March 18, 2016

Departures: Portuguese Colonial

Artwork by Houses of Goa

Observe closely at your choices of clothes, of decoration, of colours after visiting a country. Compare your old wardrobe with what's inside your shopping bags in the months after your holiday. Chances are your taste changed a bit. At an unconscious level, we become influenced by the cultures we are exposed to. Change is particularly strong when you made a connection with their art - be it architecture, crafts, performances, artwork, song or dance. Evolution of our self-expression, for me, is one of the marvels of travelling. 

I took a walk in the Portuguese colony of Old Goa, India one afternoon. The lull of siesta allows one to see the quarters in its most authentic character. What strikes you immediately is the layer of rich, fresh paint that covers every home.

A coloured home stood for economic well-being, though it's not entirely a matter of choice. During the Portuguese times, you can be fined if your house was not painted.

Goa seems to have a knack for white piping or accents. Later I found out about the unspoken Portuguese rule that only churches can be painted white. The colour of purity became a coveted adornment.

 India combines colours we never think match, and it always works. Goans are no different. 

As I weave in and out of Goa's small neighborhoods, I encounter humble abodes. In no way is the love of colour diminished.

 One lady took it to the next level by matching her plants, flowers, clothes and very old interiors.

 She appears to be an exception to the change of taste we experience over our lifetime. She giddily shows me a portrait of her youth, evidence of her unwavering preference throughout the times.

Azulejos, glazed ceramic tiles you'd see around Lisbon, remain used as street signs and at Goan house entrances. 

The craft of azulejos is fascinating. It is a typical form of Portuguese painted, tin-glazed, ceramic tile work.

I thought the name came from azul (Portuguese for “blue”). The real origin of the word is Arabic. 'Azulejo' comes from az-zulayj, which roughly translates as “polished stone”.

Azulejos trace back to when the Iberian Peninsula were still under Moorish rule in the 1400s. Many other countries have tile art, where it is used as decoration like a tapestry but in Portugal, it became a part of the building. The decorative tiles are a construction material as well as decoration.

This square piece of ceramic was primarily introduced as decoration over flat plastered surfaces, floors, walls and even ceilings.  

Popularity spread as the utilitarian benefits of azulejos was discovered. The tiles could control temperatures in interior environments. They form a buffer for dampness, heat and noise. They reflect light too due to the predominant use of white.

Over five centuries azulejos are seen as coverings of large areas inside and outside buildings. It has gone far beyond its utilitarian and even ornamental art form, into an icon of Goan architecture. 

In early 20th century Portugal, azulejo art actually fell out of favour. The cultural elite despised it and felt it was for the poor people. Goans being worlds apart perhaps were not aware of the trend, or their Indian sensibility for ornate work kept the craft close to their hearts.

Fortunately, we see a worldwide return to soulful craft. Lisbon today is embracing the art in its murals, museums and metro stations. A special museum in Portugal is dedicated to azulejos tiles.

Wrought iron grilles are another feature in Goan colonial architecture. Through the grilles, one could peek into the houses' interiors. This balcony is decorated with Chinese and Indian miniature paintings.

Christians in Goa were encouraged into a European aesthetic and lifestyle. Yet in now way can 400 years of colonialism uproot a 4,000 year-old Indian culture. The result is a unique cultural mix that affected everything from food to the design of their homes.

Places of worship apply wrought iron as accents. Goa is predominantly Catholic, owing to Portuguese influence. The door to the abbey has a round peephole with a wrought iron symbol of the Holy Name of Jesus.

I love how worship is not confined to grand architectural structures. Almost every house has an outdoor altar. What's particularly interesting is the Indian rose and marigold garland we'd associate with a Hindu temple.

As the sun sets, we pick up pace on a motorbike. Looking at the vibrant blur around us, I reflect on the major aesthetic influences of the houses of Goa.

  • architectural style of Portuguese-built churches
  • adaptation of foreign ideas to local conditions and using local materials
  • protecting the house and its occupants from fierce monsoons

I had a bit of time to loiter at the abbey at Bom Jesu Cathedral nearby. In a nondescript hall behind the courtyard, I noticed this chair. Spare rods of iron are twisted by hand into legs and a basic backrest, then welded into a flat square. This style is exactly the humble forerunner of the glamorous B-Luxe Chair!

The chair reminds me of the store I am coming home to. My mind opens up to new possibilities.

Traveling to Goa soon? Check out Houses of Goa, an illustration project that shows you the best houses to observe Goan architecture and produces prints like the watercolour below.