What Wisdom Should We Carry Forward from Our Past?
Updated: Sep 21, 2022
Parindey: Victor Hugo Gomes
Alivelihood: Conservation and Restoration
Region: Benaulim, South Goa, Goa
“We were six siblings, and in the cupboard that was intended to hold my father’s import material, my mother filled the six shelves—there were exactly six—with our toys.” Toys were one thing that Victor’s mother had never passed on from one child to the next. Instead, she had collected and stored each child’s toys on distinct shelves, with the oldest child’s on the top shelf and so on until the bottom shelf held the toys of the youngest. If one’s eyes were to travel down this cupboard, they would notice a gradual change: wooden toys; toys made of wood and metal; metal toys; plastic toys. “As I grew older, I came to observe the drastic change that was taking place around us. That is when I truly acknowledged and understood what my mother had done. And I am the same,” says Victor Hugo Gomes—a collector, curator, restorer, storyteller, artist, and conservationist.
“When I was little, I collected speakers and other machines, broke them apart and put them together.” This fascination for collecting and restoring objects remained throughout his childhood and youth in Goa, and it only grew when he went to study “Experimental transitions in the world of art” in Lucknow on a Lalit Kala Akademi scholarship. There, he got the opportunity to accompany a researcher studying tribal art and lifestyles on his travels across northern India. This journey helped Victor understand the value of the work and skills that an artisan dedicates to creating an artefact and the significance of the materials used. Soon after, Victor completed a course conducted by the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage on the restoration and conservation of art.
At this juncture, he received a proposal from Mario Miranda—one of Goa’s most prized artists—to set up the Museum of Christian Art in Goa. Victor accepted this opportunity, gave up his scholarship, and returned to Goa. When he set up this museum in his early 20s, Victor had never previously seen a museum. The museum still stands today as a significant part of Goa’s heritage museums. Although Victor later resigned from curating it, the experience made him aware of the heritage that Goa was throwing away for “modernisation.” He had observed that ancient household artefacts and religious depictions crafted using wood or metal were being sold at throwaway prices. His passion to collect “became an obsession” when he realised the need to preserve Goa’s heritage.
However, when Victor had returned home from Lucknow, he found that the room that was once filled with all his collections, was empty. His parents had burnt it all, assuming that it was waste. Victor does not blame them; he calls this his turning point of becoming a collector. “There is a time in everyone’s life when their purpose is most tested. That incident was when I passed mine because although it broke my heart and most people would have completely abandoned collecting at that juncture, I did not.”
He would collect artefacts and keep several of them in his house. “When people visited, they would say to me, ‘you should start a museum.’ It never occurred to me then. I was just doing this because I loved it.” Once, after a long chase and many heartbreaks, Victor managed to acquire a ghano (oil grinder) that is now out of use in Goa. As it was large and also needed to be rooted to the ground, he made space for it in his garden. When the monsoons approached, he built a shed to protect it. “As I placed more and more items beside the ghano, the shed just kept on extending, and Goa Chitra came to be.” Goa Chitra, a combination of ‘Goa’ and ‘pictures’, is a collection of three ethnographic museums—Goa Chitra, which celebrates the people’s connection with their land; Goa Chakra, a collection of non-mechanized vehicles from across country and time; and Goa Cruti, a colonial testimony to the objects introduced by the Portuguese in Goa. Apart from these houses of heritage, a cafeteria, an art gallery, an organic spice garden, and a farm are integral parts of this thirty-acre expanse of land.
Even back in Lucknow, a city whose tongue he barely spoke and whose culture he did not fit into, Victor had not stopped collecting. In its streets, he once happened to pass by an old gypsy cart that appeared ready to bite the dust, and was mesmerised. He immediately struck a deal with the owner of the cart; a deal that would one day be the genesis of an entire collection. They had agreed at ₹70,000 for the cart. At that time, Victor’s scholarship amount, also his sustenance, was just ₹2,000 a month. It took him seventeen years of paying in small instalments to complete the payment, following which in 2014, the gypsy cart travelled a long way by train to a new land and a new man. It arrived in bad shape, broken by the jolts of the journey. Bit by bit, Victor pieced it back together until it was restored to dignity; this was the beginning of Goa Chakra.
Victor simply chased his curiosity for Goa’s olden ways and paid from his own pocket for everything he found. He often did not have the money required, compelling him to pay an advance and request the owners to take care of the objects until he could buy them. Even today, there are several things that he wishes to collect but cannot afford. Some funds that have been sanctioned to Goa Chitra by the State have been pending for a long time, and he hopes to receive those. “It is not easy; I am self-funded. I am not even registered as an NGO or non-profit. I run these museums not as spaces where one comes to see the dead, reads labels, and moves on but as collections of pieces that have an extensive story to tell and are living odes to our material heritage and culture.” Victor believes that museums in India need “urgent reform,” stressing on the need to document the narrative behind an object.
Sometimes, visitors to the museum question the entry charges, not realising the effort that goes into taking care of the artefacts within. Apart from hard labour, their care involves immense dedication and patience because most of them are crafted using natural materials and, therefore, are perishable. “We are just prolonging their death by keeping them here for a little longer so that the world can see what once used to be. They too will eventually go back to the soil. I feel that this is an old-age home and my role here is to be their caretaker.”
The impact of Victor’s work is evident from the words of Pantaleão Fernandes, an ethnographer, who writes, “As (Victor) guided me around the exhibition area, contrasting emotions began surfacing from my being. Feelings of happiness and sadness tried to emerge simultaneously. Anger and a sense of peace fought each other. Outrage and satisfaction tried to reign within... (Victor has) escorted the dead or dying treasures of Goa and placed them in a temple with dignity and honour.”
Goa Chitra would frequently host cultural activities such as book readings, music performances by jazz artists from across the country, artist retreats, etc. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted them severely, and Victor is steadily working to revive this vibrant cultural hub. Further, he is dedicating his efforts to opening more museums that showcase Goa’s distinct flavours. One such adventure that is already open is a museotel exhibiting his collection of seashells, boats, and all things ocean, which is located about 20 km south of Benaulim, where Goa Chitra resides.
Victor feels hopeful about the younger generation. He observes them questioning things and feels that they are beginning to appreciate the value of things and not simply moving with the herd. “I wish to see more youngsters and more discerning travellers visiting this space.” Victor aims to convey the importance of recognising and carrying on the wisdom—or the “intangible heritage”—of the older generation. For instance, he describes how earlier, the potter communities would dig up silt from streams to compensate for the soil that they extracted from the land for making pots. Through this practice, they also cleaned the streams and made the land fertile for cultivation. He hopes for Goa Chitra to be a centre of education where one can learn about such sustainable traditional practices that are today considered alternatives.
Victor Hugo Gomes can be reached at: email@example.com