The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – the Goan way

A piece I wrote earlier during the lockdown.

To those who commented on this post: You are entitled to a differing opinion, however, not abusive and violent reactions. Even under the shield of perceived anonymity, one cannot violate the law. Closing the comments section.

The Covid-19 lockdown in India forced us to take our conversations online and webinars became – and continue to be – all the rage. I tuned in to one that was titled Migrant Labourers and Goa’s Political Economy. During the course of the discussion, I was struck by a statement made by one of the panelists, a businessman who also holds top position in the state’s trade association. When talking about migrant workers at construction sites, he said, ‘staying conditions are not industry’s responsibility.’ He went on to complain about people who built illegal housing around constructions sites, in industrial as well as residential areas, and rent out to migrant workers. He accused panchayats of not keeping a check on this practice. The conversation moved on to other areas. Nobody countered him. I noted there was no legal expert on the panel. 

These comments stayed with me. And I had a suspicion that they were far from the truth. I looked up the laws of the land. Under the Contract Labour Act, a contractor might recruit the services of labour but the ultimate responsibility of labour welfare lies with the Principal Employer, people such as Mr. Businessman. The Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act provides for benefits such as displacement allowance, journey allowance and ‘suitable residential accommodation to such workmen during the period of employment’. All labour at construction sites – a booming industry up until the lockdown – in Goa come from outside the state. Often, outsourcing to contractors means that capital has very little or no clue about labour concerns. I suspect that more often than not, they’d rather turn a blind eye to these concerns. Or else they’ll have to get their hands soiled in the ‘mucky’ world of labour rights and even human rights. And I am only talking about labour that has been contracted. The migrant daily wage earners who congregate at markets squares, hoping to get picked up for a day’s wage – the lucky ones are packed into the back of pickup vans and carted to worksites – fall outside of any sort of guidelines.  

But beyond laws and regulations that holds capital responsible for labour, how does society and the individual look at labour? How does Goa view its migrant labour? Not in a very good light, I’m afraid. Goa’s supposed traditional hospitality and good cheer go out of the window and it morphs into an unrecognizable version of itself. There is lack of empathy, compassion, generosity of spirit. Am I brushing things with very broad strokes? In conversation after conversation I hear, the audacity of thought is very clear. Migrants blue collar workers are a necessary evil. 

The story of human history is the story of migration. This is something Goans are familiar with. We have spread ourselves all over the world in the last few centuries, in search of a better life. This sits uncomfortably with the disdain for migrants who come to Goa looking for a better life. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that migrants run the wheels of the state’s economy. The tourism sector is dependent on them, so is construction. And mining too, which might not be very obvious as it isn’t a very public facing industry. It’s a classic migration scenario – the locals leave for better prospects and the migrants arrive for better prospects. It’s a constitutional right. The state of India guarantees the right to move freely, reside and settle, and carry on any occupation in any part of the country. The truth of the matter is that we have reached a point that we need the migrant worker, but we don’t want to see the migrant work. If he could somehow magically disappear when not working, all would be well. As extension of that thought was apparent when migrant workers began registering for exit passes during the lockdown. Social media – often revealing more than it thinks it does – was abuzz with comments as to how we will now manage by ourselves, we don’t really need the migrants. I’m curious to know if Goans will work at constructions sites, pulling in nets at sea, as carpenters and gardeners, as bell boys and waiters – at the current rate of remuneration. Not to forget the second half of the argument when a large number of migrants registered for exit passes during the lockdown. ‘We fed them and gave them shelter; how can they leave now?’ What was unsaid was, who will clean our shit?

