A Wrinkle in Time

An artwork invokes the uneasy history of caste and religious conversions in Goa

01 April 2018
Caste Thread, an exhibit by the artist Kalidas Mhamal, was displayed at the Serendipity Arts Festival in December 2017
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Caste Thread, an exhibit by the artist Kalidas Mhamal, currently on display at the Museum of Goa, makes heavy use of symbolism. It consists of a series of five mannequin torsos, hung on five separate wooden blocks. Each of the torsos has a janave, with a key hung on it. The janave, known in Hindi as janeu, is the caste thread that Brahmin and savarna men wear as a sign of their privelege and high birth. The torsos also have a rosary around their necks, and a painted symbol or motif: from left to right, Goan pork sausages, a lit matchstick, a pão, a Band-Aid and a glass of red wine. The wooden blocks from which the torsos are hung display a set of names, Hindu and Christian, suggesting a transition from one religion to another.

Caste Thread evokes a period of Goan history that witnessed the establishment of Portuguese sovereignty over parts of present-day Goa, and the conversion of Brahmins, amongst others from various castes, to Christianity. The message from the artwork is clear: caste privileges did not disappear with the change in religion. However, the imagery deployed in the artwork to make this point uses a narrative of the history of conversions in Goa that is not only inaccurate, but serves the purpose of the state’s socially dominant groups. Mhamal’s critique of Brahminism is compromised by a Brahminical reading of history.

For many Goans, the state’s history begins with the arrival of the Portuguese, followed by conquest and religious conversions. This four-and-a-half-century-long period contains alternating phases of oppression and cultural efflorescence, with those of oppression being much more dominant. However, this narrative is based more on family lore and myth than credible archival data, and it produces a skewed understanding of Goan history and identity. Mhamal’s installation, on its surface a critique of caste privilege, is implicated in this narrative.

The food imagery in Mhamal’s art clearly alludes to a Brahminical aversion to the foods. The consumption of foods like pão, wine and pork sausages are seemingly portrayed as additions to the culture of Goa after the arrival of the Portuguese. Within a Brahmanical worldview, often interchangeable with a Hindu worldview, foods depicted by Mhamal are not only considered impure, but also foreign, or were created through the intermingling of foreign influences with local ones. Their impurity also results out of their foreignness, and their consumption is prohibited by the caste order.

Apart from depicting prohibited food, Mhamal invokes the history of caste and religious conversions by referring to the Goa Inquisition—an institution set up in 1560 to prevent and punish heresy in Christianity—using the motif of the lit matchstick. Many “upper-caste” people in Goa believe that religious conversions during Portuguese rule were a product of violence. The matchstick can be considered to be a representation of the fires of the Inquisition, and the Band-Aid seems to represent a healing of these wounds. It can be said that Mhamal is trying to tweak the conventional narrative of religious conversions in Goa by suggesting that old wounds can be healed. However, it would be incorrect to assume that everyone in the past was wounded by religious conversions.

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The idea that religious conversions during the period were marked by wholesale violence has been strongly challenged. In a 2007 paper, “Disquiet on the Island: Conversion, Conflict, and Conformity in Sixteenth-Century Goa,” the historian Ângela Barreto Xavier, based at the University of Lisbon, argued that in the very initial moments of Christianisation led by the Jesuits, the focus was on the subaltern sections. It was true that those who did not convert were either punished or had their privileges curtailed by the Portuguese administration. However, as Xavier argues, the disadvantaged castes were eager to convert. They were given access to fertile lands that were otherwise owned by the upper castes. However, the missionaries’ and the Portuguese state’s favouritism for the subaltern classes of Goa did not last long.

The elite castes countered the breaking-away of the subaltern groups such as the Sudras and “Farazes,” or untouchables, as well as their loss of privileges, by joining the new faith. This restored, Xavier argued, the initial ruptures in the old caste order, that is, the caste order that preceded the Portuguese power. The elites now became the favoured group to the Portuguese ecclesiastical and state regimes and could maintain their spiritual control, in addition to their control over land, by gaining access to church committees—and in due time, to priesthood.

