The Political Contours of Goan Tiatr

Issue No: 120 In Goa, theatre has played a significant role in consolidating religious and linguistic public spheres for various Goan communities. For the working class Goan Catholic communities, it is Tiatr that has been a major mode through which they have negotiated and retain a distinct identity for themselves. Tiatr is arguably the most popular and economically successful theatre form that exists in Goa till date. Tiatr shows run throughout the years, at all major venues across Goa, often to full houses. In Margao, perhaps the epicenter of Tiatr’s popularity, a hall might feature three shows a day over the weekend, with the biggest hits running for more than 100 performances, or a “century,” as they say in showbiz here. Unlike Marathi and Konkani dramas, which often provide free tickets courtesy of sponsors, Tiatr sticks firmly to a business model where people pay for their own tickets. The world of Tiatr also gave birth to Konkani film scene, much popular Konkani music, and has more recently spawned a new development, where producers sell recordings of popular Tiatrs. These VCDs/DVDs cater to a demand among the Goan population overseas, and also to local audiences. These DVDs too have a great market and have brisk sales across Goa and is one of the most consumed form of Konkani cultural production. In digital space too, a Tiatr or a cantar (songs) shared on YouTube would have an average of 25,000-30,000 hits. While Tiatr is a popular form of theatre that caters to variety of tastes and expectations, I would like to bring to attention the intrinsically political nature of Tiatr, making it the most radical (and perhaps the only) form of political theatre in Goa. Let me elaborate.

Francis de Tuem, contemporary Tiatr performer known for his sharp political Tiatrs, performs a cantar in his Tiatr Reporter (2015) that begins with eulogizing Mother Teresa for her charity work and concludes with a critique of ‘Ghar Wapsi’. Francis’ cantar was written in response to the statements made by Mohan Bhagwat, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) leader, in June 2015 where Bhagwat had stated that Mother Teresa’s work was motivated by a desire to convert Indians to Christianity. This statement by Bhagwat was made around the same time when ‘Ghar Wapsi’, a series of religious conversion activities were being carried by Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and RSS in various part of India. The prime objective of ‘Ghar Wapsi’ was to (re)convert non-Hindus into Hinduism and had become a topic for emotionally charged public debate. Francis begins his cantar by making an allegory between a dog not knowing the value of a BMW car, as opposed to a Tata Nano and will irrespectively urinate on its wheels. He then draws parallels between the dog and the Indian leaders, such as Bhagwat, who do not understand the worth of the work that Mother Teresa has done for the orphans, refuting charges of ulterior motive laid on her by them. He further goes on to critique the myth that there were only Hindus in India before and that ‘we’ (referring to the Goan Catholic communities) were converted to Catholicism by the Portuguese. To the RSS and VHP, who sought to convert non-Hindus to Hinduism, Francis asks, ‘we are Kunbi[1] Catholics! Will you convert us to Bamon[2] Hindus? The Bamons do not allow lower caste Hindus to enter their temples, will you allow us [the Catholics] in your temples?’ He ends the cantar on a note that says ‘my forefather might have been converted by Portuguese but I have become a Catholic by my own choice. I guarantee that all Catholics in Goa will die but as Catholics’.

This is a very crucial counter that Francis poses to the narrative of Ghar Wapasi. It comes from the daily shaming of the Goan Catholic communities as ‘living under a colonial hangover’ or as ‘anti-nationals’ by those who claim affinity to Hindu nationalist rhetoric. This shaming has its antecedents in Goa’s colonial history and the way in which Portuguese colonial empire is seen in Goa and elsewhere. The presence of Catholics in Goa is always seen through the trope of religious conversions that Portuguese carried out in early 16th and the 17th century. What needs to be highlighted here is that the conversions are predominantly believed to be ‘forced’ onto the natives by the Portuguese missionaries. However, there is enough evidence to contest such rhetoric by exploring other possible reasons that initiated the native residents to convert to Catholicism. For the caste elites, conversion to Catholicism was a way to ensure of their hegemony over land and other resources. It also provided the Goan elites with access to jobs in the colonial administration. For those who belonged to the lower ranks of caste hierarchy, conversion promised a better position for the lower caste through engagement with the new occupations such as wine selling, baking, cooking pork, and learning western music, among other things.

