After Aparanta

Goan art and landscape in the age of development

Mario Miranda’s 1987 cartoon captured the suddenness of environmental degradation and the Goan artist’s inability to process the altered landscape before him. Mario Gallery
01 June, 2015

IN THE LATE 1980S, as development in Goa was shifting into high gear, the state’s most famous artist, the cartoonist Mario Miranda, came up with a bleak but effective joke about the threats to local heritage and the environment. The cartoon appeared in a 1987 issue of the monthly magazine Goa Today. In the first panel, Miranda shows a painter setting up his easel in front of a Goan postcard landscape of coconut trees, a whitewashed church on a hilltop and a sailing boat. In the next panel, the painter bunks down under the stars. In the third, he awakes to find his beloved subject matter obliterated by urbanisation and industrial pollution. Miranda’s main message is about the rapidity of environmental deterioration. But he also suggests that the situation takes the Goan artist by total surprise. Programmed to be a pastoralist, he is suddenly bereft of material and unable to compute aesthetically. The cartoon not only captures the changing Goan landscape, but also hints at the changing consciousness of the Goan artist that goes, or ought to go, with it.

Social and environmental degradation resulting from development have been serious public issues in Goa since the mid 1970s. They first came up around the mining of iron ore and manganese, and later around the pollution from industrial estates such as Zuari Agro Chemicals (now Zuari Industries Limited) in Sancoale. Goa has since struggled, for the past 30 years especially, with the double-edged swords of industrialisation, mass tourism and real-estate development. An aggressive environmental movement has flowered in response, with the most belligerent confrontations including those against the construction of the Thapar-DuPont 6,6 Nylon plant in Querim, in the mid 1990s; against the Meta Strips scrap metal reprocessing plant in Sancoale, between 1999 and 2000; and against illegal mining, leading to the Shah Commission report on the subject in March 2012, which in turn led to a Supreme Court ban on all mining operations that October. The ban was recently lifted, but mining remains in the crosshairs.

In Konkani literature, writers have been dealing with these issues for decades. The most famous example is Pundalik Naik’s 1977 novel Acchev, translated as The Upheaval, about a village in Ponda taluk destroyed ecologically and socially by mining. Tiatr, the popular form of musical drama, has also addressed development’s fallout for some time. In 2009, the theatre practitioner and environmental activist Hartman de Souza’s Creatures of the Earth, a dance performance about the impact of open-cast mining on the Western Ghats, was staged in Pune and Goa, before it toured the country. In cartoons, Miranda and Alexyz, who currently draws for the Goa edition of the Times of India, have satirised corruption, overdevelopment, and the state’s social problems since the mid 1980s.

Loretti Pinto’s first major work, ‘Flight to Paris’, captured the dynamics of migration in her village of Siridao and across Goa. courtesy loreti pinto

Though there may be similar responses in the fine arts, the field’s history is not well documented and one’s first impression, upon browsing exhibition catalogues, is that Goan artists have generally been reluctant to deal with the radical transformations the state has experienced. However, in the past half dozen or so years, as the mining issue came to a head and real estate development accelerated, it has become increasingly difficult for even the most conservative Goan artist to sustain either a pastoral relationship to landscape or an apolitical relationship to industry.

If Aparanta is the name sometimes used for Goa in its pastoral, colonial romantic, and mythical guises, one might use the term “post-Aparanta” for a naked view of the state under the forces of modernisation—industrialisation, crony capitalism, urbanisation, mass tourism—and the burden of social ills such as communalism, alcoholism, the drug trade, and prostitution. Photographers, video journalists, writers and activists (and, less heroically, Google Earth) have all brought the environmental problems to view. Especially in the case of mining, they have often done so in the face of censorship, physical attack and legal charges.

In the fine arts, post-Aparanta tendencies as they apply to “landscape”—widely defined to cover artworks dealing with the changing uses of land—have been slower to emerge. Much of the scene remains faithful to an Aparanta romance with idyllic villages and fragments of distant Portuguese history. But a clutch of young artists, among them the three discussed here, set a different example, demonstrating how fine art might actively participate in the intellectual and political life of the community by expressing and shaping how different people engage with the ugliness and difficulties of the changing world around them.