According to Xavier, the labour in the village continued to be done by the subalterns, while the elites controlled the religious and administrative affairs of the village, “As a result, in a society where the religious and social order were deeply interconnected,” she wrote, “the structural relationship between those at the top and those at the bottom of local society remained basically the same both before and after conversion.”

The Brahminical version of Goan history has been espoused by many upper-caste Christians within the emerging Hindu-nationalist politics. They have accepted that converting to Christianity had snapped their ties to their primordial culture and religion. Through Indian nationalism they felt they could recover this lost heritage. While going back to their supposed original religion was out of the question, the Christian upper-castes started reconciling their Christian identity and faith to that of Indian, mostly Hindu, culture. They aligned with the Hindu upper castes by wearing saris, kurta-pyjamas, Nehru jackets and Gandhi topis, and extolling the glories of ancient Indian culture.

The late Mario Miranda, a noted Goan cartoonist, is one such example. His understanding of Goan history and culture was very poor, which was in marked contrast to the brilliance he displayed with his lines. His funeral can be taken as symbolic of how upper-caste Goan Christians try to reconcile their Christian identity with Hindu culture. As per Miranda’s wishes, the funeral mass was followed by the cremation of his mortal remains in a Hindu crematorium. The writer Mario Cabral e Sa quoted Miranda claiming a Brahmin ancestry. “I am a Saraswati Brahmin, originally named Sardessai. My ancestors were forcibly converted to Christianity around 1600 and renamed Miranda. We still belong to the Shanta Durga temple and yearly present Prasad—oil and a bag of rice—a tradition in my family all these years.”

The justification for highlighting his upper-caste heritage is precisely the persecution his family faced. But something in this account does not add up. Persecution did not mean an absolute loss of privilege. This is the gaping hole within the narrative of the elites in Goa: their failure to explain why their caste privileges, which include access to land ownership, have been left intact in spite of the large-scale persecution they allege. Like Miranda, many Goans who search for their pre-Christian past seek a confirmation of their high-caste status.

Thus, Mhamal’s juxtaposition of Hindu names, assumed to be pre-conversion, with Christian names—“Prabhu-Pinto,” “Laxman-Lucas,” “Damodar-Domnic,” “Mhabal-Manuel,” “Ram-Rejinald”—could be considered relatively harmless. The dispute here is not over first names but surnames.

Even if Mhamal is attempting to reconcile the history of religious conversions to contemporary Goan identity, the use of Brahminical imagery alone to represent a moment in Goan history fails to provide the viewer with any possible reconciliation, or healing. The little key that hangs on the janave causes similar problems. Is the janave really the key to understanding the artwork, or indeed the history of Goa?

One may argue that Mhamal’s use of the janave also points to the history of the endurance of the caste system, as suggested by Xavier. The question of allowing the janave and other caste markers had witnessed heated debates amongst the missionaries, especially the Jesuits. In her book, Disputed Mission: Jesuit Experiments and Brahmanical Knowledge in Seventeenth-Century India (1999), the historian Ines G Županov wrote that the Jesuit Roberto Nobili, based in Madurai in the seventeenth century, not only participated in forms of Brahmanical culture but also aimed to transform it from within. Nobili was a fierce advocate of allowing Brahmin converts the use of the janave. He argued to his superiors in Goa and Rome that the janave symbolised social status, and was not a religious marker. In any case, the episode of Nobili demonstrates that there was a diversity of opinions on how to proceed with Christianisation. The Portuguese state and Christian missionaries aligned with many different caste groups. The strategies they pursued, more often than not, were those of compromise and negotiation rather than force and coercion.

Meanwhile, the histories and memories of subaltern groups remain suppressed in mainstream culture, as in Mhamal’s artwork. These groups had found moments—however brief—of liberation from existing oppressive structures, and Goan society had witnessed a flowering of new forms and vocabularies of art, architecture and literature during the colonial period. Even then, the brunt of colonial oppression was borne largely by subaltern caste groups who were exploited by local elites for their labour. Goan artists and historians need to dig deeper to tell these stories.

Dale Luis Menezes is a PhD student at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Keywords: caste history Goa Portuguese Hinduism Christianity conversion Brahminism
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