New audiences are applauding to the strains of fado as a Goan family and a law teacher-turned-singer usher the Portuguese musical form into the public arena
A dark little room on the first floor of an old Goan home is buzzing with anticipation. The old Dutch doors are covered with blackout curtains, muffling the sounds from the busy road outside. All the 40 chairs in the room are occupied. Our eyes are drawn to the magnificent floor-to-ceiling backdrop in front of the audience—a hand-painted street scene with elements of Panaji’s Latin Quarter and the streets of Lisbon and Coimbra in Portugal. The “windows" on the backdrop are closed; a realistic-looking cat watches from behind a painted railing. An illuminated ghumot (see box) hangs from the ceiling, surrounded by two custom-made open umbrellas depicting the guitarra portuguesa (Portuguese guitar). There’s a hush in the air, as if the audience is holding its breath.
We are in Madragoa—Casa do Fado e Mandó, India’s (and arguably, the world’s) first home for the promotion of fado and mandó, which held its first show in July. The fado is the iconic music genre of Portugal, now on the List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, and introduced to Goa by the colonizers. A fado performance usually has one vocalist accompanied by the guitarra portuguesa and the viola de fado (fado guitar). The mandó is a Goan musical form with dancing and songs sung in Konkani. It is traditionally a group performance, accompanied by the violin and ghumot.
While fado and mandó are popular with certain sections of Goan society, Madragoa attempts to take it out of the drawing rooms and stage competitions for a wider audience, one that does not often get the opportunity to hear such music. This attempt to reach out to a new audience is central to the philosophy of the Centre for Indo-Portuguese Arts (Cipa), the umbrella organization that promotes Indo-Portuguese arts in one space.
Based in an old Goan heritage home a few steps away from the Adil Shah Palace and the Captain of Ports Jetty in Panaji, Cipa brings the arts under one roof—the musical (fado and mandó), ceramics (azulejos), literary arts (books in Portuguese, Konkani and English) and culinary (Portuguese and Goan). Visitors to the garishly-lit casinos just across the road are oblivious to the many treasures this red-and-white building holds.
For Orlando de Noronha, a well-known musician with a passion for jazz and Goan music, the idea of Madragoa took shape years ago on a holiday in Coimbra. “I went on a heritage walk in Coimbra which ended at a shop with a small fado performance every 2 hours to give guests an experience of Coimbra fado. There’s a presentation on fado and the space has posters of fadistas. That is what I want to do here."
The premises Cipa is located in belonged to the church and had been lying vacant for many years. The same building is also home to the Noronha family, which has lived there for generations. Orlando and his wife Tina had been looking for space for the project for quite a while before they found the answer right at home. “We roamed around Goa looking for a place which would fit into our budget," says Tina. “But they were either too far away or needed significant repairs."
One Sunday, though, in what they term divine intervention, an acquaintance happened to casually mention that the vacant space in their building was up for a long-term lease and bids were being accepted. Things fell quickly into place after that. “All these years, it was looking right at us but it never crossed our mind to think of this as a potential venue," laughs Orlando.
The renovation took 11 months. It also cost significantly more than they had estimated. “We tried to retain as many of the original features as possible. But every rotten plank we pulled out revealed another one," says Orlando. They ended up replacing the pillars and a lot of the wooden flooring, especially in the veranda, which is open to the elements. Remnants of the original wood are now displayed artistically in the fado room.
Back at Madragoa, a bell rings. In theatres around the world, this is the cue that the show is about to begin. The audience settles down, phones are muted. The performers walk in, all dressed in black. Goan fadista Sonia Shirsat enters along with Orlando holding a guitarra portuguesa and Carlos Meneses on the guitar. Shirsat takes centre stage, with the two musicians seated beside her. The backdrop behind them comes alive with strategically placed lighting, giving it an almost 3D effect, drawing us into the scene.
Shirsat welcomes the audience and tells us about the evening’s programme. Her quiet and sweet demeanour hides a powerful voice, one that always gives me goose bumps, even though I have heard her sing several times.
In a previous avatar, Shirsat did a master’s in law and then taught for four years. By then, she was in demand as Goa’s foremost fadista and was starting to win competitions and perform in India and abroad. “At some point, I realized that if there was anything to do with fado in India, they were calling me. That’s when I decided to take this more seriously and study fado properly," says Shirsat.