LORETTI JOYCE PINTO, born in 1981, is from the seaside village of Siridao. Tucked away off the main highway south of Panjim, the village has long contended with many of the problems common to communities across the state: namely, migration, real-estate scams, and the illegal cutting of hills and trees to accommodate construction. These issues have been particularly intractable in Siridao because the village’s biggest landowners are the Dempos, a major mining family operating in Goa and neighboring Karnataka.

An image in Ramdas Gadekar’s ‘Black and White Series’ depicts an elderly man, his uncle, who has been transplanted from his village home to a luxury flat with a view of the Zuari Industries in Sancoale, near the artist’s residence in Vasco. courtesy ramdas gadekar

The Dempos were never particularly sensitive to zoning laws or community interests, but starting about ten years ago, after they and other mining families sold large sea-facing plots to developers, Siridao confronted what a journalist at the daily O Heraldo called “construction doom.” That crisis still continues. Luxury flats were built illegally on land that was barely able to sustain small family homes. New wells were dug, rapidly draining groundwater reserves and causing problems for local farmers and households. Ecologically important hillocks were razed without obtaining the necessary clearances. Areas reserved for landing fishing vessels were encroached upon. Laterite walls that had stood for centuries were replaced with concrete embankments that toppled after only a few years, with no one to pick up the mess. Many village residents suspect that the local panchayat was bought off by developers or by higher powers in the state government.

Pinto takes all this very personally. In addition to being one of Goa’s most trenchant artists, she is also a committed activist. In 2007, she helped found Goencha Xetkarancho Ekvott—Goan Farmers’ Solidarity, a group dedicated to the protection of agricultural land and traditional livelihoods. In recent years, GXE has been most vocal about the environmental devastation caused by the mining industry and the requisition of forests and agricultural land for new airports meant to increase tourism. The collective has organised protests against the construction of casinos and Special Economic Zones, as well as against mining. Pinto is no longer involved with the group, but most of her art still deals with many of the same issues.

Pinto’s first major work was the large oil-on-canvas ‘Flight to Paris’, from 2007. It diagrams the dynamics of migration specifically in Siridao, but what it has to say resonates across Goa. The middle portion of the painting juxtaposes two groups of people: fishermen hauling in a net and travellers queuing at an airport ticket counter. Airplanes take off above. Below, a group of boys watch their family members depart for Europe, catching a glimpse of their own likely fates. Whereas diaspora literature often focuses on the personal stakes of migration, typically through the tropes of “identity,” for Pinto the political ramifications of dislocation in the home country are at least as important. This past winter, when I visited the artist at her home, a local teenaged boy stopped by to say goodbye; he was leaving in a few days for a restaurant job in London. “One of the reasons activism has slowed,” Pinto lamented after he went, “is because many of the most active members leave Goa when they get older.”

Pinto’s belief that land use is one of the root causes of disruption comes out in many of her drawings and prints. ‘Obliteration’, from 2007, presents a narrative of community dissolution through contrasting registers of imagery. The top third of the drawing shows excavators and trucks destroying farmland, the middle an old street in Panjim, and the bottom a group of Goans split between men high-fiving over a successful land deal and women distressed by the loss it represents. A related 2007 work, While They Were Sleeping’, focuses on a man and a woman at a table, the woman coyly pushing stacks of cash towards him as a family sleeps soundly on the floor nearby. Beneath the table, she holds a chain attached to a chest of money. The man also holds a chain, his attached to a floating cloud depicting the future: the hatching of a golden egg containing skyscrapers and high-rises built over the bucolic estuaries and lush hillocks of the traditional Goan ecosystem.

In one of his early works, Dhondu drew on the Goan pastoral mode but chose to focus on a section of the working courtesy Kedar Dhondu

It’s one thing to mourn an idealised past in the light of a degraded present, á la Mario Miranda’s cartoon. But what gives Pinto’s work real polemical drive is her insistence on illustrating the acts and agents of change. She does not, for example, flinch from stating that ordinary Goans, and not just the rich and powerful or the greedy outsiders usually put forward as scapegoats, must shoulder a large share of the blame.

