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Goa: A Postcolonial Society between Cultures

goaOn April 5, the Council on Latin American and Iberian Studies, in conjunction with the South Asian Studies Council at Yale University, welcomed an interdisciplinary group of scholars to a two-day conference on postcolonial Goa. The conference sought to draw attention to Goa's contribution to Indian and South Asian studies, and to place the former Portuguese empire in the context of contemporary debates on postcoloniality.

Titled “Goa: A Postcolonial Society between Cultures,” the conference was organized around the theme of cultural in-betweenness—the coexistence and understanding of multiple cultures within a single individual or social body, as in the case of Goa with its languages, religions, and Portuguese and Indian traditions.

This theme was expressed most remarkably in the concert organized in conjunction with the conference, featuring pieces by composers Giacomo Carissimi (1605-1674) and Giovanni Giorlamo Kapsberger (1580-1651), including the latter’s unique and fascinating ‘Jesuit Opera,’ performed in Rome in 1622 to mark the canonizations of the first two Jesuit saints, Francis Xavier and Ignatius Loyola. As musicologist and lutenist Victor Coelho (Boston University) described it, this work “follows directly in the didactic (and somewhat propagandistic) tradition of Jesuit dramas, whose stories entwined Christian literature with pagan mythologies around a core of moral teaching.” The voice of male soprano Robert Crowe soared through the perfect acoustic setting of Dwight Chapel, with Coelho playing the theorbo, a kind of long-necked lute. Conference participants and other audience members described the concert as “absolutely stunning.”

The conference also featured prominent Goan novelists Victor Rangel-Ribeiro, Margaret Mascarenhas and António Gomes, who read from their works and discussed their careers as writers. Scholars Rochelle Almeida (NYU) and Gita Rajan (Fairfield University) commented on these writers’ works within the larger field of diasporic writing and postcolonial literature, while Neetha Omprakash spoke on postcolonial Goan art. With coloniality and postcoloniality at the center of the debate, Cristiana Bastos and Filipa Vicente (Institute of Social Sciences, University of Lisbon) presented on tensions between local and metropolitan agendas during the colonial period. Bastos discussed aspects of her research in the field of history of science and medicine, and offered the provocative suggestion that certain colonial medical institutions can be seen as having fulfilled a local proto-nationalist agenda.

Yale students added significant scholarly contribution to the discussion. Ph.D. student Jonathan Graham (History) presented on the St. Thomas Christians, ‘Christians with spices’ (black pepper), highly sought by the newly arrived Portuguese, while graduate student Tara Menon (Comparative Literature) read from her paper on the 1886 novel The Brahamans by Francisco Luis Gomes, which “prefigures the complexity and ambivalence of the Indian nation-state’s peculiarly syncretic secularism.” In addition, Yale undergraduate Konrad Coutinho (Economics and Portuguese) presented part of his senior thesis on the Goan diaspora.

Finally, the discussion turned to contemporary history and politics, with Mumbai journalist Ashley D’Mello delivering the Poynter Lecture titled ‘Portuguese Colonial History and Contemporary Goan Elections: Impact of the Catholic Church on the Electorate.’ Currently a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley, D’Mello argued that the increased intervention of the church in Goan elections was possible “because of [Goa’s] strong tradition of communal amity, as opposed to the rest of India where political cleavages occur because there is a lack of understanding among rival religious factions.” The existence of communal amity in Goa, D’Mello explained, “is partly due to the state’s recent political history and the particular type of colonial rule it was subjected to under the Portuguese.” D’Mello’s lecture was followed by a spirited discussion on contemporary Goa and the impact of its colonial legacy in shaping Goa’s position within the multicultural Indian nation.

This conference was made possible through support from the MacMillan Center, the Edward J. and Dorothy Clarke Kempf Memorial Fund, a Title VI grant from the U.S. Department of Education to the Council on Latin American & Iberian Studies, and the South Asian Studies Council at Yale University.