Mónica Esteves Reis is a researcher in Art History with a special interest in Indo-Portuguese retable art. (A retable is a frame or shelf enclosing decorated panels or revered objects above and behind an altar). Her upcoming lecture at the Fundação Oriente Fontainhas “Through Art with Art: The strategies of Conversion through native forms and symbols” (13 December 2012 5.30 pm Entry free) sheds further light on this hitherto-neglected topic.

Welcome yet again to Goa, Mónica! What keeps bringing you back?

The main reason is to further my research towards my PhD degree. Also, as this is my fourth time in India, I have the chance to catch up with very good friends (in Goa and elsewhere in India) who are greatly responsible for the success of my research.

How did you stumble upon this research topic (Indo-Portuguese retable art)?

I like to say that I didn’t choose India; it was India that chose me. I wanted to do something different for my dissertation topic in my final undergraduate year. I wanted to study an interesting theme/region/topic that could also be relevant for research. My advisor asked me if I wanted to make my dissertation in art history on a subject that was given little or no attention since the 1950s. I decided to embrace it!

Where else in India apart from Goa has your research has taken you?

The first entry point in India was Daman, Diu and Silvassa in 2007 for the inventory of the Christian religious locations. I came to Goa in 2009 and spent two months travelling from Panjim to every possible location in Goa with a church, chapel, shrine, convent or monastery, in all the talukas, from Pernem to Canacona, from Tiswadi to Sanguem. There were more than 350 locations; almost 960 altarpieces and 154 pulpits. This year I came for archival research work in Goa and also to make an inventory of the Vasai and Mumbai locations. After all this work, I’m often introduced as being one person in Goa that knows more priests than anybody else!

Does the retable art in the places you’ve visited outside Goa differ markedly from here? If yes, how so?

Yes, there are some interesting differences between the altarpieces in Goa locations and others from the ancient North Province. For instance, the altarpieces of Daman and Vasai often present an attic supported by several atlantes angels. This gives the altarpiece a different monumentality and expression. Another difference is the finishing touch in the decorative grammar of the baldaquines (tops of the altarpieces) that tend to end in the fashion of a peacock tail, clear evidence of this cultural and artistic exchange. A common parameter is the alteration of architectural scale for some parts, for instance the re-dimensioning of the entablature (the portion between columns and attic), not to mention many other figuration details that make the Indo-Portuguese retable art unique, for it is the result of an artistic cooperation of two types of religious praise – one indigenous and one imported – which produced a specific art form not found in any other part of the world.

Would you agree that we’ve lost the knowledge regarding maintenance and conservation of our heritage, and exponentially so, in the last hundred years or so? That modernisation and ‘progress’ have come to us at this price?

New affordable, common and easily accessible construction materials along with unskilled labor are pushing the traditional and far more durable products and better techniques into oblivion. I’ve witnessed altarpieces with clear evidence of degradation, jeopardizing their survival and in urgent need of intervention. This unfortunate fact is a recurrent theme throughout all the territories I’ve covered. Climatic conditions (heat and high humidity) contribute directly to the deterioration of woodwork. Nature also lends a hand: termites lodge inside the timber and, silently and literally, eat up the artwork. When infestation becomes visible, it may be too late and the whole retable can simply crumble. Many altarpieces were also discarded for want of finance or technical knowledge needed to conserve them. Another recurrent aspect, one which is contributing to the adulteration of the Indo-Portuguese retable, concerns the constant aesthetic interventions they undergo. These interventions are often made by companies and individuals who lack basic knowledge of heritage intervention or simply ignore the history of the altarpiece. It often ends up being given successive washes of paint, with more or less common chromatic options and inappropriate types of paint, or else the entire surface is gilded regardless of whether it was originally intended. Often golden paint is applied instead of gold leaf. What is actually happening is the result of technical misinformation, however well-intended. This is sadly true for built heritage in general, not just religious heritage.

The workshop you conducted at the Fundação Oriente (CRCH2011: Sensitization workshop towards Conservation and Restoration of Cultural Heritage: Sculptures, Carvings, Paintings and Structures) is a step in the right direction. But how can greater awareness be created among the public in general, and stakeholders in heritage conservation in particular, in a vast country like ours? There is almost a sense of urgency about it, because of the rapid rate of loss.

As I said at that workshop, we have to go step-by-step: “Plant the seed and allow it to grow”. I believe that all take their share of responsibility towards heritage: architects, engineers, builders, planners, conservationists, laity and religious, all types of working staff, citizens. This is your heritage to protect. I was truly fulfilled when one of my students from last year came to me saying that his church was in need of some repair in one of its old laterite walls, and he ensured that only traditional materials would be used, not cement. The seed has already started to take root.

You recently gave a talk at the Central Library on the Ethics of Preservation. Could you tell us a little about it?

The talk (Learning history to pieces: reading the past in the present and handing it to the future) was part of a workshop by the Krishnadas Shama Goa State Central Library with cooperation with National Archives of India – New Delhi. I tried to assemble some of the basic rules regarding ethics and standards in documentary heritage. As taking care of documentary heritage also involves taking care of the buildings that house the documents, the talk also covered specific regulations and ethics on the building of archives and libraries. Every person in an archive or library is responsible for their collections: from curator to archivists, from cleaning staff to readers. The knowledge and use of ethics, and also the implementation of effective and preventive planning will ensure the passing of knowledge to posterity. Sometimes a little knowledge is dangerous: merely knowing the materials and steps in conservation does not necessarily empower someone to undertake conservation and restoration work. One should always seek expert input. Resorting to shortcuts to save a little money here could cause irreversible damage. Finally, I also set out a list of do’s and don’ts for the library staff and patrons for the preservation of books and documents.

Is it tough for you to wrench yourself free of your family and home in order to do your work?

It is not a very easy task. I talk to my son every day before he goes to school, and on Sundays he receives a treat that I’ve prepared over the week: a video with some of the funny and interesting stuff that his mother is doing around here, usually something that may be interesting for a 4 year old. Last week’s video included the Hello Honey Bunny song and some frenzy from Mumbai trains and rickshaws, along with sellers shouting “Garam Garam” and some monkeys stealing food at Elephanta Island (that he enjoyed very much). Of course it is not the same as being around, but this is a way I found for building a motivating dialogue with him, besides the phone and Skype. This way he gets curious, asks me questions and also learns about this country’s culture. Over Diwali, it was also Parent’s Week at his kindergarten. I sent a video to the school with a story about India, a traditional song for children in Hindi, a description of Diwali and rangoli, and at the end they all made rangoli designs on paper. It was a slice of India in Tavira, my home town.

Do you think you’ll be back in Goa soon?

Very soon! I was invited to speak at the ISIPH (International Seminar on Indo-Portuguese History) that will take place in Delhi next February. Hopefully I will also take the opportunity to take the CRCH workshop to another location in India, and continue with the sharing of knowledge and building awareness towards conservation and restoration. After that, I hope to continue coming here, if India still wants me.

( An edited version of this article appeared in the Navhind Times on 10 December 2012)