Though often overlooked by tourist, Goa's Panaji is undergoing a culture awakening the merits s closer look .
Long before the Portuguese arrived in Goa, and hundreds of years before a new capital city was built around its ramparts, the summer palace of Adil Shah of Bijapur already dominated the Mandovi waterfront, guarding river passage to the prized trading posts upriver. Even now, it is an extraordinary location: on one side, a clear view of the estuarine bay that leads to the open maw of the Arabian Sea. But turn right, and you can see all the way upriver to Old Goa's ancient port. This strategic importance is why the site has been fortified since ancient times—many scholars believe that Panaji's very name is derived from five (paanch) towers that once rose from the spot on which the building the Portuguese eventually came to call the Palacio Idalcao was built.
Unsurprisingly, the palace has always been highly prized, reserved for the rulers of the territory throughout its centuries of existence. Even after India annexed Goa, the building remained in the hands of the ruling classes—it was the state Sachivalaya right into the 21st century, until Goa's famously turbulent legislature moved to a modern complex on the Porvorim hillside, on the riverbank opposite Panaji.
Fast forward to 2011, and the Palacio Idalcao (aka the Old Secretariat) is undergoing a genuinely revolutionary transformation. The state government has restored the building, turning it into a gallery space of more than 50,000sq ft. It is just the centrepiece of a wave of innovation that is restoring the shine to Panaji's lovely, but hitherto unsung Latinate neighbourhoods. The result is an unexpected development in the life of this tiny city on the Mandovi. By the end of this year—the 50th anniversary of Goa's decolonisation — the waterfront of Panaji will feature easily the finest arts and culture infrastructure in the country.
As the recently-appointed coordinator of the curatorial committee of the Old Secretariat, I was greatly honoured to help open the building to the public for the first time in its existence—it received more than 1,000 visitors for a landmark lecture series that brought conservationist Tasneem Zakaria Mehta, artist Sudarshan Shetty, graphic novelist Amruta Patil, and the brilliant art historian Rupert Arrowsmith to Goa, among many others. It took exactly 15 minutes in the building for Shetty to declare it 'the best art space in India and only a couple of days before Arrowsmith was publicly hailing the cultural renaissance underway on the Panaji waterfront. The new development makes it very clear that Old Panaji faces a new future.
A simple half-hour walk through the capital's unhurried streets can take you to the first medical college in Asia (which seeded the whole continent with trained doctors), the site of the first printing press in the continent (Konkani is the first Indian language to have printed books), as well as India's oldest public library. These share the streets with countless charming examples of IndoL atin architecture, housing ancient family residences, cafés and bakeries, still run by the same families that originally built Panaji.
That is not a Portuguese House! is the title of Raya Shankhwalker's essay on Goan architecture, published in 2008. The Panaji-based architect, whose family was one of the city's most prominent, has been involved with several landmark restoration projects in old Panaji. His family home, spitting distance from the Palacio Idalcao, was one of the city's most important residential buildings.
He writes of the title, "This terminology seems to have sprung up in very recent years to coincide with the seemingly unstoppable demand from people from the rest of India and abroad to own these [houses]. Ill- informed brokers have coined the term, which reflects a deeply ignorant conception of the complex, multi-layered evolution of architecture in Goa. It is wrong, even offensively wrong, and irritating to see the term actually gain popularity instead of being discarded."
Panaji is full of cultural treasures, including Asia's largest Latin Quarter and now, one of the best art spaces anywhere in India Shankwalker's ire is justified, because there are no houses in Portugal like the ones in Goa. The architecture of Panaji is clearly Latinate, influenced by the façades and formal reception rooms of the Iberian tradition. But everything else about these buildings is different. In fact, the great Goan polymath Jose Pereira has proved that they are part of a unique Indo-European cultural repertoire which emerged in Goa in the 19th century, a proudly Goan architecture that came of age alongside the mando (a new Indo-European music style) as well as the wildly globalised Goan cuisine. As Paulo Varela Gomes, a Portuguese architectural historian, has put it in his new book Whitewash, Red Stone, Goan houses are 'unique in the world history of architecture... they represent one of the more remarkable contributions to the history of building from outside European regions.'