Francis’ cantar not only reclaims agency from a lower caste Catholic identity, but also refutes the narrative that essentially renders Catholic communities as disenfranchised population in Goa. The last couplet of his cantar, however, is incisively telling of the trials and aspirations of Catholics in an otherwise proclaimed democratic polity of India. Adding to his line that he guarantees all Catholics in Goa will but die as Catholics, he makes an exception to Francis D’souza, who was a BJP MLA and the then deputy Chief Minister of Goa. After Goa’s then Chief Minister and BJP leader, Manohar Parrikar, was elevated as the Defence minister for India in July 2015, Dsouza, being a senior BJP leader and the deputy CM, was seen as the natural successor to assume the Chief Minister’s office. Dsouza, in the anticipation that he’d be elevated to the Chief Minister’s post, made the following statement in a press interview.

“India is a Hindu country. It is Hindustan. All Indians in Hindustan are Hindus, including me. I am a Christian Hindu.”

This comment by Dsouza received much ire from the public for which he later had to apologize. Francis de Tuem foregrounds this statement made by Dsouza to make a satirical remark on this act of aspired assimilation by embracing Hindu culture and refashioning oneself as a Christian Hindu. While it could be read as a political compulsion on the part of Francis Dsouza, there is an underlying tragedy to it. It exhibits how religious and caste minorities in Indian polity have to live with a double bind, where on one hand suspects their loyalty to the Indian nation and on the other hand are simultaneously called upon to actively participate in the workings of the secular nation-state, by asserting themselves as religious minorities (Menezes 2014). In Goa, the Catholics are summoned to maintain a distinct Goan identity which rests in large part on the Portuguese past of the territory. This distinct identity is called upon not merely by an officially approved tourism policy and practice, but also by local elites who use the claim of a distinct identity to cyclically generate local mass movements that help them maintain their dominance.  There is a simultaneous suggestion that this Catholic ‘cultural’ element is not compatible with a Goan and Indian identity (Almeida et al. 2013).

The counterdiscourses that make their way into the public imagination through Tiatr have the potential to influence mass opinions. Thus, there have been attempts to stifle the Tiatr artists for their sharp and incisive critique on the state. In February 2015, major news portals from Goa carried reports stating that the Goa Government, ruled by the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), was deliberating to set up a censor board for Tiatrs under an act titled “Goa licensing and controlling places of public amusement (other than cinema) and performances for public amusement, Rules 2015” that would review all stage productions, mainly Tiatrs, before they are allowed to be released. This news received instant criticism from Tiatr artists and audience and even some sitting members of the Goa Legislative Assembly. The plan to setup the censor board was eventually shunted following the criticism.

The need to censor Tiatrs was felt after a Tiatr produced by Tausif De Navelim titled “Akantwadi Goeant Naka” (We don’t want terrorists in Goa) opened to packed houses in Goa. The said Tiatr was based on Pramod Muthalik, the Chief of Karnataka based Hindu right wing organization, Shri Ram Sene (SRS), who had expressed his intentions to set up a SRS branch in Goa. Around the same time, Ravindra Bhavan, a state promoted art center and popular venue for Tiatr performances issued a draft circular which required Tiatr artists to submit their script prior to the performance for vetting and an official clearance. The move was hastily withdrawn, again under public pressure.

Later in November 2015, a mob, supposedly supporters of Francisco ‘Mickky’ Pacheco, a member of the legislative assembly, disrupted a Tiatr show under way at Ravindra Bhavan, Margao, taking exception to a cantar (song) in the Tiatr. Reports claimed that the protestors, numbering around 25, barged onto the stage minutes after singer Francis de Tuem had begun his song in the Tiatr Tuzo-i Dis Yetolo. The standoff between MLA Pacheco and Tiatrist Francis de Tuem, too, isn’t new but has antecedents in an event in August 2013 where Pachecho lodged a complaint against Francis citing charges of extortion and defamation. As a result of this, Francis de Tuem was arrested as he was entering the performance venue by cops in civilian clothes and booked under IPC Section 384 for extortion and Section 500 for defamation.

