The beaches are missing

The beaches are missing

The Portuguese landed by sea in Goa a couple of decades before the Mughals set foot on Indian soil and ruled it for the next 450 years, till they were driven out by the Indian defence forces in 1961. Which makes Goa a little different—even today, we see it as an exotic pocket of territory on our western coast.

Two exhibitions by well-known Indian (and non-Goan) photographers explore Goa in very different ways and, in the process, reinforce its mystique and “otherness".

Click here to view a slideshow of photographs by Bharat Sikka and Prabhudhha

Titled The Edge of Faith, Prabuddha Dasgupta’s brooding black and white photographs look at the lives of Goan Catholics—the people, their houses and their places of worship. In his introductory essay to Dasgupta’s book of photographs, which features the same set of images, writer William Dalrymple shows how, over the past 500 years, Goa’s history has been characterized by an often insouciant commingling of Indian and European culture—Hindus venerate St Francis Xavier, Catholics visit temples, consult Hindu priests and astrologers, and observe their old caste rules. Many Catholic priests, for instance, pride themselves on maintaining the purity of their Brahmin blood generations after their ancestors converted to Christianity. The young Goans he speaks with are looking to the future, not pining for the past.

Dasgupta’s photos, however, paint a more ambivalent picture—they are an ode to a people and a way of life that is disappearing. And his subjects’ sense of loss, of feeling besieged and exiled in their own land, is palpable. They are usually elderly and framed by old furniture and furnishings, and the long and deep shadows make the photos look like they were shot as the sun was setting. The mood of resigned acceptance hangs heavy over them, even when the subjects happen to be smiling or cheerful. The mood persists in the still-life images, which usually consist of old framed photos, furniture, the crucifix and portraits of the Madonna hung on spare walls with old-style, unconcealed electrical wiring.

The past lives in the present and in seeking out that past, Dasgupta’s arresting portraits provide an antidote to the touristy sun and sand, fun and feni clichés of Goa. They also tell the story of faith—the Catholic faith in this case—as a vital link between the past and the present, a marker of a distinct identity and, as the shadows lengthen, an anchor that lends coherence to our lives and our world.

Bharat Sikka, known internationally for his fashion photography, has also over the years produced an impressive body of non-commercial photographs (“Fine arty" is how he describes them.) The images in his latest set—shot in and around the Goan village of Salvadore du Mundo, where Sikka and his wife bought a house a couple of years ago—are all about fantasy and make-believe, looking like stills from a noir film.

The village residents strike improbable poses in improbable settings, playing out, in Sikka’s words, scenes from “a fable". Except that this fable has no beginning, middle and end—we are free to make of these disconnected cinematic images what we will. Sikka says he wants them to work at a psychological level which, like most good art, they do—aided by his masterly control of colour, tone and setting.

What they also do is tell us something about the quotidian life of the village. Beneath the fantastic lurks the mundane, whether the images are eerie (partly visible girl in a scarlet frock; an old unclad doll nailed against a tree trunk) or hint at action (man in a thicket with a gun; man in a darkroom flashing a torch) or are evocative (an old man covered against the rain in a plastic sheet and looking like a gremlin) or just plain weird (old man, open-mouthed, lying supine on the ground).

It is not too hard to contrast Dasgupta and Sikka’s takes on Goa—black and white versus colour, classical versus experimental, or factual versus make-believe. And it is tempting to trace a generational shift in Indian photography in the two approaches to the same broad subject—from journalistic and documentary to “fine arty". But in their own ways, both evoke a land and a people at a remove from us, fascinating and unfamiliar.