By Prajal Sakhardande
Our ancestors created a cosy leisure space called the ‘balcão’. The balcão, which literally means a balcony, is a uniquely Goan. The inward looking traditional houses of the elite Hindus were centred around an open leisure and utility space called the rajangan - the square courtyard in the centre of the house flanked by passages called the chowks.
Some Hindu houses had a rectangular space at the front of their houses called the ‘padvi’ and they overlooked an open space smeared with cow dung called the ‘angan’ with the tulsi pedestal in the centre. In the Kamalnarayan temple of Degamve, in Karnataka, which dates to the 12th century, there are built in seats on the lines of the later Goan ‘sopes’ (seats) that are part of the Goan balcaos. The Mahadev temple of Tambdi Surla has the built in seat in the main hall. Undoubtedly, the balcao evolved as a truly unique leisure space at the front of the Indo-Portuguese Goan house during the colonial regime although it was not a creation of the colonial regime.
The balcao was an architectural symbol of the psychology of the inmates of the house who were converted to the new faith. The front door of the Christian home opened into a verandah flanked by two sofas or built in seats on both sides or sometimes just on one side with a flight of steps leading to this leisure space called the balcao. In some cases we find that two chair-like seats faced each other.
The origins of this concept can be traced to the mid 18th century. The balcao in its final form can be traced to the mid-19th century where people found more time for recreation and leisure. It gradually became the source of gossip, news, music in the leisurely evenings of the 19th and the 20th centuries. Neighbours met each other at the balcao, greeted one another from the balcao. Inmates of the house spent their evenings at the balcao, usually between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m., and enjoyed fresh air. My maternal grandmother’s house in Margao had a lovely balcao and when they moved into a flat the fun of the balcao was lost. I still miss my grandmother’s balcao. The balcao matched well with the relaxed lifestyle of the19th and 20th century colonial Goa. It was the symbol of the converts outward looking nature influenced by the colonial culture and a statement of the happy joyous succegado or relaxed life.
Many houses have long verandas running along the exteriors of the house and these gave the house an irresistible feel and look. The best example of such a heritage house is the 17th century house of the Figueridos of Loutoulim. The Cardozo house of Merces dating to circa 1910 has a charming verandah on all the four sides of the palatial house on its top floor. With the coming of the bungalows in the mid 70s the balcao became a thing of the past. It pains me to find that this beautiful, purely Goan, heritage leisure space has been done away with by many so-called modern Goans. No one can relax anywhere as much as one does on the balcao. The balcao remains a symbol of an age gone by when neighbours knew each other, where social relations were based on love, warmth and lots of affection.