That Pinto’s concern soon extended to mining was inevitable, given GXE’s efforts to protect paddies and orchards from miners’ incursions, the Dempos’ presence in Siridao, and the fact that many new developments come up on land once owned by mining companies. Her earliest artwork on the topic, however, built on her worries about migration, locating Goa’s mining troubles on a world stage by placing them within the global context of China’s quest for resources. At the bottom of the drawing ‘Goa to China’, made through 2008 and 2009, are three figures in black shirts with white handkerchiefs covering their noses and mouths. These, Pinto said, are anti-mining activists protecting their lungs from heavy dust. “The handkerchief is also a symbol of suppression,” she added, and of attempts to silence protestors using “personal threats, false legal accusations, and lack of media coverage, especially national media coverage.” In the background, a ravished strip mine abuts the sea, its innards carried across the water by a fleet of ships steaming toward a shining urban landscape on the horizon. The skyline is immediately recognisable as an imagined China, with the iconic CCTV Headquarters and the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing, signifying the endpoint of Goa’s iron ore. When Pinto began making this and similar works, in 2008, there were anti-mining protests in Goa practically every day. That was also the year the Beijing Olympics triumphantly projected China’s construction boom as a symbol of the country’s financial prowess and visionary technocracy.

Building China at the Cost of my Homeland’, a four-panel drawing created between 2008 and 2010, moves from a depiction of a strip mine on the left to one of the CCTV Headquarters under construction on the right. In the middle are two near-identical barges, the kind used to transport ore down Goa’s rivers to harbours for export. Ambiguity is not a feature of Pinto’s practice. But in this particular work, the lack of allegorical elements or empathetic human faces, and instead the incorporation of clear illustrative imagery in an almost photojournalistic composition, make the problem at hand highly tangible. With two barges rather than one, the viewer tends to read the work from left to right not once but twice, and then maybe once again, creating the effect of a looping clip of excavation, export and building. This movement is echoed in the looped form of the CCTV Building, a visual instruction for the viewer to go back to the beginning and repeat until either Goa is gone or China is complete. Pinto’s focus on repeating patterns, visible also in ‘Flight to Paris’ and key to the power of her work, reminds the viewer that ‘status quo’ does not mean stasis.

Since the 2012 ban on mining in Goa, Pinto has once again devoted most of her time and artistic energy to issues of human migration. Her most significant recent work, ‘Dolleam add mosonn padd’ is titled after a saying in Konkani that means something like “Look away only briefly, and all that you love will be lost.” This multi-panel drawing from 2013 addresses the complexity of Goan national identity, with elements that include a rusty door latch stuffed with unpaid bills, Portuguese passport covers and a form for surrendering an Indian passport, a cityscape juxtaposing an old Portuguese-era building and a characterless high-rise, and a house swallowed by a banyan tree. The array describes the conflicted process by which Goans can opt for Portuguese citizenship, but only at the cost of abandoning their ancestral homes.

Pinto has also been closely following the consequences of migration on local architecture and social fabric. With her camera, she has documented Siridao’s transformation from a quiet village into a parade of tacky, brightly coloured mansions, many owned by families who live overseas for the majority of the year. In a forest area in the village’s north is Naira, a development of luxury villas built by the Emgee Group and sponsored by Bollywood socialites Sussanne Khan and Gauri Khan. It promises unimpeded sea views, bar decks, terrace gardens and private infinity pools, but apparently lacks many necessary permits, and has overstepped the environmental safeguards in others—“Bold and beautiful but in breach of rules,” as an article in O Heraldo put it.

RAMDAS GADEKAR is not from your stereotypical Goan village of paddy, coconut tree-lined bunds and whitewashed churches. Born in 1979, he is a native of Bicholim, where the mining has been intense and dates back to the first “red gold rush,” in the 1950s. After a stint as a game designer in Delhi, Gadekar returned to Goa and eventually moved to Vasco, an industrial, working-class city sandwiched between Mormugao Port, Dabolim Airport and Zuari Industries.