Her first solo concert in Portugal in 2008 was sold out days in advance. “I had never given a full concert before. Plus, this was Portugal—this was their music, their language. I could hardly speak Portuguese at the time. Even my narration was pathetic.“
Today, Shirsat is very comfortable with the language. At Madragoa, the songs are in Portuguese and Konkani. Many in the audience are familiar with the words but for the benefit of those who might not know the language or the lyrics, Shirsat explains each piece before it is performed. The songs talk of love, longing, yearning. At one point, the mostly local audience joins in softly, the intimacy of the room making it easier to shed inhibitions. The voices soon gain in confidence and by the end of the evening, everyone is singing along, smiling, overwhelmed by the emotion and nostalgia of it all. For those of us who don’t know the words, it is an enchanting experience, listening to people of all ages join in unabashedly. Shirsat makes eye contact with everyone, and you can’t help but smile back.
In the interval, the audience moves out to the outer rooms, which showcase the other arts. A table covered with azulejos invites you to try out plates of authentic Portuguese snacks like Fofos de Bacalhau, Pastéis de Santa Clara, Torradinhas com pâté and Pasteis de Nata along with a glass of sangria or Xarope de Brindão.
These are made by Tina and Orlando’s cousin Marlene de Noronha Meneses (married to Carlos), who also curates the culinary arts programme. “These dishes are not easily available here and the idea is to showcase them and revive them," says Tina. The family plans to hold workshops where people can learn how to prepare these.
The walls of the room are lined with azulejos, evidence of Orlando’s artistry and interest in the ceramic arts. Azulejos de Goa features locally painted tile art that is also available for sale. In the anteroom, delicate China crockery and the literary arts are in focus, with books on Goan history, cuisine and literature.
Cipa is a family enterprise. Everybody pitches in, even the youngest members, and Orlando’s siblings are involved with different aspects of the organization. At Madragoa, the Noronha children handle the dimming of the lights and photography while Marlene’s daughter René looks after the front-of-house.
The performance continues after the interval. The lights are dimmed and the backdrop comes into focus with new characters. The “windows" are now open, and it looks like the neighbours have come out on to their verandas to listen.
To the beat of the ghumot, Shirsat’s voice continues to enthral the audience. Orlando and Carlos perform a duet, blending effortlessly. There are several innovations in the performances, including the introduction of the Portuguese guitar and the solo and duet singing of the mandó. “The Portuguese guitar is not traditionally a part of mandó and I was hesitant at first, thinking about what critics would say, but I went ahead with it," says Orlando.
“My life has always been connected to music, but it’s not the same now," he says. “I wanted to do something else. I started playing the Portuguese guitar and that led to the dream of creating a Casa do Fado and Mandó. My main thing was the mandó. I want people to have a chance to know this genre of music, apart from having just the annual mandó festival."
The mandó is traditionally a group song/dance. Orlando’s plan is for it to be sung solo. “Why not?" he asks. “Who has the time or energy to organize a large group of singers and dancers and then worry about practice sessions and people not turning up? This way, you can even organize a solo singing competition for mandó. That’s how youngsters will also be interested."
“I can see that the audience is slowly dwindling because a certain generation is dying out. How do we guarantee the future of our arts if there is no audience?" says Shirsat.
In 2017, she started Fado de Goa, an initiative to teach fado across the state. She has had over 300 students, ages 8-81. “We get a lot of people who might not want to sing the fado but want to learn more about it. We teach the history of fado, introduce them to the major fadistas and the instruments of the fado."
Students come from all over Goa and they are not necessarily Goan, or Portuguese speakers. “Our students are from all over the country and they want to appreciate this music and learn more about it. It’s very interesting because many of them have no knowledge of Portuguese at all. These people will be the future, informed audience," she says.
The plan is to have students perform at Madragoa on a regular basis. “Every fado show now will also showcase one student because there is no other platform for them. The idea is to take it forward. Same for the Portuguese guitar—the next generation needs to learn," says Orlando.
“I love fado but I love mandó as well. My duty is to promote mandó. Fado is well-established but the mandó needs to be promoted. We need to know how to sing our own Goan music," he adds.
The sun has long set as we walk down the stone steps of Cipa, past the exposed laterite stone of the entrance. Guests show their appreciation for the evening’s performance by honking a poder’s (baker’s) horn. With the refrain of the moving mandó Adeus Korcho Vellu Paulo (The Time For Farewell Is Here) still echoing on our lips, we say our goodbyes, promising to return soon for another magical evening of fado and mandó.
Madragoa hosts performances twice a month, on Saturdays. Passes cost ₹750. For more details, visit Cipagoa.com/madragoa/.