Look up an advertisement about Goa and it will predictably have some assemblage of the words “sun,” “sand,” and “sea.” But, really, such verbiage could feature in just about any description of a coastal tourism location. Accordingly, in a newly opened art exhibition at Panjim’s Sunaparanta Goa Center for the Arts, Vishvesh Kandolkar suggests that Goa has been set apart from the usual clichés of palm trees, surf, and other seaside imagery due to a visual culture that has incorporated an iconic Goan structure – the Basilica of Bom Jesus.

Visible in everything from tourism promos, souvenirs and Republic Day parade floats, Kandolkar – an architectural historian and professor at Goa’s College of Architecture – culls such evidence of the widespread representational use of the 16th-century church in his artistic debut, This is Not the Basilica!

Through his research-based installations, Kandolkar demonstrates how the Portuguese-era church, famous for holding the relics of St Francis Xavier (1506-1552), has come to stand in for Goa’s historical and regional difference in South Asia while becoming a victim of its own fame.

Goa: A Time that Was

Viewable until November 20 and part of the group exhibition Goa: A Time that Was, curated by Leandré D’Souza, Kandolkar’s works aim to showcase the long-standing Basilica as a living part of Goa rather than only an emblem of its past or a curiosity consumed by visiting tourists. The title of Kandolkar’s installation series is a nod to that most famous of René Magritte’s surrealist works: La Trahison des Images (The Treachery of Images), also known as Ceci N’est Pas une Pipe (This is not a Pipe) (1929).

As this indicates, Kandolkar’s intent is to destabilise the usual representations of Goa as India’s pleasure periphery (its preferred holiday destination and real-estate market for second homes). Simultaneously, Kandolkar’s installations draw attention to the eponymous subject of his exhibition – the Basilica of Bom Jesus – and, more specifically, the plight of the early modern monument that has served as an archetypal icon of Goa while suffering the vagaries of time, colonial politics, and climate change.

Upon entering the gallery where Kandolkar’s installations are placed, visitors are immediately greeted by the curious sight of suspended, backlit latticed palm leaves that cast dramatic shadows on the wall, which forms the title piece in the exhibition: This is Not the Basilica! But a closer look reveals that the interwoven fronds are obscuring a large image that can only be properly viewed by navigating around the leafy screen.

A detail from This is Not the Basilica! Credit: R Benedito Ferrão

Forced to peer through the network of leaves, visitors will catch sight of a digitally manipulated image of one of the Basilica’s red laterite walls, lashed by rain and with some of its windows surrounded by lime plaster. The stark whitewash around the casements is an embellishment not visible in the actual building, but what remains true to life in the photograph are perceptible signs of the laterite wall crumbling.

In fact, the pediment over one of the windows in the photograph has completely vanished. The patchwork lime render and the enmeshed palm leaves a mystery, the clue to this installation’s meaning lies in the long history of Bom Jesus.

As the curator’s note highlights, the Basilica “is one of the few surviving monuments from the fabled period of Old Goa and an emblem of Indo-Portuguese aesthetics”. Capital of the Estado da Índia from the early-1500s, the colonial Portuguese seat of government in Old Goa, for a time, oversaw an empire that encompassed regions as far apart as Africa and eastern Asia, as well as various locales in South Asia.

With construction beginning in 1594, the history of the Basilica of Bom Jesus ran almost parallel to that of the duration of Portuguese India, now even having outlived it with the 1961 annexation of Goa by India. Yet, although the church may have been built during the period of Portuguese rule, its aesthetic is definitively Goan while demonstrating what Kandolkar identifies as “the flowering of Baroque style architecture in Goa”.

Remade in Goa

Although the legend of the Basilica was sealed when it became the final resting place of the Basque Jesuit missionary saint Xavier in the 17th century, the edifice’s architectural legacy is also important. In Whitewash, Red Stone: A History of Church Architecture in Goa, Paulo Varela Gomes recounts the church’s discernibly European influences. Yet, these were remade in Goa, by Goan artisans, according to local taste, bringing together such disparate features as “Flemish ornament, Serlian mouldings, round windows, and French Serlian window frames” in the building’s constitution.

In turn, these elements of localised baroque found their way into the design of other churches of the day, Varela Gomes maintains. Likely, this was also true of non-church architecture in the period. Indeed, when people come to Goa in search of so-called Portuguese houses” (this also being indicative of much misinformation about Goa and its people’s own hand in their heritage-making), what they are actually seeking to acquire are structures of historically Goan creative provenance.

As further evidence of the built form in Portuguese Goa bearing testament to local inventiveness, consider how the façade of the Basilica of Bom Jesus melded European and South Asian design. This look was achieved through the use of basalt quarried from Bassein, while other external parts of the church were built in the now ever-emblematic red laterite that is native to Goa.

With one massive difference – the laterite was rendered invisible. Coated as it was with lime plaster, the Basilica once looked like so many other whitewashed churches that dot Goa’s landscape of red hills and green palms. It was not until the 1950s that the Basilica gained the look it wears now, deliberately denuded of its white lime render by political design.