In March 2016, however, the same BJP led Goa Government’s Department of Information and Publicity held a ‘Konkani Cantaram Utsav’, a cantar singing competition in which the participants were asked to sing about the achievements of the current Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) led government. This competition attracted a lot of criticism, noticeably from the Tiatr community, questioning the government’s intentions behind organizing such a competition. Cantar competitions are usually held without any pre-decided themes and certainly not with a rule that prohibits participants from criticizing the government. On the contrary, one of the several requirements of a cantar is that of political sharpness. The Tiatr community almost boycotted this event as a mark of protest. A collective that identified itself as “Musical Warriors” gave a call to Tiatrist and cantarists to gather outside the said competition’s venue for a parallel cantar singing competition. This competition aimed at bringing forth the ‘truth’ about the last four years of BJP governance and their anti-people policies and schemes. Singers Francis de Tuem, Lawry Travasso, Marcus Vaz among others, gathered outside the competition venue and singing critiques of the BJP-led Goa government in a satirical cantar titled ‘Acche Din Aane Waale Hai’. This performative protest indicated that the Tiatrists will not compromise their political positions for state patronage, thus exhibiting an impeccable manifestation of a counterpublic.

The aforementioned incidents are indicative of the tension between the political dispensation and Tiatr in Goa where the former almost feels threatened by the latter. Pramod Kale, who perhaps is one of the few scholars to have academically engaged with the form of Tiatr, argues that Tiatr became a theatre for political protest only after Goa was merged with the Indian Union. He writes

The plots of Tiatr plays have generally championed the cause of the poor and the downtrodden, of the powerless against the powerful, of the Mundkar (tenant) against the Bhatkar (landlord). This might be considered a natural extension of the Christian ideals of compassion. In political terms, however, this never extended to the conflict between the rulers and the ruled. Before 1961, Tiatr was never a theatre of political protest. Tiatr and Tiatrists, during the colonial rule, accepted the Portuguese rulers and the special benefits accrued to being citizens of Portuguese Goa. The period between the first and second world war was a period of growing fascism and isolationism for Portugal and its colonies. The Colonial Act passed by Salazar’s government in 1930 was a regressive measure which made Goans second class citizens. It brought about a wave of protest and nationalism amongst the Goan intellectuals of Bombay. One does not, however, find any reflection of this in the world of Tiatr. For the majority of Goans in Goa and other places, a sense of placid serenity prevailed-the key factors contributing to it were said to be “Fatima, Fado and Football”‘ The stance of Tiatrists was so pro-Establishment in political terms, that during the period of escalating tensions between the Indian and Portuguese government in the 1950s, some prominent Tiatrists carried on anti-Indian propaganda in Bombay and there were instances the Indian government had to expel some of them to Goa. The propagandists of Goa Radio under Portuguese took full advantage of the talent of these and other popular artists to broadcast skits and songs attacking the designs of the Government of India against Catholic Goa. Since liberation in 1961 things have changed in this respect. Tiatr now has a growing element of political protest as well as social protest. The cantarists who receive most applause is those who lampoon politics and politicians (Kale 1986).

The limitation of such articulation is that Kale does not consider staging of Tiatrs that champion the cause of ‘poor and downtrodden’ or that narratives with anti-feudal overtones as political acts. Moreover, such articulation unmistakably reads akin to the Indian nationalist narrative that subtly positions the ‘non-Hindu’ for collaborating with the colonizers and being complicit in the process of sustaining colonialism. The Indian nationalist undertones of Kale’s arguments are further made visible in the manner in which he records the change in the nature of political protest staged through Tiatr, ie post the claims of ownership on Goa were being contested between India and Portugal. Here, Kale seems to suggest that Tiatr was complacent to launch any critique of the Portuguese colonial occupation in Goa but was quick to launch an ‘anti-India’ propaganda; subsequently shifting to become a theatre of political protest only after Goa’s merger with the Indian Union.

