and painterly practices.

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The Heritage Hotel: Art Spaces facade, August 2015

Playing on the grounds of a heady past, Heritage Hotel, established in October 2014 by Romain Loustau and Nikhil Chopra offers these rooms for month long residencies. Founded on a re-imaging of city life artists live, create, converse and collaborate in the former hotel. In and out of the rooms and pool, at the communal table under awnings which make amends for the current monsoon, the international selection of artists have been gathering.

Stepping in on Sunday 9th August, for the regular Get Naked evening performance, the situation is destabilising. A first encounter of an un-nerving kind. Romain’s stride with semi-confidence, his topless torso and face of intent crowned with ruffled blonde hair is the greeting. Children collect on the tiles and tear across the diaspora of artists. Running amok off-stage, on-stage and round about the turntable sound tests, it is clear the 7pm start is not to be met.

Time has a habit of dislocating in Goa. Some artists linger amongst the pre-ambling audience, others lean by the finely filled pearl windows and adjust and fiddle with the various artistic forms. The children have no care for the thin drying spirals of clay laid out to dry. 

This is certainly the ‘place of doing without question’ which Prashast Kachru an invited Kashmiri artist describes. A classical musician, relocated from Delhi, tonight incognito, recollects the jam last week. He sang and today he is here to spectate. His eyes brighten as he describes evenings of song and dance. His high praises for Goa’s cultural character are curtailed. The audience are summonsed with Violeta’s urgent strike, ‘We will start’, ‘We will start…sit on the floor’. A succession of eight performances unfurl.

Black face-paint is a common thread through the display. It starts in Nikhil Chopra and Madhavi Gore’s beguilling performance. The duet of elegant forms immediately connote the city’s attachment to the country’s colonial history. Smeared in white and dressed in Victorian frills expanding out of a velveteen dress, Chopra’s stately character reclines on a stool. A bright white limb is exposed. Salaciously subverting all Victorian moral codes, the leg’s bed of hair is made all the more prominent by this application of colour. It provokes. It pokes fun at the perceived constrictions of the body and morality during this period.

The androgyny of the characters further mocks gender conventions of the past. Nikhil’s accompaniment, a modestly dressed slender servant tends to his proprietary body. The blackened face, reminiscent of the dark Portuguese communities who tended Britain’s imperial project particularly in East India, displays ambivalence. Actions are clipped as a routine of hierarchical expectations are enacted.

The figure kneels. The eyes meet and emotions transcend any ascribed conservatism of the past. A sexualised touch leaves a track of black upon the dominant delicate leg. The contact is marked by ripples of pleasure across the white face. Eyes are open, wide and shut.

The servant stands to the face. But a breath is between them. This moment is distanced as a paint brush is soothed across the cheeks and down Chopra’s nose. Curls of his colonial costume lightly dance as thick black lines form. His eyes roll and delight in the paints’ application.

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Nikhil Chopra and Madhavi Gore’s performance, 9th August 2015. Courtesy of HH

The positions switch. The roles reverse. The former subordinate glides into an elongated portrait pose. Rising high upon where Chopra left, luminescent white eyes beam across the audience. Waiting for a moment of memorialisation, the figure is still. The figure waits to be captured and to become a part of history’s documentation.

The expectations are not met. Black fabric is forced over the sitting form. With urgency the body is covered. With accelerating actions, sheets of silver foil unroll. They are forcibly crunched into the crevasses of the sitting, statuesque figure. The end of the paint brush pushes the foil and tightens it towards the patient form. A metallic rustle is left as the figure is risen and lead away in the wake of the train of the red velveteen dress.

Throughout the performance, the convergence of forms, the tension and re-conciliation of positions, infers the city’s cross-cultural past. The introduction of Catholicism in the region and the consequential reformation and adjusting of relationships is reflected in the cross over and cross back over of the two figures. The use of pigment resonating with Hindu practices combined with the covering of cloth emphasises the religious aspects of this encounter. Upon the body, as Chopra states, ‘the sharing of power gets played out’.

The body covered and its religious connotations re-emerges in Sajan Mani’s performance. Following a serene ending to Romain’s piece where a sea lapped at the sand, the audience are hustled into the hotel’s hall. The narrow space is silent.

Shrouded in black, from one of the hall’s beams Mani hangs. The noose earlier being preened is active. Sharp short thoughts strike. The piece progresses and as statement after statement after statement is repeated, giggles flutter through the pauses. ‘I eat, I watch. I read’.

