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
Caste Thread, an exhibit by the artist Kalidas Mhamal, was displayed at the Serendipity Arts Festival in December 2017

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.

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