Gadekar’s quirky paintings and drawings often deal with local issues, sometimes of the smallest sort. He has done paintings, for example, about the 2008 ban on smoking in public places, and about a 2012 law requiring drivers of two-wheelers to wear helmets. A 2012 painting, ‘Conditions Apply’, shows a poor man hired to carry an election hoarding. As Gadekar explained when I visited him recently at his studio in Vasco, the politicians assure the man that his opinion too will be counted if they are elected. But once the voting is over, the man and his problems are ignored.

Gadekar’s images often place a broad and bloated face before a flat and brightly coloured background, in a compositional scheme that ultimately derives from European Renaissance portraits. Yet Gadekar names the American magical realist painter George Tooker as his biggest influence. Tooker made disconcertingly surreal images employing the bodily strangeness of Renaissance portraiture. He also used the exaggerations of space of Renaissance perspective to create, as Gadekar does, haunting images of urban alienation—in Tooker’s case, New York City of the early years after the Second World War. That Gadekar identified in Tooker a workable model for representing Goa means that he finds modern urban alienation, rather than the pastoral sympathy between humans and landscape, an appropriate reference point for figuring the Goa resident’s relationship to his or her environment.

Though Gadekar was surrounded by industry and urbanism most of his life, it was mining that first steered his art in a post-Aparanta direction. “Visiting home from Vasco,” the artist explained to me, “I would often take the shortcut road that passes by the Shirgaon mine between Mapusa and Bicholim.” The mine, one of Goa’s oldest, was opened by the Chowgule Group in 1951. “What I saw there really bothered me,” Gadekar said.

The result was a pair of works collectively titled ‘Mining Boom or Curse’, created in 2011, before the mining ban but after exposés, protests, and litigation had placed the industry under a permanent cloud. The first of these works, a large acrylic painting on canvas, shows an old man wearing a bandana. As a lorry exits a mine on a dusty red road behind him, the man—an out-of-state worker, according to the artist—holds a hand to his cheek, an expression of concern at the threat to his livelihood from the industry’s potential downsizing or closure. The composition recalls Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’, though Gadekar’s painting is hardly an expression of mortal terror. ‘Mining Boom or Curse’, as the title suggests, is meant to evoke ambivalence. While restricting mining might mean the salvation of the landscape, it has also meant substantial economic losses in a state where the industry once accounted for more than a quarter of GDP.

Dhondu’s large canvas, ‘What Do We Do and Where Are We Going’ uses Bruegel’s iconic ‘The Tower of Babel’ to point to the intersecting disasters of contemporary Goa. courtesy Kedar Dhondu

After a brief engagement with mining, Gadekar moved on to what has become his signature theme: urbanisation in Goa. ‘Changing Window Views’, another pair of paintings, produced in 2011, shows two people inside their homes, while outside their windows the rolling green landscape turns geometric and cacophonous with colour. These recall Sudhir Patwardhan’s famous paintings of urban development in Thane since the 1980s. Gadekar’s ‘In Search of Pasture’, also from 2011, resembles his mining paintings in composition, and shows a moustached man in a yellow helmet in front of a built-up coastal landscape. “One used to be able to look at the landscape in Goa at sunset and see this gently rolling silhouette,” Gadekar said, “but now it is cut up with construction. The contractor here gazing upon the sunset is actually looking for his next building project.”

More affecting than these is a group of monochromatic graphite works, titled simply ‘Black and White Series’, from 2013. Set within the interior spaces of Goa’s growing concrete jungle, particularly in shopping centres and high-rises, this series’ debt to Tooker’s paintings of New York City subway stations and offices is immediately palpable. One drawing shows a group of friends dining together, all distracted by their phones. Empty hallways recede in the windows behind them, echoing their hollow, funneled states of mind. Two other drawings in the series show a woman, surrounded by loitering figures, lighting a cigarette. Again, multiple long and characterless corridors convey a lack of comfort or intimacy. “Because of the over-construction of high-rises and poorly planned urbanisation,” the artist explained, “many Goans are feeling a high degree of social alienation.” My favorite image in the series depicts an elderly man, barefoot and sitting on a plastic chair on a balcony, with a sprawling industrial estate in the background. This is Zuari Industries in Sancoale, near Gadekar’s current residence in Vasco. His brother, he told me, once considered buying a flat with such a view. The elderly man is their uncle, who has been transplanted imaginatively from a relaxed afternoon at his village home: the old Goan displaced from his pastoral setting.

