India’s Goa sheds colonial legacy, 60 years after Portuguese rule

With colonial homes falling into disrepair and Bollywood’s increasing cultural influence, will local history be eradicated?

Visitors next to Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception Church, one of the oldest church structures in Panjim, Goa [File: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP]

Lorraine Alberto teaches Portuguese language at Goa University, but students are in short supply in this former colony.

Across Goa, a tiny coastal state once administered by Lisbon, there is little appetite for the territory’s 450 years of European heritage.

Colonial homes that are falling into disrepair and Bollywood’s increasing cultural dominance portend the disappearance of local history in a place where speaking Portuguese was once a passport to status and power.

Tourists at the Basilica of Bom Jesus before the start of a procession carrying the remains of St Francis Xavier in Goa [File: Punit Paranjpe/AFP]

“My children don’t speak it at all,” Alberto told the AFP news agency. “They just don’t see the point of learning it.”

Those alive in 1961, when Indian troops marched into Goa and incorporated it into the rest of the country, recall an overnight transformation.

India’s exit from the British empire in 1947 spurred many Goans to demand an end to Portuguese rule, but few expected so much to change so quickly.

“It was a very strange feeling… The changes came so fast,” said Honorato Velho, a retired school principal.

Lorraine Alberto, professor of Portuguese at Goa University, speaks to her students during an online class [Indranil Mukherjee/AFP]

The 78-year-old, who once lived next door to the grandfather of Portugal’s Prime Minister Antonio Costa, fondly remembers a childhood peppered with European and local influences.

But his enthusiasm has not been inherited by the next generation.

“My wife and I still speak Portuguese out of habit, but never with our children,” Velho told AFP.

Across the state, homes influenced by old Portuguese design trends are falling into disrepair or being pulled down to make way for apartment blocks.

Only a handful of traditional homes have been earmarked for protection from development or destruction, according to author Heta Pandit.

The gradual disappearance of covered terraces and mother-of-pearl shell windows – built to diffuse harsh sunlight – is not just a loss to architecture, she said.

“These houses are evidence of Goan history, they are capsules of our culture.”


Alberto starts a Portuguese class; students from the former colony are scarce [Indranil Mukherjee/AFP]

‘I just wasn’t interested’

Some Goans have nonetheless found themselves drawn into a relationship with their heritage, even against their early inclinations.

At a recent outdoor concert in a coastal village, dozens of people gathered to listen to Goan singer Sonia Shirsat, an accomplished performer of traditional Portuguese fado music.

The 40-year-old specialises in the melancholy, guitar-driven genre, which was born at the turn of the 19th century and was in recent years recognised by UNESCO as an “intangible cultural heritage”.

Shirsat paused between songs to patiently explain the meaning behind each track, knowing many in the enraptured audience spoke little if any Portuguese.

It is a role she is well-suited to play, tracing her own journey from a teenager who refused to learn Portuguese to a fado artist who is now training others to follow in her footsteps.

“My mother tried to teach me the language, but I just wasn’t interested,” she told AFP.

Alberto speaks to her students during an online class at Panaji in Goa [Indranil Mukherjee/AFP]

That changed when Shirsat met a Portuguese guitarist who told her that her rich, velvety voice was ideal for the genre.

She decided to move to Lisbon for training, becoming the first Indian to stage a solo fado concert there in 2008.

Shirsat has since performed all over the world, sometimes incorporating a cross-cultural element with the use of Indian instruments like the sitar.

All fado songs are infused with a sense of yearning for the past, but in Goa, they also serve as a bridge between two eras.

“Fado doesn’t just talk about what is lost, it also talks about what is to come,” she said.

“It has lived in Goa for over 100 years. If we don’t preserve it, it is as if we are killing a part of ourselves.”

Source: AFP