Much has been written over the years on the subject of western classical music in Goa, and of the Goan contribution to the genre. Rather than revisit the subject from the same angle, I would like to look back on our colonial history in terms of what might have been, and what was being achieved in other parts of the world with a similar colonial presence. It would be interesting to look at all of the Indian subcontinent in this light.

Western music came to the Indian subcontinent via Goa through the Portuguese conquest in 1510, which was an interesting period in the development of western classical music in general, in that the central norms of this tradition became codified from the 1550s onward. The period we today term the Baroque era (whose very etymology is believed to come from the Portuguese word “barroco”, meaning rough or misshapen pearl, a negative term to describe the heavy ornamentation in style) in music ranges from 1600-1750, during which time huge leaps in the evolution of music occurred in the West: the creation of tonality or the idea of music being in a specific ‘key’; innovations in music notation; new instrumental playing techniques; elaborate musical ornamentation; and the establishment of musical genres such as the opera, cantata, oratorio, concerto and sonata. This time span overlaps with the period in Goan history, roughly 1550 to 1650 when Portuguese sway over Goa was at its zenith, and described by historians as Goa Dourada or Golden Goa. Reading between the lines of history, it appears that the main impetus for music in Goa was the church, for liturgical purposes. The seven pipe organs still extant (although in varying states of disrepair through disuse) are a throwback to this. There are archival references of choral performances in the latter half of the sixteenth century, which certainly impressed the chroniclers of the time. But apart from church or folk music (notably the mando, dulpod, dekni), if any original music was composed in Goa during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, either by indigenous people or by those living here, it has not yet surfaced in notated form. Perhaps the strictures of the Inquisition prevented such creative freedom.

So while in Portugal we have notable composers like António Carreira (ca. 1520- ca. 1597), Duarte Lobo (ca. 1565-1646) and José António Carlos de Seixas (1704-1742) with a tangible body of work, including keyboard sonatas, choral and orchestral pieces, we have no record of something similar happening in Goa. Duarte Lobo in particular is synonymous with the “golden age” of Portuguese polyphony, and his lifespan overlaps neatly with the period of “Goa Dourada”. The great Italian composer Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757) spent the years 1719-27 in Lisbon, founding a high-calibre centre of learning for music at the Patriarchal Seminary, which prefigured the setting up of the National Conservatory in 1835.

It is true that music education was being imparted in seminaries, convents, parish churches and other religious institutions. Possibly this meant that for the most part (with notable exceptions in major seminaries), proficiency in singing or playing an instrument did not need to surpass the level required for routine liturgical services.

In Portugal as well, particularly after 1580 with the union of the crown to Spain, ‘profane’ music dwindled, in favour of sacred music.

Also, the course of the Estado da India was a turbulent one almost from the beginning, with challenges from land and sea and migration of people for a host of reasons; this could not have been conducive to laying down the foundations of a strong pedagogical tradition among the indigenous population.

The Trindade theatre in 1735, and other spaces after the Lisbon 1755 earthquake such as the theatre today known as Teatro Nacional de S. Carlos Lisbon (1797) and the Teatro S. João Oporto (1798) created performance venues for opera, ballet and orchestral music. This did not happen at all in Goa.

Contrast this with Brazil, where the diamond and gold rush in the 18th century attracted an exodus to the region. Several composers, notably José Joaquim Emerico Lobo de Mesquita (1746-1805), Francisco Gomes da Rocha (1745-1808) and Marcos Coelho Neto (1763-1823) achieved fame, largely for sacred choral music. The arrival of the Portuguese royal family for political reasons in 1808 to Rio de Janeiro proved a great catalyst, with establishment of the Capela Real and the construction of several performance venues for music. Furthermore, Francisco Manuel da Silva (1795-1865) helped found the Imperial Academia de Música e Ópera Nacional (National Imperial Music and Opera Academy), the Rio de Janeiro Philharmonic, and the precursor of today’s Escola de Música da Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro. Brazil laid down the foundations of music pedagogy and performance right at the very beginning of its existence. The fact that Goa quickly dwindled in importance strategically and economically led the Portuguese to pay far less attention to it, and music was just one aspect of this neglect.

If the Portuguese did comparatively much less for classical music in their Indian colonies, the other colonial powers (the British, French and Dutch) seem to have strived even less. Although the British built a grandiloquent Opera House in Mumbai in 1909, it saw more utility as a cinema theatre than an actual opera house.

Against this backdrop, the achievement of our Goan musicians is even the more commendable for the odds stacked against them. The economic migration outward from Goa also took musicians to the furthest reaches of the British Raj, to the royal bands of the maharajahs and nawabs in the princely states, and formed the backbone for ensemble playing in studio recordings for the nascent Indian film industry. Goan musicians featured prominently in music education for the middle-class in all the major cities in British India, and even in modern-day Pakistan and Bangladesh.

The establishment of the Academia de Música in Goa (precursor of today’s Kala Academy) in the 1950s at the initiative of Mastro António Fortunato de Figueiredo (1903-1981) was a positive step, and the Kala Academy still has tremendous potential if sincere efforts can be made to upgrade the level of pedagogy to a world-class standard. This can be achieved if high-calibre teaching staff can be imported, even if on a visiting professor basis, and if there is a long-term comprehensive vision for its development to the level of a conservatory of music, a true tertiary centre of excellence in music education driven by experienced pedagogues and musicians. India sorely needs this to happen. Our neighbours did this almost a century ago: the Shanghai Conservatory of Music was established in 1927 with professors from Russia and France. The Tokyo Conservatory of Music was similarly founded in 1907. Goa and India have a lot of catching up to do, but we have to use the templates of reputed institutions around the world rather than try to reinvent the wheel ourselves.

This coupled with grass-roots music education from primary school level onward by a cohort of music educators trained to a world-class level will truly elevate the standard for the next generation and beyond. Each time one examines the list of Goan musicians who have left their mark in western classical music on the world stage, one cannot help but think this number could have been far, far higher if better conditions had existed at least a century earlier. It is time to seriously address this issue.

(An edited version of this article appeared in Timeline Goa Vol. I Issue IV)