Panaji’s storied Kala Academy, designed by the legendary architect Charles Correa is threatened with demolition by the Goan government
The iconic and inclusive cultural space has been a mainstay of Goan cultural life since the early eighties
Still reeling from the unprecedented flooding that paralysed Panaji last week, residents of Goa’s pocket-sized capital were further shocked and dismayed when the state minister of art and culture announced that the Charles Correa-designed landmark arts centre, Kala Academy, faces a wrecking ball. “The open-air auditorium cannot be repaired or renovated," said Govind Gaude, “the structure is fragile. For the past 9-10 months, we have stopped accepting bookings for it. Being from the government, some answers need to be stated in a concrete manner. We have to demolish and reconstruct it."
Gaude stands out as impressively matter-of-fact in a state polity notorious for double-crossing. A rare independent in the legislative assembly, he has retained his cabinet seat despite the extraordinary political shenanigans roiling Goa after the death of former chief minister Manohar Parrikar, capped last month by the wholesale defection of 10 MLAs from the Congress to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Yet, even he was clearly unprepared for the anguished collective response to the Kala Academy announcement. In O Heraldo, once the last Portuguese daily in Asia—it is now printed in English and is still the state’s most widely read newspaper—veteran editor Alexandre Moniz Barbosa dismissed the “preposterous" demolition plan, adding “that pièce de résistance" is “the best we have and the best has to be preserved".
In fact, Correa’s Kala Academy has cultural significance far beyond being Goa’s most loved building. It is the only government-run arts institution in the country with separate faculties for both Western and Indian classical music, and also offers courses in theatre and dance. Few venues in India host such diverse programming throughout the year, from the DD Kosambi Festival of Ideas lecture series (previous speakers have included the Dalai Lama) and the nearly four-decade-old Surashree Kesarbai Kerkar Sangeet Samaroha (which has featured virtually every luminary from the Hindustani classical world) to the tightly contested state Tiatr and Mando competitions. All these run to packed houses in the 954-seat Dinanath Mangeshkar Kala Mandir auditorium, named after the Goa-born musician father of Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle.
Countless signature moments of contemporary Goan culture are connected to the Kala Academy. In 1990, the all-time great fadista Amália Rodrigues visited for the first time, and sang for an emotional postcolonial audience overflowing with what the Portuguese call saudade (loosely, yearning). It was much the same in 2016, when the 84-year-old genius of the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana, Kishori Amonkar, delivered what turned out to be her last concert in her ancestral homeland. I was present on that occasion, sitting rapt amidst the spillover crowd with my eldest son, as the famously cantankerous diva won us over by speaking in our native Konkani, then warmed up for 75 minutes straight (not one person dared leave) before blowing us all away with imperious vocal mastery.
But it is as an architectural landmark that the Kala Academy truly acquires global significance, one of the jewels of Correa’s world-famous oeuvre. His daughter Nondita Correa Mehrotra, also an architect, and director of the Panaji-based Charles Correa Foundation (CCF), told me: “Kala Academy was the first building Charles designed in Goa, a place with which he had a very special relationship, and particularly important as it was his first cultural centre—he later designed Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal and the Jawahar Kala Kendra in Jaipur. He just loved the site—he loved the way the building could connect to (the old Goan neighbourhood of) Campal and the Mandovi river. Many important components came together for him, seemingly effortlessly. Yet he spent a lot of energy in getting it all right."
In the course of writing this, I asked several of India’s leading thinkers whether any other important public buildings in the country are as welcoming. No one could suggest a worthwhile rival. As Himanshu Burte wrote in Art Connect, the biannual magazine of The India Foundation for the Arts in 2008: “The foundational act of design at Kala Academy is that of opening up. The architecture…clears the ground, literally, letting the gaze (and moving feet) sweep clean through from the pavement outside to the river beyond. In principle, this place says it is open to the city. No architectural sign of exclusion—apart from the gate which is kept generously wide and low—is visible from the footpath to discourage us from entering. Indeed quite the opposite. This is a building without a plinth, walls and doors with which to keep the world at bay."
It is precisely this remarkable degree of democratic accessibility that has made the Kala Academy so beloved. The great Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich performed here, but so have innumerable children, making their stage debuts. It would be hard to find anyone in Goa who has not enjoyed the premises at some time or the other, even if only to sit down and enjoy the riverside scenery. Responding to my email query, Burte says it is this precise characteristic which makes the building “not just important for Indian architecture but for the international heritage of modern architecture. It is a remarkable lesson about how a public building can actually focus on being a shelter for unprogrammed gathering and exploration, rather than on making a statement of self-importance."
