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By Salil | Issue No.2 Journeys | |

Earth and heaven in conversation

Isabel Santa Rita Vás

TMJose Per

Limits are challenges, even when the wide world is your canvas. The earth has charmed him with its natural beauty; the things of the earth, its songs, its languages and architecture, have been irresistible realms that he must explore. But the earth was never enough. He needed to cross the limit. He heard the heavens beckon too. And so, Dr. Pereira turned to the study of theology, mythology, the scriptures, the writing of the mystics. He rises above narrow limits of disciplines to achieve a rich and cosmopolitan understanding of culture. The pulse of all his meditative research is best felt transmuted into his art. It is here that earth and heaven enter into intimate conversation.

Jose Pereira was born in 1931. His family home is in Curtorim, Goa, but his scholarly pursuits have taken him far and wide. He can be described with many epithets: researcher, author of books on art and architecture, musicologist, linguist. But in his heart, the greatest passion has always been his painting. The themes on his canvasses range from the crucified Christ, to a self-portrait, to classical themes of Hindu art. In his murals we come face to face with all manner of creatures of the earth, and the God who is manifest as nourishment for the soul. He has imbibed the spirit of the great classics he has studied and his paintings reveal the breadth and harmony of his vision.

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In the Chapel of São Joaquim, in Borda, Margao, we come face to face with frescoes of great exuberance and power executed in 1999. The sheer delicacy and wealth of detail capture our gaze and hold it in thrall. We look with wonder at rural scenes of a Goan landscape that is still recognizable, though fast disappearing in rapidly urbanizing times.  Dr. Pereira writes about his work: “The production of food is envisaged as a Eucharistic sacrifice of the earth’s first fruits, performed not in confining temples but on the wide earth and under the open sky.”

Vivek Menezes remarks, “It is a consistently thought-provoking painting, easily among the most interesting modern public artworks in India.” The Chapel at Fatorda, Margao, hosts yet another marvelous work. The paintings on the wall are an offering of colour and form and luminosity, where feeling and thought reveal the earth and heaven in conversation. Dr. Pereira’s health began to fail him when he started this work, so he painted only the face of Christ in the fresco technique, with its wide glaring eyes and then surrendered the rest of the work to be painted in acrylic by two art students, Sandesh Shetgaonkar and Sudin Kurpaskar. Jose Lourenco provided technical expertise. ‘Why are his eyes so glaring,’ Jose Lourenco asked him. ‘That’s because He is angry,’ he replied, ‘at what we have done to His creation’. Pereira is a deeply religious man, who believes, like Pascal, in doing little things as great things, and great things with ease, in tandem with the Omnipotence of God.

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Jose Pereira was an avid learner even as a young man. His interest in his Indian heritage led him to opt for a B.A. (Hons.) in Sanskrit, side by side with a full-time course at the J.J. School of Art. He went on to gain his doctorate in Ancient Indian History and Culture from the University of Bombay in 1958. He then took up the position of Research Associate in History of Indian Art at the American Academy of Benares, Varanasi from 1967 to ’69. He was adjunct Professor of East and West Cultural Relations at the Instituto Superior de Estudos Ultramarinos in Lisbon, Portugal. He later joined Fordham University, New York, as a Professor of Theology. The research and the writing never waned. Dr. Pereira has published more than 20 books and over 130 articles of theology, history of art and architecture, and on Goan culture, language and music. Referring to his brilliant mind and scholarship, Maria Aurora Couto notes: “It was always a play between mind and heart, serious thought and the earthy humour of Konkani folk song, the wistful lyrics of the Mando, melancholic, speaking of the unattainable, and the richness of an inheritance that has sustained us.”

Three-head deity.

Three-headed deity.

“I hate Goa,” Dr. Pereira has been heard to comment drily. Perhaps it is his very love of Goa that leads him to hate certain trends that he sees emerging in the land of his ancestors. He often laments that the Konkani language may be reduced to a literary artefact. It is this same deep passion for Goan culture and language that has  that has inspired him to study the traditional Goan Konkani song, the Mando. Jose Pereira writes about this kind of song, and about the work of Micael Martins, composer and researcher in this field: “A new culture, that of Latin Europe, embellished with music, was implanted in Goa by the Portuguese in the early 16th Century. Quickly assimilated, this musical culture acquired a distinct Goan identity in the 18th Century, one which matured in the second half of the 19th and first half of the 20th. The extensive and varied work of Micael Martins is the apotheosis of this musical tradition.” The mando is a dance-song that conveys the emotions of love and yearning for union (ekvott). It also comments on contemporary events (fobro), many of them political.”

