CONSERVING THE PORTRAITS OF GOD by Dom Martin
Man is not perfect, only God is. In our attempts to depict perfection, we have crested the face of the earth with a plethora of temples, churches, mosques, synagogues and pagodas. In time, some of these places of worship have outlived our foibles and debauchery, and today, stand as monumental Portraits of God. The most imposing portraits of a Christian God exist in Old Goa. The titles of some include: The Bom Jesus Basilica, the See Cathedral, and the Church and Convent of St. Francis of Assisi. And there are others elsewhere, including the architectural gem tucked away in the lush verdure of Santana: The Church of St. Anne.
During the erstwhile regime, these portraits of God were declared as national monuments. After the liberation of Goa, they were similarly declared as national monuments and have since been acquired by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). To the church authorities, the parting of these monuments meant a certain loss of beingness or autonomy. To the ASI, the acquisition of the monuments also meant conserving the pigments of a painful past, in that, these magnificent Portraits of God were painted on the faces of other whitewashed Gods.
As a result, the chemistry between the church authorities and the ASI has, from the onset, been fraught with frailties, bordering on occasional distrust of the other's intentions and objectives. ASI, on its part, found itself unwittingly caught between what belongs to God and what belongs to Caesar. As a consequence, lurking behind the shadows of the monuments in Old Goa is the ever volatile ASI- Church dynamite, with the Deputy Superintending Archaeologist of the local ASI office becoming the handy fuse.
The Deputy Superintending Archaeologist's overwhelming challenge remains practically unchanged: How best to publicly conserve the faces of a European god in a land where religious sentiments are both indigenous and nonindegenous, and where the climate of politics is as complex and unpredictable as the clouds in the sky, and where modernization is encroaching, irreversibly, on all frontiers of the past and the present..
In the face of that alarming question, the Deputy Superintending Archaeologist can neither sculpt like Michelangelo, nor paint, or invent, or engineer like Leonardo da Vinci. In most instances, the Deputy Superintending Archaeologist happens to be a scholar, with extensive field experience in Indian art and archaeology but not much exposure in the realm of European art and architecture. To him, the post of the Deputy Superintending Archaeologist, for the most part, is an administrative function. Therefore, if God's portraits in Old Goa are beginning to develop additional wrinkles or show signs of vitiligo, it is naturally cause for deep concern rather than cause to level down the office of the ASI. Or to draw the Deputy Superintending Archaeologist in the line of fire. Exercising empathy might be more in order and worth the effort.
The reasons are rather basic. Firstly, in proportion to the monuments in Old Goa, the staff size and budgetary-potential of the local office of the ASI are rather pathetic. Almost an archaeological obsolescence. The office consists of a Deputy Superintending Archaeologist, one engineer, a chemist, a foreman, some watchman, and a fiscal budget of under ten lakhs. Secondly, the post of the Deputy Superintending Archaeologist is subordinate to the dictates of the Director General of ASI, New Delhi. In other words, New Delhi's consent and authorization must first be sought before any work involving major repairs can be undertaken.
In the time lapse between seeking authorization and obtaining same -- as well as in an attempt to look continually productive -- the inclination arises to undertake smaller projects for which New Delhi's approval is not required, and which projects may not necessarily be in the best interests of conservation. Some of these diversionary activities have of late, brought the office of the local ASI and the church authorities into the sphere of conflict.
In instances where the ASI has erred, advertently or inadvertently, the church authorities and members of the public have justifiably reacted. While it is necessary to be critical, at times it is all too simple to get obsessed in the counter view and thereby, defeat the very objective of the projected criticism. If the church authorities doubt the credibility of the ASI, or if the ASI resents the grins and groans of church officials, all these would seem to be mundane simmerings which can be adequately resolved through the characteristics of objective dialogue.
When it comes to personalities -- be it within the office of the ASI or the body of the Church -- there will always be some that are more disagreeable or less likeable than others. Therefore, the lobbying of vitriolic sentiments to replace the existing Deputy Superintending Archaeologist does not necessarily mean that his successor would be more amenable to the needs of the monuments, or to the sentiments of ASI's critics in general. Good intent must also be matched and pursued by prudence. Notwithstanding our positions in public or in private, we are basically all humanbeings, capable of being simply intelligent and amenable, or conversely subjective and ruthless.
Again, conservation is not a private enterprise but the collective consciousness of a people. Between the Church and the ASI, a lot of good intentions have become muddled as a result of one being viewed with contempt or distrust by the other. Our failing as humanbeings, apparently begins with a subjective view of the other. This aptitude has, and will continue to be humanity's primary disease to posterity.
It is also necessary to comprehend that with regard to the monuments in Old Goa, ASI has merely a human role and carries no magic wand. If those highly critical of ASI can match their critical words with critical deeds, it might usher in an aura of invigorating change. Similarly, if the Church can conserve better, it ought to do so by considering Exposition funds towards the cause of conservation, as also by vehemently disallowing the construction of new churches and chapel, and instead, channel such extravagant resources towards the cause of conservation. As it is, there is more cubic-feet of space in existing churches and chapels around Goa than what the faithful will ever come to need in generations to come.
On the other hand, if ASI is to be taken seriously, it must be given the functionality essential to its existence. This would entail upgrading the existing office to a full fledged office headed by a Superintending Archaeologist, as well as a fiscal budget in proportion to the imminent and ongoing needs of the monuments under conservation. The resolutions adopted during the recent seminar in Old Goa, on the "Conservation of World Heritage Monuments", are of commendable substance. So too the resolution of creating a "Consultative Committee" consisting of Advisers/Experts in the relevant fields of Architecture, Structural Engineering, Restoration, etc., to work in conjunction with ASI.
However, if the seminar's resolutions will only end up getting archived, conservation in Old Goa may continue to be the white elephant it presently is. It is therefore imperative that some of the seminar's vital resolutions be effectively implemented without prejudice. More importantly, ASI may need to ascend to the clouds to seek the collaboration of European expertise in carrying out the work of conservation. And church officials may also need to descend from their position in the clouds if they intend to relate with the ASI on the level of reality.
In conclusion, while all Gods may be one and the same, it is not uncommon to find God's face materially altered or defaced through time's progression. Whether the changes have to do with God being displeased with man or with man being displeased with God, the truth is as elusive as God's whereabouts. For the moment, however, one fact remains persistently pertinent: God was, and continues to be created unto the likeness of our needs, our visions and our despair.
As for the monuments in Old Goa, they represent man's supernatural feat to a God who shares the same Bench of Omnipotence with other known Gods. Let these magnificent portraits of God, therefore, continue to be conserved without let, hindrance or prejudice!
April 22, 1996