It was my maiden attempt in driving through Panjim to Old Goa. Following the GPS route on my iPhone, I drove through expansive highways built over vast tracts of scenic landscape, turning off the highway to traverse quaint Old Goa roads. Google maps are great but sometimes unpredictable. I reached a point where I was uncertain where to turn. I pressed the button to turn down my car window and asked a passing nun for directions to the convent of Santa Monica. I was here to see Madhavi Parekh’s reverse paintings on acrylic depicting various themes from the life of Christ. The nun said “turn left and go up, it’s just there, behind you ” And it was.
Partially concealed by foliage, as I backed up, did a U turn, turning to my left, I came upon a large convent which apparently once lodged over one hundred nuns, and is reputedly Asia’s first and largest convent that was built in the early seventeenth century (1606-1627), taking 21 years to complete. It is dedicated to Santa Monica, the mother of St. Augustine. An early Christian theologian and philosopher whose writings influenced the development of Western Christianity and philosophy, Augustine was the bishop of Hippo Regius located in Numidia in the Roman province of Africa. His approach to philosophy and theology was experimental and original in its thinking such that, when the Western Roman Empire began to disintegrate, Augustine devised the concept of the Church as a “spiritual City of God,” distinct from the material Earthly City. His far-reaching influence is seen all over the world, and standing beside the convent of Santa Monica in Old Goa, is an Augustinian monastery, once the grandest and most famous of all churches in the region. Built when Augustinians arrived in Old Goa, towards the end of 16th century, a portion of the Monastery collapsed in 1942. However, it remains a recognisable and much visited structure of Old Goa.
I parked my car under an old and crumbling archway, and walked into the church of Santa Monica which is attached to the convent. I was as intrigued as I was uncertain about viewing art works inside a church, but entered the portals to find that a portion of the church had been converted into the Museum of Christian Art, and it was here, in the nave preceding the museum, where once cloistered nuns attended mass, shielded from the public and priests, that Madhavi Parekh’s reverse-acrylic paintings were displayed. The main altar of the church is dedicated to Santa Monica and there is also an altar dedicated to Christ. This Chapel of the ‘Weeping Cross’ is legendary. The statue is reputed to be miraculous and it is said that on 8th February 1636, which was the second Friday of Lent, this statue of Christ opened its eyes and blood flowed down from the crown of thorns placed upon his head. The statue has since been held in great veneration with its feast celebrated on the last Sunday, in each November. The Chapel of the Weeping Cross has recently been meticulously restored, at a cost of a whopping seventy-two lakh rupees, or thereabouts.
In the foot of the nave of the church in the convent of Santa Monica, the black, white and sepia toned polyptych of ‘The Last Supper’, painted by Madhavi Parekh looked absolutely stunning. We were reminded, by Natasha from the museum, of the significance of this meal, just days before the annual forty day fasting for Lent. And I was taken back in time, some forty years, to my days in a Loreto Convent school where, as senior students, we were required to go on a short retreat during the period of Lent. We didn’t abstain from food but were to remain silent, and cloistered with clergy were schooled in the teachings of Christ. I don’t remember feeling any benefits from these annual retreats in the last two years of school, but in recent years keeping a maunvrat, has helped me, as has the ritual of fasting. In fact, on 27th February, the day the show opened, I had maintained my weekly day of fasting.
Over the years, I’ve found that religious rituals, for me, have transcended boundaries of organised religion. I’m not sure what came from which, or how much the Catholic nuns have or haven’t influenced my thinking. But, as I revisit Christian thought and ideas, living in and discovering Goa, I’m beginning to realise that rituals which I now practice have their moorings in almost all religions. And when I asked Madhavi, how she’d come to explore these painted themes about Christ, she told me that on her travels across the world, she was moved by the struggles and betrayal of Christ which she found in churches and other historic sites that she had visited. She was moved enough by his story and the fervour and passion inspired by the teachings of Christ, in the Christian world, to set aside her penchant for painting Durga and Kali to narrate how Christ came visiting her village and other themes drawn from the life of Christ. Thick, jagged, uneven, black strokes with minimal lines draw the faces and forms, while basically primary colours add to the starkness of the narrative and enhance its emotive content.
It was unusual to look at paintings standing in odd corners and at uneven heights. If the works had been any less dramatic, the high ceilings, ornately painted pillars and floor-to-ceiling filled with statues in the church and altar, would have overpowered the art-works, but Parekh’s brush held its own. The story of Christ came alive, in keeping with the miracle of the ‘Weeping Cross’. Although no blood was shed our eyes and minds were indeed opened by the dominant black lines and vibrant colours, a vivid contrast to the subtler hues on ageing statues, a Portuguese-style clay-tiled, higher than high roof and the sanctity of a much-revered church. Revisiting the suffering caused by ignorance and its betrayal through Christ and his life, as depicted by Madhavi Parekh in her inimitable naïve, folk-style painted imagery, became a poignant reminder that in our intolerant times people are still being crucified by bigots and fanatics who choose to worship ignorance in the name of religion.