Wednesday , 22 May 2019
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The chequered heritage of Goa

The Goan Adivasi community has stories to tell about the culture and history of our land, focussing on the aspect of their clothing is the duo Rohit Phalgaonkar and Vinayak Khedekar, who have decided to felicitate two individuals associated with the trade and request the government to declare the textile as the signature textile of Goa. Speaking to Rohit, NT BUZZ delves into the cultural and historical significance of the chequered saree.

Janice Rodrigues|NT BUZZ

Sometimes a little digging in your own backyard can reveal some valuable secrets, and this is just what happened, figuratively speaking, when two cultural and historical enthusiasts, chanced upon a valuable piece of history that was locked away in the trunks of the Adivasi homes. For Vinayak Khedekar and Rohit Phalgaonkar, the ‘backyard’ was the outskirts of the state’s commercial capital Margao, where during their routine exploration of Goa’s culture they came across some tribal pockets and this revealed an almost dead aspect of our culture – the Adivasi Kapodds (sarees worn by the Christian Adivasi communities).

The tryst with the kappods began when upon enquiring, the two hands-on researchers realised the only reason the said tribals were reluctant to perform their dances commercially at government organised festivals was the lack of the traditional sarees. “That is when we thought of getting these sarees made for them so they could then perform the dances and contribute to Goa’s culture,” says Rohit. Initially Vinayak took a sample of the saree to one power-loom weaver in Belgaum, but was told that it could be done but only on bulk orders. Not entrepreneurs themselves, they then turned to a cloth merchant in Margao, but got a very crude version of the original textile for approval.

However before they could go any further, there needed a lot of ground work to be done, from listing out and visiting the tribal pockets across Goa to collecting original samples of fabrics. “John Fernandes, the secretary of the Adivasi Sangatana of Quepem helped in listing out these areas. Most of these samples were in bad shape, some were woven into quilts, but most were destroyed,” says Rohit. While on the quest, Rohit spoke to a friend, a cloth merchant in Hubli, who took samples and made replicas, however the consignment that returned wasn’t of four or five sarees but 120! Though the consignment was all paid for, it still put Rohit in a dilemma as to what should be done with the textiles. “I gave them as souvenirs, a natak company took some, but still there were many with me. Then I put it out on social networks where a dentist from Mumbai, Sarita Subramaniam, who along with social activist Sushma Nair run an organisation called Pink Brigade, asked to see a sample. Later she asked for more. I was surprised, but sent a box of them. A few weeks later, she sent me a cheque of `12000 for the Goa Adivasi community.” Later upon probing, Rohit got to know that the firm had sold the sarees and donated the money to various causes including buying torches for the Adivasis who were attacked by wild cats while coming from the Aarey Milk Colony into the city to sell milk. Thus this endeavour served a social cause and Sarita suggested the replication of more sarees could enable more social work.

This coaxed Rohit to further foray into the historical significance of the sarees and thus realised that the Christian tribals come to Margao very often since they’re in the Salcette and Quepem areas. While researching he came across two individuals who started their career only dealing with Adivasi sarees and after the death of the handlooms in Goa they stopped their professions. One person Narsinv Shankar Kamat based in Candolim started his career in 1935 with about 16 handlooms and 60 to 70 designs of the Adivasi (Christian Gawda) sarees. The other was Govind Sakharam Poi Panondicar who was the first retailer and promoter of the sarees, exclusively. His son Devidas continued the business till modernity and change in lifestyles forced them to close the business for the lack of clients,” says Rohit.

Kamat’s son Ranganath, currently in his 80s, continued in the father’s profession – dyeing the yarn, weaving of the saree, designing the variants. Though there were others who were in the handloom trade as well – the Rasquinhas, Shettigars, Satardekars in Bardez, Chafadkars in Ponda, the Tilves in North Goa – they either left the trade or got into weaving other items. “Of the Tilve family, Sonu Tilve is still living, but his family wasn’t solely into making the Adivasi sarees as Kamat was,” says Rohit.

The term Adivasi saree often leads people to think of the red and white chequered sarees, but the variety is much more. Considering the Adivasis were spread across Goa and known by different names – Gawda, Kunbi, Kulmi, and some of them following Hinduism, some Christianity, it would be truly ignorant to generalise their clothing. “The textiles we have been replicating are the signature of the Christian Gawda community. The colour red is used by Adivasis all over India, and these sarees are in varying shades of red, but checks are the signature pattern of Goan Adivasis,” says Rohit.

The red must’ve initially been obtained from natural dyes however the duo has not come across people who can validate this fact. “There are references in their folklore; they sing songs about these sarees and their names ‘ambadi’ ‘kopli’. We have tried to check the historic and cultural significance of each of these colours but now there are not many people who can tell us what each colour meant and we are losing out on the information by the day,” says Rohit. The later weavers including Kamat used chemical dyes on the yarn that often left the telltale red marks on his hands. “In fact his father is said to have died of a lung disease caused due to the gases released by the dyes,” says Rohit.

Though the duo have found seven to eight patterns there have been more in the past. There is lot of scope to study and the replica models can serve this end. In fact, Rohit also points out that the Kamat family had made minor variations in the designs over the years. “They even made silk sarees of the same pattern to glamorise the garment, this was called the sedacho kapodd,” he says.

The main aim of the duo, Rohit and Vinayak, is to propagate the preservation of the sarees and Goan culture, before everything is destroyed. “We want to felicitate the two people who were exclusively dealing with Adivasi sarees and to also request the Government of Goa to declare the textile as the signature textile of Goa,” says Rohit.

When speaking about the signature textiles, often the question arises: are there weavers in Goa to weave the sarees? To which Rohit says: “Maharastra has Paithani sarees, Karnartaka has IIkal, but most of these are not woven in the places of origin, they are either made in Varanasi or other parts of Karnataka. In the same line, if we can get these sarees woven out of the state and bring them to Goa, they can become an identity of Goa, in keeping with the original style and patterns, and these can be taken as souvenirs.”

(Tracing the History and Heritage of Goan Adivasi Saris will be held at Goa Sanskruti Bhavan, Panaji, at 4 p.m. on April 26)