Kaavi and graffito: The unique arts of Goa

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Sanjeev V Sardesai

When the Portuguese under the leadership of Afonso de Albuquerque attacked Elapuri on November 25, 1510 and took over the island, they first created a front of having arrived primarily with the agenda of trade in silks and spices. But they had another hidden agenda – to spread their faith – by deceit, temptation or force. Initially, people were converted by enticement and by cheating. These initial criteria did not yield the wanted results and later led to the establishment of the most horrific court of the Grand Inquisitor in 1560 AD. The Church documenters and other world historians have classified the period of Inquisition in Goa as the darkest period of Church history, as compared to other similar inquisitions in the world.

From this period after 1560 AD onwards, the single point agenda of the ecclesiastical orders was to expand their religious base – by converting with force, wiping out the existing culture and destroying the existing religious places of worship of Hindus and Muslims. In the lands initially conquered by the Portuguese – Tiswadi, Bardez, and Salcete – hundreds of mosques, temples, and shrines were destroyed by brutal force.

The biggest loss in the destruction of Hindu religious houses, besides the stoppage of centuries-old culture and rituals, was the various forms of arts. Beautifully carved idols of deities were smashed; the edifices having many carvings, paintings, etc were turned into heaps of dust. Furthermore, due to this one of the exquisite art forms known as kaavi art saw a waning period and presently, the search for the source and artistes of this art form, is like searching for a needle in a haystack as big as a football ground. It is heartening to note that many kaavi art enthusiasts are seeking to revive this unique art in Goa.

When you go into any of the old-era temples in Goan hinterlands, we come across many consistent geometric designs and graphic wall pictures, in burnt brown or deep burgundy color. These are the kaavi art designs. This art has got its name from the fine dark burgundy mud, rich in red oxide known as ‘kaav’. The source of this mud used in this art form, is known only to a few people. And still fewer people know this art. However, when you move your palm over these designs, one cannot feel it. These designs are flush with the wall.

Briefly, and without prejudice to the technical process, we can state here that a coat of white, sea shells lime was applied to the house walls, primarily for water-proofing them from rains and also for aesthetic purposes. The designs were then drawn on the wet lime coat, over the required wall surfaces, and etched out in a groove, to a depth of about five millimetres. The wet lime coat with the etched designs, on walls or wherever required, were allowed to dry totally. Later, the ‘kaav’ was processed, duly sieved and mixed with the required components, made into a thick paste and force-filled into the grooves created by the etching. The extra ‘kaav’, as well as the rough protruding edges of the lime groove designs, were then polished to flush with the wall surface, and left to dry. What was seen was the design on a white background.

Some of the best examples of kaavi art can be seen in the Sri Morjaie temple at Morjim, Sri Vijaydurg Temple in Keri, Sri Hanuman Shrine at Advalpale, and in another shrine at Agarwado. In Morjim, some of the best designs are seen on the entire semi-circular ceiling, as well as on walls and pillars. Another wonderful piece of visible kaavi art is the palatial residential house of the Lamgaonkar Desais in Bicholim. This art was probably reserved for the temples and for prominent family houses, as it is not observed in other houses in general.

With the destruction of temples and displacement of communities due to fear, the beautiful kaavi art on all these demolished temple walls went behind the curtain of time, without trace. However, the Portuguese designers of edifices had observed such beautiful kaavi designs on the temple walls and wanted them recreated on the church walls, which were already constructed. To etch out the designs, on the already hardened lime wall surfaces, would be a Herculean task. Hence they came up with a very unique concept to recreate similar designs. An approximate one millimetre thick coat of wet ‘kaav’ was applied on the already hardened church wall surfaces, at the required areas and allowed to semi-hardened. Later, a reverse template of the required design was kept over this semi-wet ‘kaav’ layer and the unwanted ‘kaav’ was physically removed, by scooping it out and retaining the required design on the wall. Though it resembled the kaavi art, the art through this method, was called as graffitto. The designs recreated were visually very similar to kaavi art, but can be felt by hand, as they were in relief.

The best examples of graffitto art are seen in the original Ecclesiastical palace, behind the Se Cathedral in Old Goa, now converted into a fantastic museum. This art can also be seen on the inner walls of Our Lady of Rosary Church, on the hillock overlooking River Mandovi, near the Santa Monica nunnery on the Holy Hill.

Let us help to regenerate and preserve these unique art forms of Goa.

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