For all their intended gravitas, Gadekar’s works, especially the ‘Mining Boom or Curse’ pair, are sometimes hard to take seriously. Humour seems to come naturally to Gadekar; many of his images, like those dealing with the helmet law, are openly funny, featuring massive and distorted heads with insane, Cheshire Cat smiles. But the artist has struggled with representing horror. The newer ‘Black and White Series’ allows alienation and discomfort to percolate through the relationship between Gadekar’s figures and their surroundings, whereas in the earlier mining paintings those emotions are forced through kitschy outward displays of worry. In them, he had yet to exploit landscape itself as a vehicle for emotion and meaning.

What is interesting about ‘Mining Boom or Curse’ and the other 2011 paintings is how they plug into historical tropes of property within the genre of portraiture. Gadekar is a fan of Renaissance painting, not only via Tooker. He especially admires Albrecht Dürer, and one can feel in his subjects’ facial distortions an affinity with Northern Renaissance hyper-naturalism’s flirtation with the grotesque. Renaissance portraits often employed backgrounds, and particularly picturesque landscapes seen through window frames, to present place and property as a sitter’s defining characteristics. For clergy, these scenes often showed their parishes. For merchants and their family members, they usually depicted trading towns and harbours. This model was recycled for centuries in European portraiture, and took root in India through British, Cantonese and Indian painters’ images of East India Company and Parsi traders in the nineteenth century. Some of our present knowledge about the look of mansions and warehouses along the Mandovi River in Ribandar and Panjim comes from their appearance in the backgrounds of portraits of Goa’s Portuguese colonial elite.

If Pinto repurposes pastoral imagery to depict how Goan villagers alienate themselves through questionable land sales, Gadekar turns the Renaissance portrait of property on its head such that background landscapes refer to land owned or controlled by someone else, and developed in a manner with which the sitter cannot identify. In post-Aparanta art, land as the basis of Goan identity only lends itself to discourses of alienation and dispossession.

OUR THIRD AND LAST ARTIST puts a particularly violent spin on these tropes. Kedar Dhondu is a stunning draughtsman and painter, with an incredible sense for physical expression and colour. His interest in European art ranges widely, from Botticelli and Michelangelo to Goya and Gainsborough. Dhondu tends to lean heavily on his sources, but through them he has found a way out of the cul-de-sac of Lusitanian ruins that entraps many of his seniors in Goan art. He does this by extracting from European art its power of emotive expression, and particularly the Christian investments in human passion, suffering, and the wages of sin.

Born in 1981, Dhondu is from Mandrem, in the north Goa taluk of Pernem. In 2006, he created a series of acrylic paintings on paper, in a modernised pastoral mode, titled ‘Working People (Lower Class/Poor): To Earn’. One of these shows his father, who worked as a coconut tapper. Another shows a woman hauling rubble at a rural building site, and a second woman with a sack collecting recyclables. The most vivid has a group of men taking a break from laying telephone cables, dug-up red earth all around them. The basic idea, Dhondu told me, was to highlight a working class, comprising both Goans and migrants from Karnataka, that usually passes under the radar of Goan art. These works remind me of FN Souza’s earliest paintings of farmers in Goa, done in the mid 1940s, around the time the artist was still associated with the Communist Party. Yet Dhondu spoke of his paintings mainly in aesthetic, not political, terms. “I am interested in things that people usually don’t want to look at, things they think are ugly,” he told me. “I am interested in the relationship between this and beauty.”

