At Home With History
Look past the beaches and the raves of Goa and you will see grand old abodes where the past is still a thing of the present. By CHANDAN DUBEY
For the smallest state of India— merely a tiny strip of land on its western coast, Goa has inherited history incommensurate to size. Shaped by long years of Portuguese colonialism and the Konkan coastal experience, the old homes of the state are keepers of its chequered past.
A quest for the quintessential Goan home brings me to the sleepy old village of Chandor. The erstwhile capital of the state, Chandor reached the heights of its glory in the 11th and 13th centuries under the Kadamba rulers of Karnataka. The torpid monsoon afternoon is uncomfortably hot. I am looking forward to my appointment with 80- year- old Sara Fernandez, resident and owner of Casa Grande or Vodelem Ghor in Konkani.
I have been told much about the old homes of the village, however nothing has prepared me for what I encounter. The house is a two- storeyed structure seemingly Portuguese in style; a long façade divided by windows laid with mother of pearl. Only once inside does the existence of a courtyard, in resonance with Hindu- style homes, become apparent.
It is an old house, predating the Portuguese, built in the time of the Kadambas. In here, traditions of the east and west have coalesced resulting in delightfully hybrid spaces. Age drips from every wall and darkened shell- lined window. I am transfixed by the glimpse into the innards of a 400- year- old house, living and breathing with supreme grace.
Casa Grande houses a veritable museum of sorts at the ground level. Artifacts— some dating back centuries, connected with the house— Shiva lingams and old agricultural implements are displayed aside precious vestments worn to church by the priests from the house including one particular garment with fine Chinese embroidery dated 1664. The house
has an armoury of swords and sheathed daggers, trap doors that lead to secret hideouts and escape routes, their walls perforated with gun holes to shoot at unsuspecting invaders.
The past intertwines with the present as the later Christian, Portuguese elements become apparent sitting aside contemporary paraphernalia with grace and indifference; plastic toys are strewn on a 200- year- old love seat, a black and white television set sits propped against a powder blue lime wall. Of particular note is an old cabinet made of gleaming rosewood. Choked with vintage China from Macau and plastic tableware, its glass panels are interestingly laid with old fading prints of art. “We keep changing the pictures inside as they fade’’ explains Fernandez. The result is a quirky pastiche of renaissance art, old advertisements and bazaar prints. An apt testimony to the years of evolution the house itself has seen.
Old houses like Casa Grande are expensive to
maintain. Homeowners complain about a growing shortage of craftsmen who retain quality skills to help maintain the homes. Many among the younger generation find it challenging to carry forward the demanding legacy of the past. This fact makes the efforts of those committed to their histories and personal stories remarkable.
Not very far from Casa Grande, is a painstakingly renovated home. The stately Braganza house owned by two sides of the same family: Pereira Braganza and Menezes Braganza. In the interest of preserving the space, the homeowners have segregated the living areas from those rarely in use.
It is impossible to miss the elaborate 28- window tripartite façade of this Portuguese style mansion sprawled over 10,000 sq m of space. More sumptuous interiors, one will not see. The homes are A China cabinet at the Fernandez home ( above left); colonial furniture and Chinoiserie on display in the living room ( above) divided into massive rooms with soaring ceilings laid out in intersecting sections. At the far end of the Pereira Braganza house sits the family’s private chapel, an ornately carved and vaulted affair.
The centrepiece of the mansion is a large ballroom. Its flooring made of Italian marble, Belgian crystal and Venetian glass chandeliers and mirrors encased in gold and silver, lends a priceless sparkle and patina to the room. In the adjoining wing of the Menezes Braganza, it takes a retinue of six full time caretakers to ensure day- to- day upkeep. Gleaming silver, oriental vases and hand crocheted lace mix with the Portuguese love for Chinoiserie.
In Margao, Ninette Pinto and Charles Rodrigues
have just moved into a new, smaller home. They are still unpacking as I knock at their door. The interiors here are scaled down versions of what I have seen in Chandor, yet typically Goan. Intricately carved chairs in dark woods are arranged in circular arrangements on brightly patterned tiles and there is still more china and silver lovingly displayed.
The Figueiredo home, also in Margao, has striking Chinoiserie inspired exteriors. Jade coloured window shutters contrast strikingly with bright yellow exteriors. “We keep changing the colours of the structure both inside and outside,” says Figueiredo. “It helps us maintain the façade from the elements, besides changing things around a bit routinely,’’ he adds. The tropical nature of Goan weather accelerates weathering of structures.
Yet another family in Cansaulim, the Carvalhos have set aside a few well- preserved rooms. A newly painted bedroom with richly carved four poster bed covered in hand crocheted lace and a rosewood wash stand displaying an old Chinese basin and jug serves as a serene link to the family’s faded past.
The efforts to preserve and conserve are driven mostly by individual homeowners, efforts that are not only heartfelt and challenging, but will decide what Goan legacy is going to mean in times to come.
The writer is a Mumbai- based art critic and photographer focussing on conservation architecture.
Green walls enliven the Menezes Braganza living room ( left); latticed window and polished furniture in the family home ( above)