Museum, land, legacy

I first heard about Victor Hugo Gomes’ museum of agricultural implements through a short youtube interview conducted by the journalist Frederick Noronha. The interview revealed that Victor Gomes was trained in fine arts, but had spent a large part of the last decade collecting objects which had disappeared from Goa’s contemporary agricultural practice. Behind the museologist’s talking head, I could see a range of instruments piled up on the balcony of what was obviously an old sprawling family house in Goa.

When I finally visited it, I found that Victor Hugo Gomes’ museum was unlike any other museum I had seen. For one, he had built it himself, room by room, and the sprawling house had begun to look much smaller as the museum had progressed substantially. A little away from the main gate were what looked like two covered sheds–his wet waste management unit and composting plant. ‘We don’t have a septic tank’, he began to explain, and as I didn’t specifically ask or look like I wanted to hear more, he didn’t continue. That remains a mystery that I would have liked solved, but couldn’t find polite enough words to ask. But his two units are active, converting cow dung and  possibly more, into compost that goes into his organic farm that lies just beyond the fence. This museum, as its creator intended, is a space continuous with the farm, the livestock and the recycling units. It is physically separated from them by a little pathway leading to an entrance sacralised with Christian and Hindu symbols as, the artist states, is appropriate for beginnings, entrances and his collection.

There is of course, a difference between the farm and the interior of the museum. While objects on the farm and at the composting plant are in their context of use, the objects in the museum are clearly removed from their immediate contexts. Their presence inside a house, where they are objects on view, can best be explained by seeing them as a part of Victor’s stance against change in Goa. His invitation letter to a preview of the museum, close to its opening in 2008, criticises the intrusion of modern technology, and the disappearance of a way of life.Carriage

While there is much that we recognise as conventionally old, valuable, and beautiful; familiar enough criteria for something that belongs in a museum, Victor’s collection also brings other things into this category that makes us look at them anew. Ploughs, sieves, sugarcane crushers, seed sowers, and weights and measures of varying sizes, materials and kinds Toolsare arranged in an order that is still not clear on first view.

Other sites on the web, especially the evocatively written piece by Savia Viegas, suggest how the arrangement of objects crowded into this converted living space reduces the objectifying distance that a conventional museum would produce. An art historian who recommended the museum also mentioned how sensitively the objects had been restored. It is not surprising, then, to find that Gomes was trained in restoration, at INTACH in Lucknow, and returned to Goa, the place where he grew up, as curator of the museum of Christian Art to work on another project.

The enormity of the numbers of objects, and labour that must have gone into retrieving each one astounds me as the nature of Gomes’ work sinks in. We are familiar enough with cooking pots and other objects that have a more active life in the worlds of rural communities appearing in our living rooms as objets d’art, and briefly one wonders whether this is an aestheticisation of rural life. But this museum seems to side-step this problem.

The presence of these objects, not yet fully out of use (or so it would seem) in Goa, begs the question of why they had to be museumised. It is true, for instance, that cultivation has dropped drastically within Goa for a range of reasons. In some areas, it is uneconomical when the sale of land or its conversion brings higher margins. In other areas, people have been forced off the land. In yet others, irrigation patterns have been forcefully changed. And in areas where cultivation continues, it tends to be fuelled with pesticide. Yet, one can scarcely say that fishing and cultivation do not continue, particularly where there are small landholdings, using, one would think, much the same kind of technology that Gomes has in his museum. But for certain, there are precious pieces of hand-crafted agricultural technology that are impressive here, and are not in use anymore.

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The wooden sugarcane crusher bound with metal for instance, was ‘rescued’ by him from Sawantwadi and restored. The texture of wood and its areas of damage are moving, as the enormous piece bears witness to labour that has vanished. A visit to some of our protected national monuments, where cracks have been filled in with visibly different materials of varying colours, would reveal, by comparison, the painstaking nature of Gomes’ work over the last decade.

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When in this museum, one senses that Gomes’ act of collection, and the space he has created of the museum/farm/recycling plant captures a particular sense of time. A sense of this time hovers between the living farm and waste plant outside, but is captured by the objects within. This is a time that is not yet past, not yet safely objectified in other museums, but is a world on the brink of dissolution. Appropriately enough, when Gomes speaks, it is with anger as well as with fascination for the objects and with a vehemence of purpose that has sent him travelling ‘the length and brea[d]th of our state, making [his] way to the remotest of villages’. In his own words, he has, over the last decade, made speedy dashes whenever a phone call summoned him, to buy, or receive pieces of discarded furniture, candlestands, old embroidered vestments, and the rarer of his agricultural pieces. Aside from these, there have been long stays in forested areas, ‘speaking to the village elders, capturing and documenting the ethnicity and rituals associated with every item’. But also, his collection has emerged from foraying into the attics, backyards and household dumps behind and within every home. It is from this past of disuse that Gomes has angrily summoned these implements to make them speak of a relationship to nature that is gone. The new time of his organic farm and waste plant that are demonstrations of how things can still be, is a contrast to the ironic museumised repository of objects that are not yet of the past in Goa, just the stuff of storehouses.

For this reason, Gomes recounts how he has been laughed at frequently enough by those who wondered at his mad dash out of the house to drag yet another damaged and disused object home. Laughter at non-conformity in Goa can be disabling, and the success of this musuem lies as much in what it has assembled, as in its location off the main road in Benaulim. Close enough to Margao, but decidedly not an urban location in Goa, this museum that traverses the fields of environmentalism, museology, art history, agricultural practice, and is an ongoing documentation in itself, refuses to be lined up with art academies, theatres, galleries and restaurants. Its steadfast existence in a village, housing what every village has lost, also offers hope for what these implements may one day be. It is Gomes’ hope that they do not slide further down the scale of time, from attics and storehouses, into memory and other kinds of museums.

