Lessons from the past ?

February 17, 2010

A visit to one of the many heritage houses that dot South Goa is mandatory for tourists & travellers. They reflect the pomp, glory and grandeur of a bygone era. In these days of instant gratification, it is useful to be remined that these structures, conceived and completed more than 250-300 years ago, have stood the test of time and the elements and are, by and large, none the worse for it. The wealth on display in these houses in the form of floors from Italy, glass from Belgium, china from Macau and paintings from Spain and Portugal transiently time-port visitors to a period when feudal families monopolised the riches of the land and epitomised the capitalistic excessses of their times. However, scratch a little beneath the surface and it gets difficult to escape the sadness and melancholy that envelop these structures and also the foreboding of how quickly a particular situation can unravel. And a lurking suspicion that the priceless artefacts and treasures hide more than they reveal.

The houses themselves are in varying states of disrepair. The present economic status of the owner families is reflected in their upkeep. The motive behind welcoming visitors is all too apparent. It is monetary. The donations that the families seek at the end of the guided tour are a means of sustenance. A sad predicamen to be in and worse still, it reinforces the vicious loop that they have got themselves into. As an individual visitor, the decay that these houses mirror is so relatable. You almost believe, however improbably, that with a little more prudence and restraint, this downward spiral could have been avoided. Unlike for instance a Hampi where an entire kingdom collapsed bringing down in its wake, towns, families and individuals, the crumbling heritage houses of Goa resonate with untold stories of familial descent from glory. It is particularly ironical at a time when the rest of the country (or parts of the state for that matter) is basking in the riches of a neo liberliased economy.

These houses also fall into the familiar, unwitting and expedient trap of glorifying the past for gratuitious benefits. With some active and well meaning support from the state, the current absence of which is made exceedingly apparent to the visitor, things could still be a lot different and impactful. The ability of these private museums to illuminate and educate can be harnessed. A peek into the past which fails to educate is a huge opportunity loss for society. And a society which consistently fails in this endeavor is condemned to repeat its mistakes over and over again. This is not to suggest that an objective assessment of history is the panacea for all ils plaguing humanity, but creating an environment for doing so would be a step in the right direction. Studying history, of which culture and heritage are an integral part, which does not educate is an exercise in futility.
The other aspect which needs to be explored and strengthened is the ability of these heritage houses to create a sense of collective ownership. Pride and a sense of ownership in one’s heritage is critical for heritage to thrive and grow. A lot of heritage is intangible and embedded. These mansions are the last bastions and custodians of whatever little of our heritage that can be seen and touched. Rather than be seen as islands which have lost touch with the environment that they find themselves in, it is vital they engender feelings of pride and collective ownership among citizens. Again, this is an aspect which will need the sustained support of the state. A success story in this regard which the state government would do well to emulate is that of theWest Bengal government in making every Bengali feel that he/ she “owns” the Calcutta Metro.

A visit to any Heritage house, beyond appealing to the visual senses, should be informative, illuminating and uplifting. If not, they would have failed in their reason for being. Applying this yardstick to our backyard, I guess we have a fair distance to go.


One Response to “Lessons from the past ?”

  1. 25BAR Says:

    I love the cultural history and serenity of the South as compared to the noise of the North.

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