Dr. Jose Pereira has also personally gone around from village to village in Goa on his bicycle, armed with a tape-recorder, speaking to women and farmers in their homes and in the fields, to salvage another valuable type of song – the Konkani Christian religious song. These hymns are sung at ladainhas, other religious ceremonies and on feast days. Raimundo  Barreto’s hymn Sao Franciscu Xaviera sounds to Goan ears, nothing short of celestial poetry. Dr. Pereira’s book Konkani Bagtigitan: A treasury of Goan hymns, includes 104 hymns from the Sixteenth Century to 1950 in both Devanagri and Romi scripts, with a Konkani-English glossary of 300 words. Reviewing the book, Prof. Nandakumar Kamat notes that “lexicographically, these words may offer rich potential for students of comparative religions, etymology and Konkani socio-linguistics.”

What was it that drove Dr. Jose Pereira, the scholar, in so many  diverse directions, carefully studying, researching, writing about, apparently disparate fields as language, music, architecture, philosophy and theology? The unifying thread is his own understanding of his identity. He reflects, “I see myself as a product of two traditions: one is the Latin-Christian tradition and the other is the Indian Hindu tradition.” Dr. Pereira has ceaselessly explored the interactions between India and the West in art and culture, with Goa as a focal point within the larger context of Indian history and culture. All these have shaped his own identity. He tells us about three discoveries that served as epiphanies in his work: Spanish mystical literature, Mexican mural painting, and the Konkani song.

One palpable offshoot of this quest has been Dr. Pereira’s contribution to the study of architecture of the Baroque period. In her forward to his book Baroque India, Kapila Vatsyayan notes: “Prof Pereira (…) builds up a strong case for Indianized Baroque as a regional development with characteristic features, despite its external origin. (…) According to him the regional manifestation of the Goan Baroque also contains typical Indian elements associated with structured tradition of medieval India.” Jose Pereira made his own what he studied. Jose Lourenco remembers, “We walked through the ruins of the Igreja da Nossa Senhora da Graça, better-known as St Augustine’s church after the order once based in the adjoining convent, and he was totally at ease there, as though he was the reincarnation of a monk himself!”

Collage depicting Jose Peri

Collage depicting Dr. Jose Pereira with some of his works.

Dr. Pereira’s pilgrimage in quest of deconstructing his composite identity took him travelling all over Europe and the Americas. He tells us that when he came from England to Goa he took the land route, across Europe through the border of Iran, hitchhike by truck through the border of Pakistan and make his way into India. He has been indefatigable in his pilgrimage to different languages too: he is fluent in Konkani, Portuguese, Sanskrit, English, French and familiar with Latin, Italian, Spanish, Urdu, Arabic and Persian. Even as an octogenarian, he has retained his gusto for reciting Sanskrit slokas and for quoting from the old Konkani fell, in his beloved Saxtti Konkani. He has always lived a simple life. The life of the mind was a priority, always, and reading, discussing ideas and books with colleagues and friends, often disagreeing with them with incendiary fervour, all added endless spice to his days.

The eminent scholar-artist has been no stranger to disappointment and pain. At the opening of the paintings at Fatorda, Alban Couto said: “Great artists suffer labour pains. Though with less intensity we also feel their pains.” The wall on which he painted a fresco at the cemetery of Juhu, Bombay, laboring under the hot sun, with passion and enormous endurance, was carelessly ground to dust, and that was a sad blow to him. As a Professor in Lisbon, he expressed his views that Goan culture had been enriched not only by Latin Christian influences but also deeply by Indian culture and history. His viewpoint was bitterly resented by the authorities at the Institute and Dr. Pereira had to quickly leave the country.

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In Goa too, in recent years, Dr. Pereira’s painting exhibition entitled “Epiphanies of the Hindu Gods” which was inaugurated at the Xavier Centre of Historical Research, Porvorim, attracted the ire of some individuals and groups. They claimed that the depiction of the gods as nude figures hurt their sentiments. The artist’s explanation that he has kept closely to the reading of the scriptures fell on deaf ears. Art critics in Delhi, where the exhibition had been held a few weeks earlier, had called it an “endeavour to interpret some classical themes of Hindu art in a realistic idiom, an idiom that frees the drama in the themes from the constriction of iconographic formulas”. In Goa, the exhibition had to be closed down.

Dr. Jose Pereira is today over 80 years old. His passion for scholarship and art are entirely undimmed. Coping with and increasingly frail and fragile body, his mind continues to engage in his meditative research.

In 2012, the Government of India paid tribute to his scholarship by awarding him the title of Padmashree. At last some well-deserved attention was paid to this great man. We too pay our small and long-overdue tribute to a man who has trudged the world, crossed immense boundaries, worked with unceasing love, in fact, has examined earth and heaven to crystalize something of the essence of the Goa that has been his spiritual home.

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Photographs of paintings courtesy the Xavier Centre of Historical Research, Porvorim, Goa.

Isabel Santa Rita Vás has been a teacher of English language and literature for many years. She is one of the founder-members of The Mustard Seed Art Company, an amateur theatre group founded in 1987. Her book of plays Frescoes in the Womb: Six Plays from Goa, (2012) was published by Broadway Publishing House and Goa 1556. After retirement from active teaching work, she is now on guest faculty at Goa University.

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