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”.

Chacha on the mountains


The weak setting sun cast long shadows as we stumbled out of the marshrukta and stretched out after a long cramped ride. The sheer beauty of Mestia lifted our sagging spirits. Snow capped mountains in the not so distant horizon, a sky painted with sunset hues and a cool nip in the air lent a dreamy quality to the evening.

Our flight – on a 16-seater propeller plane – from the Georgian capital of Tbilisi to mountainous Mestia almost 500 kilometers away had been cancelled earlier that day due to bad weather. Most of us passengers were squeezed into the only available bus, locally called marshrukta, for the cross-country journey.

It was in a little park that doubled up as the town centre in Mestia that we met him. My  travel companions and I were looking for a driver to take us to our B&B. He patiently listened to directions from our host over the phone. “The ride is short”, he said handing back the phone. “I won’t charge you”. We thanked him profusely, pleasantly surprised by the gesture. All this communicated via an intermediary as we did not understand each other’s language. Tall and of generous built, he had to bend himself to get into the SUV. A short and silent but bumpy drive later, we were at Rosa’s.

Rosa runs an excellent B&B. She is a gracious host and the meals are wholesome. She set us up in the brand new wing of her homestay where we spent the rest of the evening soaking in the silence and gazing at snow capped mountains. Mestia is nearly 5,000 feet high in the Caucasus mountain range in northern Georgia. It serves as a base for mountaineers – from rookies to alpinists, trekkers to off-roaders. This has given rise to a booming real estate industry, from hotels near gushing gorges to backyard tents advertising wifi services. “It’s not the same as before”, hankered some old timers.

Next morning, after a leisurely breakfast of local cheese, eggs and mince rolls, we headed to the city centre. He was standing by his vehicle, shooting the breeze with other taxi drivers, waiting for that one big job that would allow them to take the rest of the day off. This time we asked his name. Mamuk it was. My partner and I decided to trek while our friends asked Mamuk to drive them to the base of a nearby mountain. Improvised sign language again.

A couple of hours later the long trek was abandoned due to an overestimation of fitness levels. We dragged ourselves back to the park. Mamuk raised his eyebrows and used his fingers to indicate walking (as we had done earlier). My partner panted hard for effect. Mamuk nodded sagely. He drove us to our friends.

As we were all returning down a curvaceous road a few hours later, my friend was narrating how Mamuk loaned her money at the cable car ticket counter when she struggled to find the right currency in her cavernous backpack. Just then, we were brought to the present as Mamuk said, ‘chacha’ in a questioning tone. Chacha is the highly potent Georgian brew made of grapes. Assuming he’ll take us to a local bar, we nodded vigorously. But Mamuk had something more immediate in mind. He slowed down and veered the vehicle off road as we watched in curious silence.

1_Chacha with Mamuk

With the ease of an often-executed ritual, Mamuk pried a plastic bottle from below his seat. It shimmered with the golden liquid. He bend down again and unearthed another plastic bottle, this one empty. Using a penknife to prise off its neck, he fashioned a cup of sorts. We watched in silent fascination he as poured out a generous peg for each of us. It was strong for sure. We shared some happy banter, each speaking his/her own language. A conscientious driver, Mamuk refrained from drinking. Later in the evening, Mamuk, Rosa’s husband and my partner had an impromptu chacha session at the gate of the B&B where Mamuk more than made up for the earlier restraint. In true Georgian style many toasts were raised and histories of respective families exchanged.

And thus the ice was broken. Mamuk become our designated driver for the next few days, sportingly accommodating our myriad requests. He did turn grumpy when we asked him to drive us to Ushguli one evening. At 7000 feet, it is Europe’s highest inhabited village, a cluster of hamlets. 50 kilometers from Mestia, it can be reached via a winding road with mountains on one side and the Enguri river – fast flowing through a gorge – on the other. Although Mamuk generously packed a couple of large loafs of flat bread and beverages for us all, he kept shaking his head as day turned to pitch darkness. It felt as though we were driving into nothingness. A few lights twinkled in the distance as we reached Ushguli. It was a misty and rainy night. We discovered that our homestay was at the far end of the last hamlet. Mamuk politely refused our host’s offer for a meal. With a wave of a hand, he turned around and drove back into the mist. Our guilt overrode our hunger.

5_Drive along the river

If Mestia has established itself as a base for travellers, Ushguli is slowly but surely waking up to the benefits of a tourist economy. The road we had traveled on was built only a few years ago. It had made travel deep into the Greater Caucasus Mountain Range more accessible. Most homes doubled up as B&Bs. The more prosperous locals built additional rooms to cater to the influx of summer tourists. This does not take away from Ushguli’s beauty, yet. Medieval Svan towers dot the village and low floating clouds cast shadows on surrounding mountains. The base of the Shkhara glacier is nearby. Let me rephrase that. It’s a three hours trek and we hired a ride halfway. The route offered a delicious skyline and gorgeous vistas – snow capped mountains, shoulder length flora of myriad colors coupled with gushing streams. As we neared the glacier, loose rocks made for tricky maneuvering. We were rewarded for our hard work with comfort food lovingly prepared by our host, Lidya. Thick soup, homemade bread, fresh salad and a meat preparation accompanied by local wine kept us warm – it might have been summer but for us tropical birds, 12 degrees was cold. On learning of our Indian roots, Lidya fashioned a perfect namaste. She was not immune to the charms of Hindi soap operas broadcast on local channels, dubbed in Svan, of course.

4_Children of Ushguli-2

After a few days of wandering aimlessly, soaking in the sun whenever it showed itself and meeting adventurers – each with an interesting tale to tell – it was time to head back. Our host’s daughter was on a summer break from the University of Tbilisi so we requested her help to call up Mamuk. We were quick to specify that he pick us up in broad daylight. This time he took up on our hosts’ offer for a beverage. He was back to his usual self, indulgently halting along the way to allow us to gather souvenirs – pieces of smooth slate dislodged from the mountain.

Our last ride with Mamuk was to the city of Zugdidi, 130 kilometers from Mestia. We drove down the winding road along the Enguri river as it rushed breathlessly towards the Black Sea, only to be slowed down by the Enguri dam. It was befitting that our last journey with Mamuk involved chacha. We had stopped at a viewing point of sorts to have a closer look at the river. Out on a picnic were a few locals feasting on watermelon. There were a couple of plastic bottles by their side, shimmering with the golden liquid.  Improvised sign language and chacha toasts were the order of the day. Once again Mamuk did not drink but he graciously accepted a plastic bottle with some of the brew. A nightcap perhaps?

We parted ways with the river and continued inland to Zugdidi to catch the overnight train to Tbilisi. Day had turned to night as we reached the railway station. While my partner and Mamuk headed off to buy food for the journey, my friend typed out a thank you message on the Google translate app. As he read the Georgian translation, Mamuk smiled and said goodbye with a nod and a wave. We entered the station, melancholic that our time in the mountains had come to an end but happy to have crossed paths with Mamuk. Drinking chacha would never be the same again.