This observation by Kale is does not fully capture the manner in which Tiatr manifests as a theatre political protest. Instead, if we consider Tiatr performances being a mode to create and disseminate counterdiscourse, one can realize that staging and performing protest is inherently built into the structures of Tiatr. Since the early days, Tiatr artists have brought to fore narratives that speak of caste and labor exploitation through feudal hierarchies. Pai Tiatrist’s ‘Batcara’ (Landlord), premiered in 1904 (with its sequel in 1911) was one such Tiatr that is well known for its sharp critique of caste system and feudalism prevailing within Goa then. The tagline for ‘Batcara’ read ‘the curse of caste’. In the preface of Batcara’s published script, Pai Taitrist narrated his experience of his visit to Goa where he felt ashamed to realize the deep entrenchment of caste in Goan Catholic communities. As a devout Catholic, he asks ‘are we really living a life in keeping with the principles prescribed by Jesus?’ in response to having witnesses the strong presence of caste system within the Goan Catholics. This experience, as he writes, led him to write Batcara. Here, one can see the continuity between Pai Tiatrist’s critique of caste system from his subject position as a Goan Catholic to de Tuem’s cantar on Ghar Wapasi written from the subject position of a lower caste Goan Catholic.

While the aforementioned cantar on Gharwapsi by de Tuem can be considered as an immediate response to the socio-political events happening around, Tiatr as a mode of counterdiscourse works beyond the immediacy of the given situation. Over the years, it has also become the mode in which the Goan Catholic communities have constructed alternative versions of their socio-cultural history from their own and an uncompromising perspective. For instance, it would be helpful to look at two Goan political leaders, Dr. Jack Sequeira and Dayanand Bandodkar and their respective portrayal in Tiatr and in the mainstream narratives of history. The popular narrative of Goan history escalates Bandodkar as a leader of masses while Sequeira’s role in Goan politics is inadequately discussed. But in cantaram, one finds an inversion of this narrative where Sequeira is celebrated for his definitive role during the Opinion Poll in 1967 while Bandodkar is subjected to sharp criticism for wanting to merge Goa with Maharashtra.

Reinelt argues that counterpublics, formed in concert with other political factors to contest the mainstream bourgeoisie public spheres, change the face of the socio-political self-representation of the nation and its citizens and therefore create new sites for democratic struggle within reach. Tiatr exemplifies creation of such ‘sites’ for a consistent struggle, and perhaps embodies the promise of a true democracy. Simultaneously, it resists the nation’s attempt to homogenize histories of its people.

Notes

[1] An native community notified under Scheduled Tribes category, but it is important to note that Francis here implies a broader subaltern Catholic population by invoking the Kunbi identity.

[2] Bamon, in Goa, is a colloquial Konkani term used to refer to the Gaud Saraswat Brahmins.

 

References

  • Almeida, Albertina, Amita Kanekar, Dale Luis Menezes, Jason Keith Fernandes, and Benedito Rodney Ferrao. 2013. “Common Sense and Hindu Nationalism – Why the Catholics in Goa Are Not Hindu.” Kafila.org. https://kafila.org/2013/09/16/common-sense-and-hindu-nationalism-why-the-catholics-in-goa-are-not-hindu-albertina-almeida-others/.
  • Kale, Pramod. 1986. “Essentialist and Epochalist Elements in Goan Popular Culture A Case Study of Tiatr.” Economic and Poltical Weekly XXI (47).
  • Menezes, Dale Luis. 2014. “The ‘double Bind’ of Minority Identity.” oHeraldo, August 5.
  • Reinelt, Janelle G. 2011. “Rethinking the Public Sphere for a Global Age.” Performance Research 16 (2): 16–27.

Kaustubh Naik has recently completed his Masters in Performance Studies from the School of Culture and Creative Expressions, Ambedkar University Delhi. He is a recipient of the D.D. Kosambi Junior Research Fellowship for a research project on 20th century Goan print and theatre history. 

One thought on “The Political Contours of Goan Tiatr

  1. I am Mumbai-based theatre critic. I would know more about this group and when is group performing and where?
    avinash kolhe

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