Muhammed and the Mountain

by Dom Martin

When Mahomet told his people that he could call the mountain to him and from the top of the mountain offer his prayers, his people bowed their heads and assembled before him. And Mahomet called to the mountain to come to him, but the mountain did not. And repeatedly again, Mahomet called to the mountain, but the mountain stood still. Finally, appearing neither perturbed nor in the least abashed, Mahomet turned to his people and conceded: "If the mountain will not come to Mahomet, Mahomet will go to the mountain".

In the archaeological scenario of Goa, we have a Muhammed instead of a Mahomet. He is Mr. Muhammed K.K., the Deputy Superintending Archaeologist of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). And instead of just an ordinary mountain, we have a bastion of magnificent monuments. Between Muhammed and the mountain, there has been no sabre-drawing. As an ASI official, Muhammed has not adapted the attitude of expecting the mountain to come to him. Nor has he expressed an unwillingness to go to the mountain.

The problem or problema, as the case may be, is with the inhabitants of Goa. Each time Muhammed blows his bugle, Goans scramble about looking for their own bugles. As a consequence, when Muhammed implemented his plan to beautify the vicinity of the monuments in Old Goa -- by eradicating vendors and nocturnal lovers -- he had to confront a pandemonium of tears and jeers. When he proposed the compelling need to plaster the exterior of the Bom Jesus Basilica, he had to gape at a sea of axes and faxes. And when he articulated which monuments in Old Goa, under ASI's edict, were decreed "dead" or "alive", he had to face the canon's canonry!

Frankly, I bear no prejudice to Muhammed's bugle or to blowing the bugle for him, even if my blowing might drive Goans away or cause the mountain to crumble. For the moment, as it is, one lopsided-cross is about all I can conscientiously shoulder. Getting further involved in any other manner, I am afraid, might induce Goans to urge Muhammed to also include me in ASI's list of dead monuments in Old Goa.

Perhaps, if it would make Muhammed feel any better, I could prompt to him that Art is my passion, my death and resurrection, and that, as an artist, Goa has been neither my Gethsemane nor my Golgotha. The closest I got to anyone washing his hands over me was in 1980, when the Basilica Art Gallery was closed to the public.

Amidst the rumblings generated by the closure, I had the gall to echo a sentiment or two. In the first sentiment, I pontificated: If a single picture is worth a thousand words, than a single artist is worth a thousand preachers!. In the subsequent sentiment, I steadfastly bemoaned: I will perish . . . you will perish . . . the parish will perish . . . but my paintings are here to stay . . . !

Undoubtedly, I am still paying a price for those gastrointestinal sentiments, and my paintings in the process, are now beginning to resemble the Basilica's exterior. I dread the day a debate might similarly ensue on whether my paintings look more aesthetic layered in mildew and bat dropping, or, if they merit being chemically restored to their original state of mind.

In retrospect, I must gratefully admit, matters could easily have been far more grievous or calamitous. For instance, I could -- like St. Francis Xavier -- have also ended up minus a hand and some toes. Or I could have been blasted into outer space like Luis de Camoes. I haven't. Nor has Muhammed! Under the looming shadow of the past, the present and the future, our facial plaster (made up of three-parts epoxy and one part optimism) appears to hold on extraordinarily well !

On a more serious note, however, I would like to proffer the following on the controversy over plastering the Basilica's exterior:

History is an encyclopedia of man-made proposals that were either edified or decimated in the courtroom of public opinion. As far as opinions go, the human mind is just about as prone in turning the other person's opinion to carrion as its own subsequent one is likely to degenerate into in the opinion of yet another. And so forth.

All said and done, the predominant fact at stake is the Basilica's exterior, which -- over the years, and as further elaborated by Mr. Muhammed in his recent article, Conserving Precious Monuments -- has been absorbing large amounts of moisture to the absolute detriment of its structural integrity. The rest is subjective. If an opinion poll were to be conducted, it would most surely generate a plethora of views and counter views, including, counterfeit ones.

The case of the St. Anne Church leaps to mind. A long standing tiff between the Goa Archives, the ASI and the Archdiocese of Goa -- on the matter of its acquisition -- resulted in the monument being further subjected to the harsh elements of pervasive neglect and decay.

On the issue of plastering the Basilica's exterior, the controversy appears to orbit around looks. Looks can be very sentimental, even emotional. And while conservation has to do with preserving looks, the means for achieving this may at times need to be compromised. In other words, if the preservation process calls for using lime, slime, plaster, filibuster, pebbles, foibles, epoxy or some other proxy . . . let the process duly begin, so that we may deserve posterity's gratitude and not its wrath and condemnation.

January 31, 1996