The buildings that the government of Goa has renovated for art and culture purposes tell quite a story. Just south of the Palacio Idalcao is another remarkable heritage structure that is being rep urposed to house studios for artists, reading rooms, and a vast auditorium that opens in December. This is the site of the first public library in Asia, as well as the Menezes-Braganza Institute, a society for art and culture that collected Renoirs and Souzas before being nationalised in the wake of decolonisation. A brief walk down the waterfront, there is the superbly-renovated Maquinez Palace, where the administration for the annual International Film Festival of India takes place. And we've still not reached one of Charles Correa's best buildings, the subtly spectacular Kala Academy, which — unlike all the others —was built for the purpose of art and culture and continues to host cultural events. The imaginative reuse of Goa's architectural heritage stretches to the interior of the city's old neighbourhoods of Campal, Altinho, Sao Tome, Fontainhas and Mala.
Rui Lobo's tiny office space in a crumbling building facing the Garcia da Orta garden in the centre of town is a perfect example. A brilliant student and engineering graduate from the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology in Powai, Lobo gave it all up to focus on his passion for classical music. His Goa Guitar Guild now organises bi-annual national competitions for classical violin and guitar players. Every Tuesday, he leads a motley crew of regulars into the bandstand of the garden opposite his studio, where they regale a crowd with classical favourites. Don't make the mistake of associating their relaxed attitude with amateurism—in fact the classical music scene of Panaji has recently produced prodigies who have won scholarships to some of the world's best conservatories.
"Our kids here have every bit of potential to be as good, or even better than anyone else in the world," says Dr Luis Dias, who has triggered a small Panaji renaissance after abandoning his medical career in the UK to return to his ancestral home in the old mint house of Panaji, the Casa da Moeda. Dias holds a three-day annual festival in his home, where the public is invited to explore the house and its historic environs in the old Tobacco Square and participate in daily concerts, lectures, walks and discussions. In addition, he and his wife Chryselle run the Child's Play (India) Foundation, which brings musical education to street children and the poorest school-goers in the Panaji area.
"I was inspired by concerts I saw in England that featured superb orchestras made up of street children from South Africa and Venezuela," says Dias. The young doctor grew up with an abiding awareness of social disparity and inequalities in education. "I realised that we have potentially world-class orchestras, living in our slums, and the waste of talent was too much not to do something about it." Now he says, "I think we can get there, and show the way for the rest of the country. Panaji has the chance to emerge as a cultural capital for the entire region, but we have to work hard to capitalise on this, or the opportunity will go away before we know it."
A similarly cautionary note is sounded by Prajal Sakhardande, a charismatic lecturer in history at Panaji's Dhempe College of Arts & Science, and co-founder of the state's influential Goa Heritage Action Group. "Much of what is unique in Panaji has remained intact due to the vigilance of the city's citizens. But it is under threat, particularly from the irresponsible politician-builder nexus, and we are starting to lose more battles than ever before. The national conservation authorities should step in now, or we will lose this priceless legacy before the rest of the world has even begun to understand it."
But such sobering thoughts retreat to the recesses of your mind when you take an evening walk through India's smallest state capital — the best time to experience old Panaji, when the shadows lengthen on its winding streets. The breeze is scented with freshly-baked bread and slowm oving bicycle salesmen fan across the city. Thousands of crows fly home across the river, making a raucous din that settles only as darkness falls.
Now it is time for dinner, and it's hard to beat the Latin Quarter for both atmosphere and food. There are many places you shouldn't miss: Venite, Horseshoe, Avanti, Viva Panjim, Elite Flavours, and a wonderful late-night spot called Down The Road. But the best of all of them is to be found at the end of Mala-Portais Road—a very long walk that will take you through the heart of the oldest part of the city where charming houses line both sides of the road.
This is Ernesto's, run by the Alvares brothers, scions of old Panaji hospitality, sons of one of the first men to see the potential of this Latin Quarter. They have taken over a big old house in Mala, where Vasco Alvares serves his own adapted version of Goan food in a beautifully repurposed setting. Order one of his patented 'bimbli' cocktails and a Makapao steak served with Goan sausage sauce, and soak in the timeless atmosphere.