Capturing humanity’s ugliness beautifully has, indeed, been Dhondu’s forte. But for the contrast to become visceral in his work, he had to delve into painful personal experiences: the unforeseen death of first one of his parents and then the other within a span of a year, while the artist was still a teenager. It was almost a decade before Dhondu dealt with these losses in his art, but once he did, the tone and look of his work changed dramatically. In 2007, he produced ‘Pool of Tears’, a pair of watercolour self-portraits of the artist dreamily swimming through flat ocean, looking down despondently into the water. Then followed a series of works, similarly set on dead-still sea, showing, for example, a man swallowing a hooked fishing lure, a screaming horse trying to swim despite a crocodile nipping at his feet, and the head of a deer (copied from a famous drawing by Dürer) with an arrow through its forehead, its blood dying the water a florescent pink.

One after another, different sources of violent imagery passed beneath Dhondu’s brush: Mughal images of hunting, Renaissance images of Christian martyrdom, news photographs of riots, chemical disasters, and their traumatised victims. While some of these are expressionistic renditions in puddled watercolour, many are detailed copies in which Dhondu’s technical mastery subtly emphasises the visual seductiveness of images of the body in pain, and the pornographic dimension of our fascination with violence.

A large watercolour from 2011, ‘Aiz Maka Falea Tuka’, speaks for Dhondu’s work as a whole. Its title is a Konkani saying meaning “Today me, tomorrow you,” found inscribed on the gateways of a number of Goa’s graveyards. The image itself presents a landscape strewn with prostrate bodies in states of torture, death and dismemberment, but also sleep and fornication. As European painters of memento mori knew, whether they were depicting monks caressing skulls or tabletops filled with fruits and precious gems and metals, one must first incite worldly desire before attempting a lesson in its perils. Not surprisingly, Dhondu has gravitated to some of Christian art’s most erotic imagery (like that of Michelangelo and Botticelli), but almost always as vehicles for narrating sin.

Land, too, is victim to fallen humanity. After his class-inflected pastoral paintings of 2006, land pretty much dropped out of Dhondu’s work, even as a background element. It has now come back with a vengeance, notably in tandem with the artist’s return to Goa as a subject. In 2013, Dhondu created a set of watercolours titled ‘Seven Sins’, which is now in the collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. Nestled amid sexy and lascivious images representing lust and envy, and ones of debauchery and violence representing gluttony and greed, is Dhondu’s idea of sloth. At the bottom of the composition is a pencil rendering of a sleeping man from Botticelli’s voluptuous 1483 work ‘Venus and Mars’. The middle ground is filled with other snoozing figures from Renaissance art. At the very top is a quote adapted from the Bible: “Satan does his work while people are sleeping.” Beneath, in watercolour and gouache, is a stereotypical green and blue Goan village landscape, with a white church in the centre. A gangly-legged figure of death strides across it, sprinkling men like seeds. “These are people, mainly from outside Goa, coming to take the land,” the artist explained simply. It’s interesting that Dhondu should treat the loss of land under sloth, rather than, say, greed, for it places responsibility more on the shoulders of locals who fail to rise up to protect their homeland. The sentiment is close to that in Pinto’s ‘Obliteration’ and ‘While They Were Sleeping’, though Dhondu’s funneling of local issues through distant art history definitely dampens the blow.

While land features in just one of Dhondu’s ‘Seven Sins’ works, it takes centre stage in the artist’s signature world of hurt and hatred in ‘What Do We Do and Where Are We Going?’ This large canvas, created over 2013 and 2014, painted in watercolour, ink and gouache, centres around Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s famous 1563 painting ‘The Tower of Babel’. In the Old Testament, the Tower of Babel was the ultimate symbol of the dangers of human hubris. Bruegel’s interpretation of it, designed to resemble the Roman Coliseum, is understood as a comment on the eventual fall of even the greatest empires, and secondarily on the Catholic Church in Rome, enemy to Bruegel’s Protestantism. The surrounding landscape shows a flourishing Dutch city enriched by sea trade. The intended message seems to be that mercantilism too should reflect carefully on its obsession with power through Mammon.

