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Rhyme & Reason

Who can resist opening a beautiful chest when one knows that it holds a rich trove of priceless jewels? For how else can one describe the fertile repertoire of stories, dulpods and proverbs that are so indisputably linked with the lives of Goans?

I found this rich treasure trove of folk-lore while I was searching for clues to Goa’s rich and vibrant past of a time much before the Portuguese arrived in 1510. I found to my delight that Goan proverbs, songs, dance-music and folktales held the key to the social history of pre-Portuguese Goa. For what could be more touching than the plea of the desolate Kadamba princess who has been reduced to the status of a kitchen maid by her captors when she says, “I am the only princess, daughter of King Vithoba. On my waist I carry a pot of water, in my hand I hold a broom, on my head I carry a basket. I dwell in front of this temple. Tell them to come and take me home”. A high-born princess reduced to the status of a lowly kitchen maid and carrying the material symbols of a low-caste Mahar girl. Made to do her captor’s bidding in all the menial tasks set before her and yet debarred from actually living in the hallowed grounds of the temple. What a wealth of meaning and history in those few lines of lament!

In another story titled The Girl in the Straw Hat, a poor girl is on her way from her wealthy husband’s house to her grandmother’s when she is accosted by three water nymphs who give her a grain of rice each. “Throw this grain of rice on your grandmother’s hut and it will turn into a palace,” says the forest water nymph. “Throw this grain into your grandmother’s room and it will be filled with riches,” says the second water nymph. “Throw this grain of rice in the kitchen and it will be filled with a hundred servants,” says the third. What a symbolic illustration of demonstrating to the young girls of pre-Portuguese Goa that a good harvest is the only key to a wealthy and prosperous home.

Supatle hastat, olletil rodtat says the old proverb in Konkani. “Rice grains in the winnowing fan laugh; those destined for the pot weep” is an observation that transcends cultural or political boundaries and needs no explanation. Kansarachi vatli nay, partum divun nazo on the other hand is as regional as a proverb can get. “A daughter-in-law is not a copper vessel that one can take her back to the coppersmiths and change her for another” speaks of both the status of women in Goan society and for the high regard that most Goans households had for the artisans and craftsmen of Goa. One could (and perhaps still can) take a defective vessel back to its manufacturer and get it exchanged for a good one!

Perhaps the most honoured of all artisans in Goa are the goldsmiths. The belief that the metal is a representation of the Sun is itself charming enough but the belief that the yellow metal has therapeutic properties begs credibility. In pre-Portuguese Goa Brahmins, goldsmiths and merchants were exempted from being flogged even if they had committed heinous crimes. It is small wonder then that the goldsmiths of Goa became the butt of jokes in Goan folklore. Sheth rivna santli kusumna has become to mean more than the overt “The goldsmith lives in one village but his umbrella lives in another village”. And despite the honour and the ridicule accorded to the village goldsmith, it was not diamonds but simple jasmine flowers that were a Goan girl’s best friends. Mardol village in North Goa is supposed to be famed for its supply of fresh jasmines. In a folk song from this region the dancer says to her Lord, “I shall buy flowers in profusion, I shall deck my hair with them. I shall sit in front of my Lord. Yes, I shall sit.”

The coming of the Portuguese and the advent of Christianity in Goa did not make a dent in the Goan predominantly agrarian lifestyle. Goans still farmed their land, used flowers and fruits in abundance and sang and danced to changing seasons just as their ancestors had done before them. And when they embraced Christianity, instead of abandoning their folklore, their songs and dances, they adopted the tenets of their new faith into the time-tested idioms that they had been handed down through the centuries. So if the dulpod song and dance routine of the Goan Christian ballrooms resound with the words, Mari Concessao, Maro Concessao, Assagao is your village, the best flowers I shall bring for you, my dear Mari Concessao. These words are echoes of a distant past. A past filled with the memories of temple feasts, family weddings, dark delivery rooms in ancient mansions and jasmines in full bloom.