That is an essential insight, because it is amply evident that the trademark architectural statements of India’s 21st century are all egregiously supersized, like the eye-wateringly hideous “world’s tallest" Statue of Unity in Gujarat, or Mukesh Ambani’s monstrously priapic Antilla, “the world’s most expensive home". In many ways, the architectural embodiments of our times are airports, with wall-to-wall corporate logos, where the illusion of limitless capitalist cornucopia can only be maintained by the round-the-clock toil of faceless armies of contract workers.
The Kala Academy is different. Poet and critic Ranjit Hoskote says it “dissolves the distinction of inside and outside, architecture and nature. The street is internalized by the building, which opens itself to the sky, vegetation and the river. The ritualistic pathway, the interplay of sight-line and screen, the open-to-sky spaces, the gradients linking various levels in a gentle terracing—all these classic features of Correa’s architecture are present. And let us not forget the laterite that forms its key medium—it articulates the flesh and blood of Goa’s architecture, it comes from the soil of Goa, from the soul of Goa."
Such motivations were very important to Correa, whose grandest buildings are scattered all over the world, capped by the stunning career-ending trio: the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (the architect’s alma mater), the Champalimaud Centre for The Unknown in Lisbon, and the Ismaili Centre (attached to the Aga Khan Museum) in Toronto. Albeit cosmopolitan to the core, Correa was also disarmingly proud of his ancestral roots in India’s smallest state. I recall sheer delight playing on his face when discussing Goa’s history of profound cultural connections, while we sat companionably in his beautiful riverside garden on the opposite bank of the Mandovi from the Kala Academy.
It is true we are left with only one part of what Correa’s intended legacy was for Goa. At the end of his life, even from his hospital bed, Correa sought to redesign all aspects of the state university so it could strive to belong among the best in India. That plan was shelved, and it is painful to note that successive administrations that paid him gaudy lip service—in 2010, he was awarded the Gomantak Vibhushan, the state’s highest order—otherwise openly ignored the great man’s good sense.
Correa was often not heard in Mumbai as well, most recently regarding proposals for the ex-mill lands that would have considerably improved the city’s quality of life. But coming from Goa, there is no doubt that the slights hurt more. It is probably a good thing Correa is not around to hear Gaude blithely declaring that the Kala Academy is beyond repair.
After the minister’s statements became public, I got in touch with Prof. Mustansir Dalvi of the Sir JJ College of Architecture. He told me: “Our notions of heritage are sometimes stuck in the mythical past. We need to appreciate that good works of architecture made in our own times are equally deserving of preserving for posterity. Sometimes it seems that modern architecture comes with an expiry date, but colonial buildings do not. This means that today, all significant buildings constructed using contemporary materials and technologies are at risk."
Dalvi pointed to the Union government’s destruction of Raj Rewal’s iconic Hall of Nations in 2017, saying: “I grieve for it. A very significant building of world heritage value was lost. It was perhaps the only space frame in the world constructed in RCC and designed and erected using Indian ingenuity. The Hall of Nations was as home-grown as the Chandrayaan mission but this value was not recognized."
But that loss is connected to others, as Hoskote reminded me with great feeling: “Consider the destruction of Rewal’s Hall of Nations, the demolition of Habib Rahman’s WHO building, both in Delhi, and the demolition of G.B. Mhatre’s Goldfinch in Mumbai. Will the Kala Academy go to the guillotine next? Will amchem Goem (our Goa) allow this?"
It’s a big question, with no easy answer. My own thinking is dominated by the memory of gliding fast towards the Champalimaud Centre, on an evening sailboat ride in Lisbon’s famously golden light. We cast anchor exactly where Vasco da Gama set off down the Tagus towards India, right next to where Correa voyaged all the way back to deposit his greatest masterpiece. Heart-stopping minutes in the lapping water, then epiphany. First, I recognized Correa’s unmistakable design vocabulary, and then realization dawned that the greatest Indian building of the 21st century isn’t in the subcontinent. What is more, it is an unmistakable cousin of the Kala Academy. When I closed my eyes, I could hear Correa laughing uproariously at his magic trick.
Vivek Menezes is a Goa-based writer and photographer.
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