I recently made a documentary film about contemporary Goa, its unique local bread, pão and bakers. During the making of the film, whenever a Goan learnt about the subject of my documentary, it didn’t take long for a lament to begin about how migrant bakers have taken over the trade and that the taste of bread is not the same as before. Yes, Goans are leaving the traditional bakery trade, and migrants are filling in the void. In fact, one can argue that Goans receive their daily bread thanks to the migrant baker. There is no way that the handful of traditional bakers can cater to the steady demand for pão. In the course of my research, I met ‘native’ Goan bakers who had many complains about how difficult it is to find locals to work in the trade. Goans were just not interested in this labour-intensive work. Another common complaint was that Goan workers were unreliable thanks to the influence of that close Goan friend, alcohol. It’s not something talked about on camera. But the state’s former CM had no qualms about going on record accusing outsiders of taking over this heritage trade. Baking industry heads told me without hesitation that they are appealing to the government for sops, but only for ‘local bakers, not for outsiders’. Yes, the dark side, once again. 

Increasingly, this attitude is not restricted towards blue collared migrant workers. There is a growing disdain towards settlers in Goa – be it technicians, artists, business persons. Living in gentrified bubbles has not really helped the cause. That’s a topic for another day. As a theatre activist once said, ‘anyone who loves Goa and cares for Goa, is Goan’. 

The demographic tilt has made us Goans aware of our small fragile culture. I have heard many arguments about ‘the need for a push back’, ‘carrying capacity’ and so on. I believe we have to first decide what we want to be. Goans enjoy a slow pace of life, the afternoon siesta, the early wind-down to the work day. If that’s what we want, so be it. Let’s shape the state around it, build economic activities that suit this need. But we are also aware that we are sitting on a golden egg. And we are fast cashing on it, without any consideration for the repercussions of killing the goose. So as long as we don’t put our money where our mouth is, we will continue to show shades of the strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Pão the film

Bread_EPK copy

I’d like to share with you that I’m working on a documentary film about food, culture and migration. Goa’s bread, pão tells the story of a people and a place. The film, Pão, follows three stories in and around bakeries that make pão. Stories of very real people dealing with migration, changing culture, and the ever present need to earn a living in India’s sunshine state.

I teamed up with like-minded filmmakers to make this film. Shooting is complete and we are in the process of post production. To be able to do so, we need your support. We hope to inspire you to be part of the film by joining a crowdfunding campaign towards its completion.

Please click here for details It’s an all-or-nothing campaign (if the whole amount is not raised, your money is returned) that runs for a limited period. Every contribution of any amount will make a difference, so do consider supporting the film. And please do spread the word.

UPDATED to add: The crowdfunding campaign has been a resounding success. It’s been an inspiring journey to say the least. Do check out the film’s social media page for updates.





Of Shifting Sands

Goa’s traditional fishing community has seen huge changes over the last few decades – fishing practices, local engagement in the trade and the very beaches that were once the sole domain of the boats; its been a churning of sorts.

A documentary film made by yours truly in 2013 gives voice to the fishermen and woman from the tourist heavy coastal village of Calangute in north Goa – how they perceive themselves and the constantly changing world around them.

Honoured that the People’s Archive of Rural India has hosted the documentary on its online portal. Click here to watch the film.


Screen grab – PARI website


The hills are alive with the sound of music (with apologies to the film)

The popular electronic dance music festival, Sunburn might have moved out of Goa, but a music festival at the other end of the spectrum is finding its feet in the state. The Ketevan World Sacred Music Festival brings together musicians from the east and west with the aim of promoting the message of co-existence. The 2018 edition will be held from 28th February to 4th March. Here is a piece I wrote about last year’s festival. 

1_The 2016 edition of the festival_1

An earlier edition of the festival

Away from the busy main square in the historic town of Old Goa is a narrow winding road that leads up a small hill. It is home to sites of religious significance in the former capital of Portuguese Goa. Prominent among these are the ruins of the church of Saint Augustine, its crumbling tower looming high above its surroundings. Other structures include the recently renovated convent of Saint Monica. This is the area that plays host to the Ketevan World Sacred Music Festival.

