perspectives HISTORY

A Wrinkle in Time

An artwork invokes the uneasy history of caste and religious conversions in Goa

By dale luis menezes | 1 April 2018

Caste Thread, an exhibit by the artist Kalidas Mhamal, currently on display at the Museum of Goa, makes heavy use of symbolism. It consists of a series of five mannequin torsos, hung on five separate wooden blocks. Each of the torsos has a janave, with a key hung on it. The janave, known in Hindi as janeu, is the caste thread that Brahmin and savarna men wear as a sign of their privelege and high birth. The torsos also have a rosary around their necks, and a painted symbol or motif: from left to right, Goan pork sausages, a lit matchstick, a pão, a Band-Aid and a glass of red wine. The wooden blocks from which the torsos are hung display a set of names, Hindu and Christian, suggesting a transition from one religion to another.

Caste Thread evokes a period of Goan history that witnessed the establishment of Portuguese sovereignty over parts of present-day Goa, and the conversion of Brahmins, amongst others from various castes, to Christianity. The message from the artwork is clear: caste privileges did not disappear with the change in religion. However, the imagery deployed in the artwork to make this point uses a narrative of the history of conversions in Goa that is not only inaccurate, but serves the purpose of the state’s socially dominant groups. Mhamal’s critique of Brahminism is compromised by a Brahminical reading of history.

For many Goans, the state’s history begins with the arrival of the Portuguese, followed by conquest and religious conversions. This four-and-a-half-century-long period contains alternating phases of oppression and cultural efflorescence, with those of oppression being much more dominant. However, this narrative is based more on family lore and myth than credible archival data, and it produces a skewed understanding of Goan history and identity. Mhamal’s installation, on its surface a critique of caste privilege, is implicated in this narrative.

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Dale Luis Menezes is a PhD student at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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