One of the more striking images from Pantaleão Fernandes’s new photo book Goa: Rare Portraits is that of an old woman sitting on the floor. She is weaving a shendri, or a mat, out of palm leaves, a skill possessed by many among Goa’s indigenous communities. Another is a close-up of a woman from the Dhangar, or shepherd community of the state. Her beaded necklaces, nose ring and earrings, typically worn by the women, stand out vividly.

Goa: Rare Portraits, a collection of 80-odd photographs that Fernandes took over the years, provides a rare glimpse into the rural and tribal culture of Goa through its native communities residing in its forests. “Right from my childhood, I have seen these people working in paddy fields and farms,” said Fernandes. “As I was growing up, these people started diminishing from my surroundings. But then I encountered them again when I was working on my first book on parish churches of Goa. For me that was the connect – the memories from my childhood.”

In his quest to show unseen Goa, Fernandes has beautifully captured the Gauddi, Kunnbi, Kulmi and Dhangar communities, who are found mainly in talukas of Quepem and Canacona (in the foothills of the Western Ghats), through their clothes, accessories, daily chores and their skills. The book also features images of toddy tappers, coconut pluckers, fishermen, farmers. They all are living a rural life, one that is fast disappearing.

Fashion designer and writer Wendell Rodricks says in the blurb, “With each page, one sees through Pantaleão’s lens, simple Goan souls who are living the ‘real’ life. Each person radiates inner peace and contentment. This is rare in the world of social media where people project an alternate dual personality far from reality of their true selves.”

Rural portraits

Fernandes has aesthetically captured these people’s skills, as they are seen weaving palm leaves into shendris or turning its fronds into the canopy-like molly that is often used as a fan for winnowing paddy. These images also document the use of farming tools such as a soop (a winnowing pan woven out of bamboo), a morkund, which is a long bamboo attached to a hook, and a niollo, a wooden implement that resembles a spade.

One of Fernandes’ favourite photographs is that of a woman with a kerosene lamp. “That lamp symbolises the non-materialistic world for me, which we are detached from,” he said. “The other is the image of tribal women dancing in their traditional red sari. That image directly transports me to my childhood.”

This is not the first time that Fernandes’ lens has captured Goa: this is his sixth book on the state. The others include a photo book that highlights the state’s natural beauty, another that looks at its festivals, a children’s story book based on the author’s childhood memories, and 100 Goan Experiences, on Goa’s scenic beauty and its popular tourist spots. His last book, which received much acclaim, was Traditional Occupations of Goa.

Hobby to profession

Fernandes is not a trained photographer but a civil engineer. Photography was a hobby for him before it turned into his full-time profession 14 years ago.

Fernandes says he never approaches the villagers as a photographer but as a fellow Goan eager to know more about them. “I [don’t] remove my camera from my bag during my first visit as [the] camera can be quite intimidating.” He photographs them with his DSLR Nikon 750 only after earning their confidence and makes sure to give them prints of their photos.

“Few years ago two friends and I were approaching a village temple by car,” he recollected. “As we were nearing the temple, a villager started looking suspiciously at me and I knew that he would enquire about our presence. He approached me and started asking about our visit. I told him about the temple and deities. He was quite impressed and invited me to his house to give me more information and also for a homemade meal.”

Fernandes has had to deal with accusations that he is using people’s poverty to sell his images. “[With] these books, my effort is to bring them out of poverty, if possible,” he clarified.

Some of the villagers, who have been featured in his books, have been recognised for their talent and craftsmanship. “Bhiva Gaonkar from Baddem village in Cotigao, Canacona, has [been] commissioned by Rodricks to make rain covers [from bamboo and seasonal leaves] for his upcoming museum, Moda Goa,” said Fernandes. “Pottery artist Jose Caitan Sequeira from Porvorim received a state award for his handmade pottery. If we use these skills and train youngsters to develop these items, it can be excellent employment for many.” This, he believes, will also be a way of ensuring the traditional practices are carried down to the next generation.

Publishing experiment

Fernandes self-publishes his books. Instead of selling them at a bookstore, he approaches his prospective buyers with a copy. “This helps me in many ways as...they give me their suggestions and I try to incorporate them. Photographer Pablo Bartholomew [who has written the afterword of the book] suggested a few.” Fernandes has already sold 750 copies.

The book also features the poems Gavddo hanv (Gavddo – that’s me) and Khoro Goenkar (True Goan) by Manohar Rai Sardesai from his book Zaiat Zage, an abridged version of Damodar Mauzo’s short story Coinsanv’s Cattle, a chapter on costumes by Rodricks and Isabel de Santa Rita Vas’s story Drawing with Light. “It was suggested [to add the poems and stories] to break away the monotony of photographs,” said Fernandes.

Through photographs and text, Goa: Rare Portraits is an attempt to capture the native Goan and their hardworking lifestyle, people who are increasingly forgotten among the state’s more ubiquitous images of sun-kissed beaches, tourists, vibrant nightlife, pork vindaloo and feni.