As artistic director of the festival, Santiago Lusardi Girelli has a clear idea of what the festival aims to achieve. “It is not about the concept of sacred related to religion but (related) to that mystic thing that art should have and recover. In some way it is lost”. He added with a chuckle, “would you say that Beethoven’s piano sonata is sacred music? Here, they would say no, but I would say yes, it is scared”. Girelli, a professor of music at the University of Seville in southern Spain is the visiting music chair at Goa University. The founder of the Goa University choir spends five months a year in India and has been instrumental in putting together the festival. As he bit into a samosa and sipped a soda at 12 noon, his first meal of the day, his easy demeanor belied the stress that accompanies curating a festival of this scale. Musicians are being flown in from around the world and final permissions sought for performing spaces. Many historical sites in Old Goa fall under the preview of the Archeological Survey of India.

3_Santiago Lusardi Girelli

Santiago Lusardi Girelli

The name of the festival is inspired by the 16th century Georgian queen Ketevan. She was taken as prisoner to Persia after its ruler Shah Abbas captured the Georgian kingdom of Kakheti. She was later killed in captivity. Her arm bone was said to have been smuggled to Goa by Augustinians friars and buried in a tomb at the church of saint Augustine in Old Goa. Old Portuguese texts were studied to reveal the location of the bones. DNA testing suggests that the relic is probably of queen Ketevan.

An eclectic group of musicians have gathered for the festival. These include the Vandalia Vocal Ensemble from Spain; Goa’s noted Fado singer, Sonia Shirsat; Indian origin UK based pianist, Karl Luchtmayer. In performance will also be an intercultural ensemble featuring the Arabian oud, flamingo guitar along with the sitar. Girelli explained, “the idea is not to have fusion for the sake of it but to curate a festival. In the first edition, we had some big solos but now we are more focused on co-existence”. This is where Vasco Negreiros comes in. The professor at Aveiro University in northwest Portugal has worked for six months on an original musical composition for the festival. In Goa since November last, Negreiros talks about his first impressions of the former Portuguese territory. “I see plurality of cultural and religious influences in Goa. This is the most important part of the cantata”. The piece will include Latin verses based on Christian spirituality, Sanskrit text based on Indian philosophy. There will also be music representing modern Goa. “I have used verses that support the idea of generosity and tolerance. This is very important at this point in time in the world”.

4_Vasco Negreiros

Vasco Negreiros

All musicians live together for the duration of the festival. Performances are also held in schools, orphanages and old age homes across Goa. Symposiums are an integral part of the events. Scholar Sebanti Chatterjee believes that music research in the academic space is growing and a festival such as this provides a platform for exchange of ideas. “The festival is open-ended where connoisseurs, masters, emerging as well as established scholars come together and share their work”. Chatterjee who is researching on western classic music in Goa and Shillong added, “Goa has a tradition of western classic music so it is not surprising that the festival caught on but it is interesting to see how this space is being used by western and Indian musicians when they come together”.

I asked Girelli about the growing interest among western classical musicians for newer markets. He believes it is a two way street. “The market in Europe is very saturated, there are conservatories in small towns and cities so you have thousand of musicians. There is no place to work so they are going out – to Africa, Asia and some extent to South America. At the same time, in the age of globalization people want to enjoy concerts. The growing middle class in these new markets is asking for high standards of art be it music, cinema, fashion”.

2_The 2016 edition of the festival_2

An earlier edition of the festival

After he attended to a call regarding his next appointment, Girelli reiterates what the festival hopes to achieve. “Any art inspiration should be beautiful, true, good. Beautiful in the way of proportion, true in the way of the real expression of the human desire. Goodness is the idea that it should guide the audience to the divine spirit – you should feel improved after listening to a nice concert or nice piece of music. At the festival we have musical traditions – Carnatic, Christian, Sufi, Hindustani, Jewish. They are played together but the co-existence concept is not only about this. It is the co-existence of these three big concepts. We want to attempt to re-built the equilibrium again”.