There is another museum in Goa called ‘Ancestral Goa’, visited often by tourists, which has lifesize fibreglass figures representing rural Goans frozen in tableaux which depict, also in fibreglass, the daily life of the village. The one time I was there, accompanied by two people who spent their childhood in  Goa of the 1940s and ‘50s, the ludicrousness of the exhibit was striking. Why, when most of Goa still lives in villages, was it necessary to create these distinctly badly-executed figures that were also somehow offensive, caricaturing everything that began outside the exhibit?

Gomes’ museum does not offend, and it was difficult to pinpoint why this was so. When I asked Victor whether he had seen Ancestral Goa, he seemed speechless with contempt for the cultural insult that it embodied, sanctioned by the state government. When I persisted in asking however, how he would explicitly define what distinguished him from Ancestral Goa, given that both claimed to represent Goan culture, he said that nothing in his museum was replicated or recreated, nothing needed to be explained anew, as though he were presenting an alien culture.

What makes this collection interesting to a project on internet technology and questions of archives and public access, are the last two lines of Victor’s letter of invitation to his museum, asking an unspecified ‘us’ to look at the museum communally, to suggest what journey it could take. One of these journeys is clear – there is a vast trove of information about practices relating to the land that Victor has accumulated. Even as he works at turning these into text, it is evident that it would be appropriate for someone to pick up this thread of the project that he has begun, to explore other media through which the diverse life of his museum can move. Educational curricula and other kinds of publications, both printed and online, can bring in different audiences, releasing the trove of information around each object, and making it accessible as a legacy for contemporary inhabitants of Goa. Such a development would dilute the idea of a legacy being locked within the intellectual production of a particular kind of elite in Goa’s past and could potentially tap into the knowledge base of students in non-urban locales. In fact, this museum is an explicit commitment to the children of Goa, whom Victor sees possibly growing up without any connection to what is the vital culture of their home.

There are other reasons why the appearance of this museum at this point in time is poignant. It is one response to a widespread feeling of malaise that there is something amiss in the way the land has changed, and the museum is an explicit diagnosis of the problem.

It is possible to see Victor Gomes’s museum as a single stroke against the combined perception of loss/misuse/misappropriation/misguidedness relating to the land and its resources which its people could take for granted. The fertility of the soil, the knowledge of water, the accumulated familiarity with plants, trees, festival and crop patterns are only some aspects of the many ways in which those who inhabit the land find their basic survival being wrested from them. A small part of this has to do with the voluntary sale of land in Goa – inasmuch as one can talk about the pressure of capital being a voluntary act. In retrospect, however, with an anti-outsider sentiment being voiced by different groups, it has to be acknowledged that the sale of land for profit is being retrospectively viewed with alarm as the entry of outsiders into once intact villages. While the atrocities inflicted by mining activities and SEZ regulations form one part of this, Gomes’ museum implicates Goans for their amnesiac inability to identify the loss of social cohesion as the cause for loss. His act of searching for, transporting, restoring and researching the life of each object in his museum is not only a gesture of preservation, but a stance against forgetting.

This is not without its complications. For the move for restoration of a way of life invariably leads to questions of ownership, possession, and rights that are moral, ethical and legal. If the museum embodies an aesthetic and historicising response to crisis, there are other manifestations of disquiet that force us to take these questions head on. The Goan Gaunkary Movement, with which Victor has sympathies, seeks to strengthen and assert what it sees as original forms of land ownership in Goa, the communidade or gaunkaria system, whereby land is communally administered by a hereditarily appointed group of male members representing groups of families from each neighbourhood of the village. The communidade is a functioning system today, a legal, social and cultural entity, but has seen its economic role much diminished over time. Its economic and legal role were most severely marginalised, however, with the handover of Goa to the Indian state and the introduction of the Panchayat system. Though those sympathetic to the movement, including Victor, would deny that this is a facet of the movement, it is justifiable, I think, to anticipate that were the movement to grow, it would bring into conflict castes that are seen to be dominant within the communidades, and those left out, old migrants to villages and newer ones, those who are seen to have always owned property, and those who recently bought it, etc.

A strand within this overall argument tries to emphasise the principle of natural law, embedded in Portuguese law, on which it claims the communidade system is based — co-management rather than ownership — for the notion of private property, according to this, is alien to natural law, which sees God as the owner of land and human beings as its caretakers. This defense, which emphasises the responsibility and duties of cultivators and gaunkars, hopes to bind all together within the notion of belonging to an original village, making agriculture a sustainable activity again, for in this lies the possibility of both a renewal of natural resources as well as a legal and political restitution of the state to a condition of self-sufficiency that the Gaunkary movement imagines is the past of Goa.

There may not be historical fact to back this, but that would be of little significance if the imagination of the movement did not ignore the fact of contemporary legal hierarchies and the sheer amount of litigation within Goa. To suspend oneself from the inherent idealism of Gomes’ project and the interesting but problematic phenomenon of the Goan Gaunkary Movement, one could see these ventures and others held within a matrix of documents of varying legality and weight as texts that impinge on the status of things.

This is predominantly an attempt to map these varying documents, their status within a world of legal battles as well as political movements that have given up on the possibilities of legality. It also inquires into what would happen at each stage, were all the documents that determine belonging, possession and ownership made publicly accessible online. What kinds of publicity does the internet make possible in relation to documents and their communities? Lastly, it maps the virtual communities of Goans, most of them diasporic, who have of late been able to tap into the concerns of contemporary Goa as far as they are represented on the internet.

It would seem that it is only in certain situations that having documents online would affect the nature of publicness and legality. The following posts will more closely track the life of documents relating to land, property in Goa and claims of belonging in Goa

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