A Salute to Dignity

Manors, Mansions, commoner’s dwellings all display the quest for a people’s search for a special identity.

Some say that seventeen years is a long time in a man’s lifetime. But when I came to live in the land of my forefathers seventeen years ago and began discovering the Goan house, I did not know that over this “long time” I would have merely scratched a surface. So many years down the line I find myself still looking at these very houses with the same wonder, the same excitement, the same amusement.

When I first started looking at these houses with the eye of a professional I did not quite know what to make of them. Were they too pompous for homes of ordinary Goans? Too pretentious for simple argrarian homesteads? Too small for fortified palaces? The Portuguese language in fact does more justice to these family homes than does the English language. The Portuguese language refers to these houses as palacios. How apt a description! Picture the house of the Deshprabhu family in Pernem, for instance. Goa’s only gatehouse welcomes you in with a bright and cheery facade and at the same time the guardhouses on either side intimidate you from entering without permission. Once you have entered the house, however, the house and the members of this large and illustrious family literally enfold you in open arms. You would expect, like any other house anywhere else in the world, to be led into a formal drawing room or reception area. But not in the Deshprabhu house. Here, an impeccable rose garden forms an unfamiliar front-drop to the family temple on the left and the official guest house or the Casa de Hospides on the right sports the family monogram etched out on its lancet windows. This Guest House, we are told, was where the family entertained European beef-eating guests at banquets fit for princes in a Banquet Hall that is larger than any other in the whole of Goa. In a typical paradox, the Hindu hosts of the house did not eat with their European guests but welcomed them with characteristic warmth and then quietly retired to their traditional vegetarian kitchen where their own women served them with heads bowed in silence.

This arrangement of separating the guests from the main house was perhaps a mechanism to keep the womenfolk of the house cloistered and unexposed to the ways of the Western world. A case of architecture following the dictates of a traditional lifestyle. And yet, the family had ladies who could read and write in both Marathi and the Modu script in days when such a thing would have been considered unacceptable. The house also boasts of the first telephone in Goa (who did they call?), the first motor car (what roads did it run on?) and the first piped water supply. The entrance hall was so vast that the temple elephant could be brought into it every year for a ritual that was the cynosure of the whole village. The furniture in the house was crafted by Christian carpenters for the use of an orthodox Hindu household and had cherubs and angels on the backrest albeit Indianised. The house is held seige today by outhouses, garages that showed off priceless vintage cars, stables that once housed horses and elephants and workshops that held court over carpenters, masons and painters that were once on the family payroll. Would one not be tempted to call such a house a palace then?

But not all Goan houses are as impressive in style and size as the Deshprabhu House of northern Goa’s Pernem. Take the Loyola-Furtado House in the village of Chinchinim in southern Goa. The original floor plan had a huge dining hall to the right as one entered, a ballroom to the left and an entrance hall with a perforated ceiling sandwiched in between. The kitchens, wood stores, granaries and stables were located at the back of the house and a courtyard once held a durbar of mango, guava, chikoo and coconut trees. A toilet block at the back of the dining hall had four cubicles in a row with moulded arches as door heads but no doors! A facility that stood at the head of a pigsty where pigs were penned in to act as scavengers! A division in the family over the years and the expansive dining hall could be converted into a reception room for one branch, the entrance hall made into an informal parlour for another and the basements into a cosy bedroom for a third. Another case of architecture dictated by lifestyle and yet how different! How exclusive and individualistic each Goan house!

So what is it, I often wonder, that makes these houses, whether Hindu or Catholic, so special? Is it their perfect placement in the landscape? Is it their personification of the perfect amalgamation of two (Indian and European) cultures? Set history aside and it would seem as if some sensitive designer had carefully placed the village green, the market, the church and the temple in easily accessible and visible locations. That this same designer had played a double role as a sutradhar or curtain raiser in the choreography of feasts, funerals, processions and pageants and then, almost as an afterthought, placed the houses in their own contextual neighbourhood. For it is no small coincidence that the house belonging to the most important Kshatriya-Catholic landlord of the village is located right next to the village church that stands today where a temple tank once stood four hundred and fifty years ago. No mere coincidence that the houses that form the village church square all belong to Catholic descendants of the Gaud Saraswats Brahmins who once served the temple complex after which the whole town takes its name — Mathagram, Mudgaon, Margao. In this seemingly disorganised arrangement there is apparently some method in madness. Walk down a village lane and you will see, just like I do, that these houses are actually elegant men and women chatting at a formal reception! The atmosphere is cordial and yet each guest stands apart in dignified ceremony. Each guest at this party is unique and varied, the variety in dress and demeanour extraordinary.

It is this splendid array of details in the various elements of style in Goan houses that never ceases to atonish me. What made Goans channelize all their energy in house-building and construct every window, door, column, door-surround, gate and gatepost, eavesboard and pilaster differently? We may think it is the influence of their blood, their travels and their learning that fed their imagination and nurtured ambitious design. We may say that it is the sudden spurt of an inward-looking society turning outward-looking with the arrival of the Europeans and of Christianity. We may think that wealthy Hindus imitated these trends and had showy houses in towns where they entertained European business associates while still maintaining private traditional houses in the villages. I suspect that it all really began with a few puffed-up individuals constructing something special that sparked off such competitive interest amongst neighbours that it set off an unprecendented chain of events. This chain engulfed a whole architectural scenario from which there was no looking back.

The ingredients were perfect for this amazing potpourri — borrowings from the West with roots from the East in the hands of people who were in a desperate search for an expression of their own identity. The result? A domestic product that became the best and most evocative vehicle for this expression. Architecture that is today comparable to the very best on earth. Architecture that once embodied the drastic change that rocked peoples’ lives after their colonisation. An architecture that in fact began to dictate lifestyle. Or was it the other way around, perhaps?

For where earlier there was one multi-functional room in which members of the family slept, ate, delivered babies, breathed their last, cooked meals, made offerings to the kul devata or family deity, now there were separate rooms for all these activities. There were entrance halls where visitors could be kept waiting...reception rooms and ballrooms where mirrors and chandeliers vied for attention with bejewelled gowns and coral ornaments...Master bedroom which only the head of the family occupied (and which he gave over to a bridal couple for their nuptial night)...libraries that held books on literature, law and religion...family chapels that sparkled with Baroque and Rococo motifs and symbols and fruit trees in front gardens that could be visited by passing Jesuit priests who were experts on inarching and hybridisation. All this and more! So much to see every time I see it! Each time to see a difference. And this is but the beginning — the beginning of a long journey of the discovery of the houses of Goa.