Dhondu’s version of the tower, which follows Bruegel’s original in layout and most architectural details, rises above a landscape that is two parts Goa and one part north-east Japan after the 2011 tsunami. The Goa part comprises, at top left, a generalised blue and green landscape, but smouldering in places, and, at bottom right, the giant excavators, trucks, cranes and barges of the mining industry. A conveyor belt stretches around the tower’s foundation. Bloody bodies float in the sea below the barges, while violence rages all around and upon the tower in the form of toy soldier-like figures adapted from multiple sources: news images of the Arab Spring, paintings of hell made during the Spanish Inquisition, and battle scenes from the Hollywood movie 300. One of the tower’s archways holds graveyard crucifixes and statuary of angels, and is inscribed, again, with “Aiz Maka Falea Tuka,” bringing Babel home. The seaside location vaguely recalls Goa’s Portuguese forts. The idea of ill-advised, hypertrophic building resonates with Goa’s troubles with unplanned development and urbanisation. The work also reminded me of Naoya Hatakeyama’s photographs of sand and gravel mining in Japan’s Seto Island Sea, which entail the stripping of hilly islands such that they end up resembling Bruegel’s tiered Babel.

When I mentioned this to Dhondu over coffee in Panjim, he agreed. The structure of open-cast mines was indeed what he was thinking about when working on the canvas. He then casually shared some autobiographical details. In 1998, he completed a degree in mining engineering at the Government Polytechnic in Bicholim. Dhondu’s father, like any sensible parent, regarded his son’s artistic inclinations with suspicion, and urged him to pursue something more practical. “One could make a lot of money being a manager or foreman at the mines,” Dhondu said. “It was one of the best jobs you could get in Goa.” For his coursework, he spent time in underground mines in Chandrapur and Dehradun, in addition to touring open-cast mines in Goa. For his post-graduate apprenticeship, he joined the Bandekar Brothers mines in Pale, in Bicholim, but left six months into the required one year. His father had passed away the year before, leaving Dhondu free to pursue a career in whatever he wanted without family pressures.

Despite his personal experience with mining, Dhondu came to the topic in a roundabout way. His first work on the Babel theme was an etching for a printmaking workshop at Sunaparanta–Goa Centre for the Arts in Panjim that culminated in the exhibition Look At This Land. The etching is almost a straight copy of another painting by Bruegel, the so-called ‘The Little Tower of Babel’. The boats plying the water are distinctly wood galleons, as in Bruegel’s painting, but Dhondu recalls people reading them as mining barges during the workshop and exhibition. The occasion was indeed ripe for seeing things. The workshop was conducted in October 2012, commencing just days after the Supreme Court’s order to halt mining in Goa, and the exhibition took place that December. There is also the fact that the hosting venue, Sunaparanta, was founded and is partly funded by mine-owner Dattaraj V Salgaocar and his wife Dipti (née Ambani).

For the same workshop, Pinto made ‘Merry We Go Round’, an etching that, despite its heavy subject matter, is cute enough that it could be used as children’s wallpaper. At its centre, giant excavators claw at a strip mine; below and around them is a parade of little trucks and barges. Pinto told me she remembered Dhondu joking that his Babel print had been invaded by her mini mining vehicles. Dhondu laughed when I crosschecked this anecdote with him, then added that though mining didn’t become part of his work until after that, it has haunted his sleep for years. “I am in a truck driving down into a huge open-cast mine, going around and around, and I am scared because I feel like I might fall out and down into the hole,” he said. “I see this dream all the time.”

More frightening still are Dhondu’s waking nightmares. For many years, European art history has served as the artist’s medium for exploring violence, enmity and sin. Initially, it was the human body in various states of emotional and physical suffering that primarily served that function, but now, as in ‘What Do We Do’, it is landscape and architecture that do so. Yes, Dhondu’s battle-scapes can be playful, even silly, reminiscent of Paul Chan’s early animation pieces envisioning a post-September 11 apocalypse, with references to Henry Darger and Jay Z, or Makoto Aida’s firebombing of Manhattan by kamikaze planes in a painting from the mid 1990s. It’s not clear how seriously we should take Dhondu’s dystopias. But still, the basic conceit is clear: overdevelopment is Goa’s Babel, the sin of hubris extrapolated on an environmental scale. What better way to represent this in a place where digging down and building up have caused so much pain than with a high-rise in the shape of a strip mine?

Ryan Holmberg Ryan Holmberg is an art critic and comics historian based in Mumbai.