The Western impact

Published : Nov 19, 2004 00:00 IST

The Se Cathedral, the largest church in Velha Goa, by moonlight. The construction of this magnificent cathedral in the main square of Velha Goa began in 1562 and was completed in 1652. It is made of local laterite. -

The Se Cathedral, the largest church in Velha Goa, by moonlight. The construction of this magnificent cathedral in the main square of Velha Goa began in 1562 and was completed in 1652. It is made of local laterite. -

The paintings in the churches of Goa, which represent the first meaningful meeting of the styles of India and Europe, form an exquisite chapter in the rich history of painting in India.

MEDIEVAL India was renowned for its fabled wealth. For centuries European nations looked for a sea route that could connect them directly to India. The Portuguese sailor Vasco da Gama finally discovered one in 1498. He sailed around the Cape of Good Hope (in South Africa) and reached Calicut (Kozhikode in Kerala) on the west coast of India. This established a trade route between Europe and Asia. Gradually the lands of Asia were colonised by the European powers - the Netherlands, Portugal, France and England - and brought under their cultural influence.

Rediscovering Indian Painting - 4.The fourth of a five-part series.

One such land, which attracted the seafaring Portuguese, is Goa. With its natural harbours Goa was an important port of the Vijayanagar kingdom for almost 100 years since 1370. In 1510, the Portuguese captured Goa and for the next 450 years it was ruled by distant Portugal.

The medieval history of Goa is a unique chapter in the history of India. In Indian paintings too, this was the time when the artist tried to adopt an altogether different style and approach.

The Portuguese built the magnificent capital city of Old Goa or Velha Goa on the banks of the Mandovi river. This became one of the most important ports in India. It also became the nerve centre of the Portuguese empire in Asia. Portuguese commercial interests and religious orders, covering the area from the east coast of Africa to China and Japan, were centred here. Old Goa was an important commercial centre. Whether it was precious stones and spices that were shipped to Europe or the Arabian horses that the Portuguese traders sold to the Vijayanagar rulers, all went through this port.

The relationship between Portugal and Goa was not restricted to commerce. The small, sunny land began to witness during this period a cultural encounter that was different from the one that flourished in the mainland of the Deccan. Here was created a unique blend of Indo-Portuguese culture. This period also saw the earliest and deepest interaction between the arts of India and Europe.

The Portuguese made this picturesque coastal land their home. They brought with them a new religion and culture. They believed it was their duty to convert the local people to Christianity and show them what they believed in was the `True Path'. They made huge houses of God in order to inspire and convert the local people through awe and grandeur and power and majesty. Many magnificent churches were built within a few square kilometres, so much so that Old Goa came to be known as the Rome of the east as it had the largest number of churches per sq km in any Asian city. There are on record letters from the priests in Old Goa to the King of Portugal in which they lamented, "their choirs and our choirs, their bells and our bells, there is cacophony here".

Within these magnificent houses of God, a great treasure of religious art was created. Paintings were brought from Lisbon and Rome. These were used to teach Indian painters new subjects and a new style of painting. In fact, in Goa, European techniques and materials of painting were introduced a long time before the British set up their first art schools in India. The paintings in the churches of Goa form an exquisite chapter in the rich and many-faceted tradition of painting in India. A journey through the development of painting over the centuries in India would be incomplete without an understanding of the experience of Goa.

The religious ideas came from Europe, but the churches of Goa were made by Indian hands and quite often transformed by the Indian heart. The craftsmen who built these churches had their own images in their minds. In the Basilica of Bom Jesus, the saints are seen standing on lotuses, much the way in which Hindu deities are depicted in temples.

The Se Cathedral was completed in 1652. The paintings around the altars of this cathedral are a fine example of the art of the churches of Goa. These reflect the traditions of painting in Europe at that time. This was the period of the Baroque in Western art; a style characterised by drama and heightened emotion. The artists used colour, form and diagonal lines in order to make the paintings realistic and dynamic. `Dramatisation' became the principle of the paintings. The figures are starkly drawn out in a dramatic play of light and the contrast of dark shadows. The paintings in the Se Cathedral depict the expression of the suffering and passion of Christ and the apostles.

The Church of St. Francis of Assisi, built in 1527, stands in the main square of Old Goa in the same compound as the Se Cathedral. The church has some of the finest Goan paintings on wood panels depicting portraits of saints.

The ideas and stories of Christianity were new to the Indian artist. However, the feeling of reverence towards a God who loved all of humanity was not new to him. While the artist laboured with the new mediums of painting and with subjects that came from another land, he found himself at home in the depiction of gentleness and love upon the face of Christ.

The Convent and Church of Santa Monica, dedicated to the mother of St. Augustine, was constructed in 1627. It is the oldest and largest nunnery in Asia and is active even today. The walls of the Convent were once covered with beautiful frescoes. Unfortunately, today most of them have been covered with plaster and whitewashed. However, some paintings that still retain their original glory can be found in the chapel of the Convent. The colourful paintings depict stories from the Bible and the miracles of faith. As in the ancient Indian tradition of art, we see gentleness and overflowing love in these paintings.

Tucked away in the quiet of the basement of the Nunnery of Santa Monica are some of the finest mural paintings of Goa. These cover the vaulted ceiling of the basement and depict the many saints of the Catholic faith. Their benign figures are portrayed with love and a deep feeling of reverence. The artist has captured their gentleness and kindness with rare sensitivity.

The Basilica of Bom Jesus was built by the Jesuit order in 1585. The church is dedicated to the Bom Jesus or the Good, the Infant Jesus. The body of St. Francis Xavier, who died on December 3, 1552, is kept here, miraculously intact. A Holy Exposition of the body of the saint will take place from the last week of November 2004 to the first week of January 2005.

St. Francis Xavier left Portugal to come to India and to the Far East. He devoted himself to the cause of the people here and died in that service. He was canonised by the Church and here in Goa he was adopted as the patron saint of the people. In St. Francis Xavier, the people of Goa saw someone who represented the Church and was also one of them.

Around the casket containing the holy relics of the saint are paintings depicting scenes from his life. The paintings of St. Francis Xavier form the finest body of art produced by Goan Christian painters.

It was a rare and fruitful confluence of different traditions. There is an official record that says that an Indian painter was used to make fine portraits of Portuguese viceroys by 1545. A great achievement considering the fact that the medium of oil painting was entirely new to the Indian painter. These would have been some of the earliest portraits that were painted in India and were made in the styles that prevailed in Europe then.

Fathers Rudolph Aquaviva and Monserat of St. Paul's College in Old Goa were invited to the court of the Mughal emperor Akbar. They stayed as guests of the emperor in Fatehpur Sikri for many years.

They carried with them portraits and paintings on European themes, which were presented before him. These were among the earliest European influences that came to the mainstream of the Indian tradition of painting.

European painting was different from the art of India, both in its medium and technique and in its philosophic approach. The paintings of Goa represent the first meaningful and complete experience of the Indian artist with the styles of European painting. Of course, dominating European influences were to come to Indian painters through the schools of art that were set up by the British in the 19th century.

Under the Portuguese, the Indian painter learnt to paint in the realistic manner of the West, with painstaking care to depict light and shade and perspective in a photographic manner. Whereas his tradition had taught him to present the sublime peace of Brahmananda or eternal bliss, the new tradition brought the poignant portrayal of the pain in human life.

In the best of Old Goa's paintings, we see gentle and sublime expression.

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