In a garden on the banks of River Mandovi in Panjim stands a statue of a mermaid. Installed in the 1940s, when the garden was being beautified, the mermaid is one of a few life-sized porcelain statues in the world. It is, in the words of writer Vivek Menezes, a “Goa icon”.

“[The statue] came from Europe, but now it is part of Goa,” said Menezes. “A mermaid doesn’t belong to the land or sea – is it an animal or human? It has these...complexities built in, and Panjim and Goan culture is like that.”

Panjim occupied a key position in the Portuguese empire – it was the urbs prima, the primary city, in the Estado da Índia Portuguesa (Portuguese state of India) from 1843. Its rich history has made it a melting pot of cultures and identities, and bequeathed it a unique socio-cultural fabric with “wonderful dualities”.

It is to celebrate this complex heritage on the occasion of the city’s 175th anniversary that the Serendipity Arts Festival is hosting an art exhibition titled Panjim 175. The exhibition, curated by Menezes and Swati Salgaocar, is being held at the old Public Works Department complex near the old and new Patto bridges in Sao Tome.

The mermaid tile work by Shilpa Mayenkar Naik.
The mermaid tile work by Shilpa Mayenkar Naik.

The theme of confluence runs through many of the works. The iconic mermaid that “represents Panjim in many ways” figures prominently in the works of Nishant Saldanha and Shilpa Mayenkar Naik. A poster by Saldanha, in vivid colours, shows the mermaid surrounded by Goa’s tropical flowers. Naik’s work is an azulejo (a painted, tin-glazed, ceramic tile), in which the mermaid is seen in front of one of Panjim’s most iconic buildings – the old Goa Medical College.

Sense of community

Panjim 175 features the works of several Goan artists and organisations, including Chaitali Morajkar, Harshada Kerkar, John Lino, Loretti Pinto, Pritha Sardessai, Goa Bird Conservation Network and Bookworm Trust. Most of these are accompanied by poems written by Manohar Shetty, Eunice de Souza and Philip Furtado, among others. A newly launched app, Panjim 175, provides a guided tour of the city.

The curatorial note of the exhibition states: “More than any other urban entity in India, Panjim embodies ideas of community across the sectarian lines that usually divide the subcontinent.”

According to Menezes, this sense of community formed the “building blocks” of Goa’s culture. It is symbolised in Sabharwal’s work Mystical Divine Grace: The Seven Goddesses, which features large portraits of the seven sisters who are worshipped as goddesses in different parts of Goa. They are Lairai in Shirgao, Mahamaya in Mayem, Kelbai in Mulgao, Morjai in Morjim, Shitali who walked in the Arabian Sea, Anjadipa who continues to wander around the Earth in search of the divine, and Milagres who converted to Catholicism and is venerated in Mapusa. The Milagres Feast day is celebrated by both Hindus and Catholics. Devotees worship Milagres by pouring oil on her statue, traditionally a Hindu practice.

'Nova Goa' by Sandesh Naik.
'Nova Goa' by Sandesh Naik.

Goa, during the colonial times, was an important trade route, with Panjim being the main hub. “It was the trans-national capital right from Japan to South Africa,” said Menezes. “It was at the centre of the huge trade route.” Sandesh Naik’s paintings, titled Nova Goa, are filled with spices. They describe Goa as the “great world trade centre” and the scents emanating from them serve as a reminder of the vibrant spice trade.

But despite its importance on the global map, the city’s native roots were strong. “Panjim is a city built by natives, for natives,” said Menezes. “The elites, both Hindus and Catholics, built Panjim for their own purposes in the 1830s.”

'Kapodanchi Kanni' by Pritha Sardessai.
'Kapodanchi Kanni' by Pritha Sardessai.

Harshada Kerkar’s artwork portrays women in Panjim’s local markets. “One possible meaning of Panaji is great-grandmother (in Konkani) and I find that old women selling fish, vegetables and fruits represent this town at its most iconic,” said Kerkar. Similarly, Sardessai’s installation and sketches of the traditional Kunbi sarees or kapod titled, Kapodanchi Kanni, are a tribute to the hard-working women of Goa. They are accompanied by the words of Gavddo hanv (Gavddo – that’s me), a poem written by Manohar Rai Sardesai. Sonia Rodrigues Sabharwal’s installation titled Harvest is about Goa’s farming community.

The exhibition not only focuses on socio-economic and cultural aspects, but on ecology as well. This, Menezes explains, ties in with the theme of confluence – Panjim lies on the Mandovi estuary, which is again symbolic of the coming together of two worlds, the river and the sea. The works highlight the ecological harm to Goa – the deluge of plastic waste and the pollution of its rivers. The Earth Weeps (Reduce, Refuse, Reuse, Recycle) by Salgaocar is an installation made with single-use plastic bags, less than 50 microns in thickness. Though they have been banned, they are still easily available in the state.

Another work, Nhoi – The Goa River Draw, highlights the threat to Goa’s River Mhadei (Mhadei is called Mandovi when it reaches Panjim) from pollution and dams being built in neighbouring Karnataka. The ongoing project, displayed under the city bridge next to the Mandovi, has been created by Rhea D’Souza for the Bookworm Trust and Scottish artist Liz Kemp. “This is a preview of our work that we did in 13 places in Goa,” said D’Souza. “We involved local libraries, people and collected stories related to the river.”

Bird illustrations by Carl D’Silva.
Bird illustrations by Carl D’Silva.

The birds of Goa are the focus of the works by The Goa Bird Conservation Network. On display are some bird illustrations of Carl d’Silva, one of India’s finest wildlife artists, and photos of birds native to the state. Bird calls are played on loop at the exhibition. The aim is to make people aware of Goa’s biodiversity.

The old Public Works Department complex.
The old Public Works Department complex.

Menezes describes the old Public Works Department complex as a “keystone crossroads”, connecting the new as well as old parts of the city. This over-100-year-old structure on the banks of the Mandovi opens up to the Latin quarter of Panjim – Fontainhas – and has an old-world charm. But it is now possibly going to be pulled down in a bid to make Panjim a “smart city”, a move Menezes describes as a “cultural crime”.

“The early map of Panjim looks like Manhattan, as it is built on the grid, [it had] place for sidewalks for people to walk,” said Menezes. “They [the city planners] were aware of the European drainage system – they had a very advanced, state-of-the-art thinking. It is particularly a galling, upsetting movement that in the 21st century all this is destroyed in the name of the ‘smart city’.”

Panjim 175 is on display as part of the Serendipity Arts Festival till December 22 at the old PWD office complex, Panjim.