With each slight of Mani’s body fear is enforced. Whether a personal act or from the position of victim, the performance is potent given the current political context in both India and Syria. Watching and reading, the actions aligned with indoctrination fill the form. Whose material we are left to wonder. Whose rhetoric has led to this voluntary or involuntary rebuttal of the world?

A perfectly placed spritely form emerges to offer light relief. With a turban of metallic fabric, the fantasy figure continues to take the audience for a spin through this claustrophobic amalgam of dialogues. The construct of Sahej Rahal swathes and with musical instrument calms and enraptures the audience.

The evening ends. ‘Thank you for getting naked’ and the room disperses. Thank you for exposing something of the entrails of this perverse hotel. Dinner is served and across silver paper plates cubes of cucumber slide as audience and performers discuss, critique and provide food for future developments. The atmosphere is convivial, analytical and emphatically supportive. Leaving with fleeting references to Eyal Wiseman’s forensic architecture, questions of state censorship and a questions surrounding Agnes Martin’s text introduced through Kachru’s profound match-stike performance, the night is out.

The days at the Hotel are long. Living and working in situ necessarily blurs time and intensifies relationships. The group make group decisions, they joke about a proverbial Heritage Hotel bus, they have regular badminton matches following their 2pm lunch. The promotional material being made for tonights Friday formal opening is testimony to the tightness. One face is formed from splices of each artist’s black and white portrait.

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In pre-dystopian fashion, consultation is an important part of the running of the space. The long wooden table, under the awning bordering the garden beyond which is the pool, fosters these exchanges. Through this common part bustle bikinis, back bustle refreshed artists, in meanders a curious tourist inquiring about architectural history. The pages of Glamour magazine flick along with communal cigarettes into disused coffee cups. This showreel of activity is littered with quips of opinions. For everyone has an opinion.

Everyone has a hand or costume or contact or concept to offer. As Roma states the venture is about interaction within the hotel and with the local culture. There is a will for inclusivity and being positioned at Goa’s intersection of East, West, North and South puts it in a prime position. It is, as the former port town was, a place of continual transference and similarly a nexus for Goa’s expanding community of expats and tourists attracted by the emergence of Dubai-esq resorts.

As the city accumulates its four and five stars, Chopra is more than aware of the fragile nature of this space. ‘We are a dis-organisation’ he affirms, ‘literally running on its own’. This aspiration to transience is proving unattainable. Having been invited to inaugurate the Museum of Goa, with interest self-generating (the group have never written a press release) and with a roll of rotating artists of high provenance, the Hotel sounds solid.

This is, on further probing, Chopra’s intention. He recognises that in India ‘things are fads’. Repeatedly the Bollywoodisation of the art world is discussed. The appetite for inflated statements, for rapidly arriving and with this same velocity, disappearing concerns Chopra. He picks up on elements of recent opinion voiced by Professor Vishakha N.Desai in The Hindu, that there is an appetite being unmet.

Reminiscing on time spent devouring the Smithsonian collections, trundling on a $5 dollar train from Maryland University to take in the world’s material culture, he explains that a counterpoint does not exist in India. Whilst it is valid that aesthetics are independent of these places Chopra is sensitive to the situation and determined that India requires more places like Heritage Hotel; it requires cultural policy.  If the country is going to set a standard and fulfil its contemporary art potential, ‘It needs a voice’.

In this moment, the voice is his. The Hotel’s guests have coagullated. New arrival Uriel Barthelemi sits intently taking things in. Munir Kabani engages from behind the shield of his laptop. Chopra whilst standing, whilst gesticulating with vigour, whilst moving around the table to make sure lunch will comprise fish to accompany the roti glistening with ghee, whilst checking the white board plans for Friday, is impassioned. He breaks to take time to point out that the view of Sahej Rahal must be captured. Through the wooden shutters of an internal window, following the black room lined with a wooden pin-board and empty fire place, Rahal is framed.

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Industrious work through old and new frames.

Content with his process of creation he is in blissful oblivion. He wraps, he pats, he moulds to make what will consume the room tonight when this artistic colony will put on its great exhibition. Exiting via Shivani Gupta’s isolated Cuttack costume stills, the former decor of carvings of colonial ships on waves of wood collide. Back down the steps, past the balustrade marked with mould, away from the traditional tiling the subtle traces of former legacies are helping The Heritage Hotel create its own.

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