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Antonetta Fernandes speaks with Marius (her son) and Akshay Mahajan

Stories in sepia

‘Goa Familia’, an exhibition at the upcoming Serendipity Arts Festival in Panaji, examines how family photographs, postcards, etc, apart from narrating a family history, are also statements of the socio-cultural scenario of the time. NT BUZZ gets a sneak peek

CHRISTINE MACHADO | NT BUZZ

The fourth edition of the Serendipity Arts Festival will return to Goa from December 15 to 22. Among its array of exhibitions, performances, workshops, etc, are quite a few interesting Goa-centric projects, one of these being the ‘Goa Familia’. Curated by artists Lina Vincent and Akshay Mahajan in association with Rahaab Allana, curator of Alkazi Foundation For The Arts, the exhibition will be on view over the whole eight-day festival period at old Goa Institute of Management (GIM),

Ribandar.

The project, says Vincent, was initially conceived by Rahaab, jointly with Serendipity Arts Foundation headed by Smriti Rajgarhiya who has been deeply involved with archival documentation herself. The duo wanted to invite practitioners in Goa with an interest in community engagement and archival research to be part of the idea. “Owing to our respective backgrounds in art history and photography, Akshay and I became part of the ‘Goa Familia’ project. The planning, framework, context setting and execution are ours, as well as the curation of the in-progress project exhibit,” says Vincent.

The project, they say, is conceived as an evolving archive that explores and documents the multidimensional aspects of family histories. It is directed at seeking physical material such as photographs, postcards, ancestral heirlooms and memorabilia, as well as oral and recorded histories.

Indeed, they believe that the family photo album gives an insight into the socio-cultural footprint of Goa and Goans. “Albums contain personal and community accounts that remain underneath dominant, conventionally recorded histories and therefore present a range of perspectives that otherwise remain unknown,” says Vincent.

 Family lives, as seen through pictures, she says, allow us to interpret and reflect on social, political, economic, religious and cultural influences.

“The idea behind the exhibition was to present an in-progress compilation of the various conversations we have had with diverse families, and a small introduction into the oral histories and photographs they have shared. It has come together organically with families generously contributing original framed photographs, books, journals, and even objects and other memorabilia belonging to their ancestors,” says Vincent.

The displayed material will carefully trace popular accounts from Goan history as well as the underlying personal and more private narratives of life as it once was. From beloved public stories to obscure events and domestic occasions, from experiences embedded in local soil, to associations with the rest of India and the world, these photo memories have been chosen to talk of the cycles of loss and recovery that are part and parcel of personal stories made here in Goa and elsewhere through the act of migration.

“The families have very generously shared original objects connected with the stories and photographs. For instance, Luis Dias has shared the historical sanitation plan of Old Goa made by his late grandfather Colonel Victor Manuel Dias, the director of health services in pre-Liberation Goa, along with an original portrait photo – it is indeed wonderful that the exhibition is located at GIM where in all possibility he worked,” says Vincent.

Late musician Prabhakar Chari’s family has also shared his original photographs, award and tablas while the Bharne family has shared the first receipt from the shop along with portraits. “We also have books and hand-drawn portraits copying photographs from the descendants of Armando Menezes – Ada Ribeiro and Armida. Antonetta Fernandes (mother of the ‘Festakar’ Marius) has shared personal photographs from three continents; C M Estibeiro has shared a beautiful portrait clicked by him of his wife….There is a lot to look forward to!” says Vincent.

But getting in touch with families and putting together the project has been a slow process.

“Sharing personal histories and showing family albums is usually a private and intimate activity. And there is sometimes reluctance due to suspicion as to the purpose of our project, and an inherent doubt about the manner in which images and recordings will be used. But we have developed a methodology that is sensitive and respectful to all these concerns,” says Vincent. Also, the project required immense patience and willingness to have long conversations that could be about any number of subjects, which was another challenge.

“We began by reaching out to personal networks of friends and connections. They in turn introduced us to families and persons who are willing to share their stories. A few families have followed our Instagram posts and reached out to us,” says Vincent, who along with Mahajan was also aided by their two interns Divesh Gadekar and Nishant Saldanha. “We have got in touch with around 15-16 families, 10 of whom we have interviewed. We have received a lot of affection and encouragement, and it is an immense privilege to be able to hear people of a certain generation (particularly) share their oral histories. There is also great pride when people talk of their ancestry,” says Vincent, adding that they have listened to many fascinating stories over the course of the project. “There are many stereotypes about Goan life that are propitiated over and over, and meeting people from different walks of life and varied communities, having these conversations about so many different subjects gives us a perspective that not only erases stereotypes but also increases knowledge of people’s history and immense contributions made by different individuals and collective groups,” she says.

Mahajan meanwhile notes that a lot of families have a caretaker who looks after these old photo albums. “Many a times this happens to be a woman, although there is no real reason why this is so,” he says.

Recalling his conversation with the proprietor of Lisbon Photo Studio in Panaji, he narrates that in the past, families used to dress up and come to click photographs at the studio for special occasions like graduation, engagements, etc. “They would also come in to click family portraits to go with Christmas cards to far off relatives and connections. All this is in the past now,” says Mahajan.

Many of the people that they interviewed, he says, are now in their 80s and 90s. “This generation will slowly fade away and so will their stories so it is important to document these,” he says.

Apart from visiting families, the curator also got in touch with old establishments around the city like Bhatkar of Picturesque Art and Frames, Shyamsunder Photo studio, Hollywood Studio, etc, and documented their history. And learning about the building of the business community in and around Panaji was an eye-opener, they say, as it provided interesting histories of the establishment of their respective stores and how Panaji has changed over time.

But the project does not stop with the exhibition. The plan, they say, is to keep the archive alive, and invite more families to contribute stories and images. “A dedicated website and blog for Goa Familia is in process, we mean to populate this with all the stories and images we receive. This will be an archive that is accessible to anyone interested – from those looking for their roots, to researchers of anthropology and photography, to simply those fascinated by oral histories,” says Vincent. While they are currently only reaching out to those in Goa, they also hope that more people across the globe will reach out to contribute their stories.

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