The Basilica before the plaster was removed. Credit: Vishvesh Kandolkar

Researcher Joaquim Rodrigues dos Santos chronicles how Portuguese architect Baltazar da Silva Castro was tasked in the mid-20th century with restoring Goan monuments, including the Basilica, by then-Portuguese Prime Minister António de Oliveira Salazar.

“Restoring” is really not the appropriate term, for Castro had been instructed to age such early modern Portuguese Goan relics as the Basilica. The intention was for these historical structures to appear even older than they really were. In the wake of the decolonisation of adjoining British India in 1947, Salazar sought to demonstrate Portugal’s longstanding influence on Goa and its culture. As part of his propaganda to justify the continued presence of Portugal in its overseas territories in South Asia, Salazar believed that architecturally fabricating the antiquity of the Portuguese presence in its erstwhile capital of Old Goa was a viable tactic.

The avenue through which this was to be achieved was by giving famous sites, tied to the early modern Portuguese empire, a reverse facelift.

In the case of the Basilica of Bom Jesus, this meant that it was entirely stripped of its protective white plaster barrier. No doubt, this achieved the required result of making the already historic building appear even older. What resulted was the quintessential look the monument bears now, immortalised over and again in such advertisements and tourism-related paraphernalia as can be seen in Kandolkar’s second installation, (T)here is the Basilica.

Comprising everything from video loops of the appearance of the Basilica on Goa’s floats in various Republic Day parades to three-dimensional models of the church available for sale online, the recurring image across the multimedia exhibit is of an imposing (now browned-with-age) laterite building.

Certainly, an entire generation of Goans will have only known the Basilica in its present form, entirely devoid of its once highly contrasting white plaster surfaces. And why should this be a problem? The lime cast which was removed during Castro’s renovation was not meant to merely serve as a decorative element, its presence on the walls functioning as prophylaxis against rain damage. Laterite rock is naturally water-permeable, its constitution deteriorating with extended exposure to rainfall.

Credit: Vishvesh Kandolkar

Debates have raged about maintaining the Basilica’s current look, especially so as not to upset the sentiments of Goans who have grown accustomed to seeing, and worshiping at, the unplastered church, which happens to be one of the most popular in the region because of the presence of Xavier’s relics. But things came to a head in April 2020 when it became apparent that drastic measures needed to be taken to conserve the building – the rain had found its way into the church.

The press picked up the story when the Basilica’s rector. Fr Patricio Fernandes, wrote a letter to the Archeological Survey of India, accusing them of being negligent of the care of the monument, which falls under their purview. While the furore resulted in expedited repairs of the church’s leaking roof, the question about whether the Basilica will once again be plastered – its best defense against the torrential rains Goa experiences – still remains unresolved.

As Kandolkar explained in a talk earlier this year, Bom Jesus “continues to remain unplastered because people have been fed a particular (mis)representation of the monument’s appearance in the contemporary moment”.

In fact, what might help Goans come around to seeing the Basilica differently is a re-engagement with a visual culture that sidesteps contemporary representations of the edifice and provides a longer look at the church in its earlier form. With this in mind, Kandolkar’s third installation, Weather the Basilica?, employs a timeline that starkly shows the difference between the short period during which the church has been unplastered and the significantly longer duration of its having been protected by a coat of lime mortar.

Credit: Vishvesh Kandolkar

To visually represent the contrast, this installation is composed of untreated laterite bricks and rubble, sourced from Old Goa, that stand in a vitrine balanced atop a tall whitewashed pedestal. What becomes clear from the timeline matched with the dimensions of the exhibit is that it is the most recent period (represented by the raw laterite) that has borne witness to the most damage sustained by the Basilica. This coincides with the removal of the lime layer, a rise in monsoonal rainfall, and planetwide climate change.

Once commonplace in Goa, the craft of enmeshing palm fronds to create a protective barrier around built structures, especially during the monsoons, is a vanishing skill. Instead, mass produced plastic tarpaulins have come to stand in for mollem, as handwoven palm leaf sheaths are known in Konkani. While on the one hand a statement about the passage of time and changes in technology, that mollem have given way to the less eco-friendly plastic coverings also parallels the evolution of the walls of Bom Jesus, transformations inflected by politics and history.

For This is Not the Basilica!, Kandolkar sought the help of Pingal Prakash Mashelkar, a caretaker at Sunaparanta, to fashion the mollem used in his installation. By incorporating this re-enlivened tradition of defending architecture against the monsoons, Kandolkar’s exhibit invites visitors to rethink how one views architectural history and aesthetics and, indeed, the art of looking itself. Barely visible through the mesh of leaves from Goa’s ubiquitous coconut trees, the image of the Basilica of Bom Jesus that Kandolkar offers is less obscured than it is renewed.

It is a glimpse through the past to see what the future could hold for this magnificent but endangered building.

R. Benedito Ferrão is an Assistant Professor of English and Asian & Pacific Islander American Studies at William and Mary, Virginia, USA.

This is Not the Basilica! runs at Sunaparanta Goa Center for the Arts (as part of Goa: A Time that Was) until November 21.