Experiments in cultural negotiation

PAULO ANTÔNIO PEREIRA PINTO

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‘We have shaken 500 years of dust that had settled over a shared colonial past. Brazil and Goa should celebrate together, given the huge similarities in their geographies, people and Portuguese ancestors.’1

AS a diplomat, I have always considered it part of my business to search for similarities between peoples of various backgrounds and regions around the world. Their differences, however, are easier to identify. My position as the first Brazilian Consul General in Mumbai and Goa, from 2006 to 2009, presented me with challenges and rewards as my beliefs were tested in practice. These experiments in ‘cultural negotiation’ were also an exercise in the promotion of Brazilian ‘soft power’ in India.

India is part of the imaginary of every Brazilian child since primary school, when they study about the discovery of Brazil. According to the official versions of history in Brazil, the Portuguese came to our shores as they were searching for a sea route to India, via the South Atlantic.

Nonetheless, Brazil is much better known in Goa due to our shared Portuguese colonial past. Brazil is also known in other parts of India for its achievements as five time soccer world cup champions and for the popular celebration called the Carnival.

I was therefore honoured and excited to be invited to contribute to a special issue on India and the Lusosphere for Seminar, a Delhi-based monthly magazine, to write about my experience of ‘cultural negotiation’ between Brazil and India.

This invitation highlighted that the purpose was to bring together authors that could explore the diversity of relations that link India to the Lusosphere world (the countries that speak Portuguese). ‘As this year marks the 50th anniversary of the end of the Portuguese state of India (Goa), we hope this issue of Seminar will move beyond the conventional debates about 1961 and explore India’s wider connections with other Portuguese speaking countries, regions and communities. The Lusosphere should be of immense interest to India from the socio-cultural to the economic and diplomatic angles, and we hope this issue will highlight these opportunities of "engagement".’

 

My prompt reaction to the invitation was to say: ‘Yes, I can’, for I was involved first hand in the fascinating processes of cultural negotiations between Brazil and Goa within the framework of our common Portuguese colonial heritage. Those were, without a doubt, ‘unconventional’ approaches, but they produced quite remarkable results.

 

Some of the concrete results of the linkages between both cultures were: (a) In 2007, a comic book publication was developed by the Brazilian Consulate in Mumbai called, ‘Discovery of Brazil’, which was presented in a very ‘Indianized’ format, and (b) in 2008, there was the first Brazilian participation in the Goa Carnival.

Before these projects could be put into practice, an intense period of preparation took place. It was developed thanks to a creative partnership established between the Consulate General of Brazil in Mumbai and St. Xavier’s College in that major city of India.

During 2007, activities were held in St. Xavier’s College comparing the Brazilian and Indian cultures, depicting similarities between both. Such initiatives were not mere school ventures, or displays of dance, music and photos meant to entertain and distract, nor were they isolated events, with a limited and short-term impact.

There was a strong determination to consolidate the concept of ‘BrasIndia’, as an ongoing process, a cultural negotiation, a laboratory of cross-cultural experiences. Its reach was wider and deeper, reaching into the social and cultural realms. An attempt to establish an intercultural dialogue between the peoples of two countries who share values at many different levels. It aimed at promoting contacts between people or groups of people from both societies, establishing dynamic networks of exchange and interaction.

The preparations and organization for this venture in itself provided the necessary framework for an important experience: the opportunity of learning and to establish a relationship of mutual respect between people from different cultures. In fact, this learning process implied that there were frequent cultural negotiations through different activities in the organization of each event.2

 

Although other interactive activities, such as comparing images from both countries under themes such as street celebrations, urban similarities, street culture, foods, spices, arts and crafts, tribal peoples, mythologies and forms of worship were important in the process of mutual knowledge and research of common values, it was the workshop on dance which aimed to compare dances between Brazilian and Indian female deities that best portrayed and synthesized the spirit of BrasIndia – the effort to understand, to compare and to bond.

 

After months of practice, discussion and efforts to combine, compare and complement movements, rhythms and gestures, facial and body expressions of both our cultures, as well as their symbolic meanings, a student of classical Indian dance and a Brazilian dancer finally arrived at a common ground. Through further sharing and brainstorming, they discovered that ‘water’ was a common and extremely important element of both Indian and Afro-Brazilian mythology. They also learnt from each other that water was associated with the feminine principle, both in Brazil and India. They then chose to perform a water goddess dance in which the Indian dancer had chosen movements from both the fish-eyed goddess and from the creation of the Ganga (Ganges) river dance and the Brazilian dancer had synthesized movements from various Brazilian water deities such as Iemanjá, Iara, Mãe dágua and Oxum.

As a result of a deeply involving and emotional process, but not without some strife and disagreement, it happily ended in harmony and in a final blending of body and soul. A choreography with the fusion of elements of the two cultures was created. The result of this bonding, of this intense process of establishing dialogues of the body and of the mind, was an almost perfect synchronism of movements and a dance in which the bodies of both dancers naturally flowed in effortless unison. The Indian dancer performed a Brazilian dance as the Brazilian dancer performed an Indian dance. For a moment their identities were fused into celebrating BrasIndia.

The follow up of this process was the creation of a comic book on the Discovery of Brazil. This was edited by the Consulate and launched at the end of 2007. The original comic book, published in Portuguese in Brazil during the 1970s, was redesigned and reinterpreted by an Indian art student. The story was then retold in an Indianized manner, drawing on a common Portuguese colonial past in South India. After all, when Cabral discovered Brazil, he thought he had reached an unknown part of India and, therefore, called the natives of the newly discovered land ‘Indians’.

 

The story of The Discovery of Brazil takes place in the 15th century at the time of the Great Navigations when sailing the seas required great courage. The world was considered flat and only Europe, Africa and Asia were known to date. Whatever was an unexplored and mysterious region was referred to as ‘the Sea of Darkness’, believed by the Europeans to be inhabited by sea monsters and other terrifying supernatural beings who would lure seamen into its dark waters. It was even believed that the ‘end of the world and hell itself were there.’

Nevertheless, Pedro Álvares Cabral, as Captain of a Royal Portuguese fleet, ventured out to sail the seas through the new route to India – the original route was discovered by Vasco da Gama in 1492 – and helped minimize the Venetian’s control of the Mediterranean route to India in search of spices. However, Cabral lost his way and his ships strayed away from the African shores. When he finally reached land, on 22 April 1500, he thought he had arrived in India.

The adaptation of this comic book was an attempt at depicting the similarities that exist between Brazil and India, such as a common heritage, through the Portuguese colonization of Brazil and Goa. This edition also shows that when the Portuguese arrived in the New World, there was already an existing native culture, which itself plays an important role even in today’s Brazil, a country of multiple heritages.

During the process of depicting cultural similarities, in order to organize the comic book, we came to know that Portuguese is currently spoken in Goa by an older generation, that it is still the language of tradition and is used on special occasions such as official proposals of marriage. Even Konkani, the local language, is sprinkled with Portuguese words such as ‘sossegad’ (sossegado) ‘pacienc’, (paciência) ‘feijoada’ and ‘sorpotel’ (sarapatel).

 

The next step in this cultural dialogue was to take part at the 2008 Goa Carnival. This celebration has happened in that Indian state since the 18th century under Portuguese influence. As in Brazil, these festivities are dedicated to the ‘King Momo’ and start on a Saturday which, according to the same Brazilian calendar, Catholics celebrate the resurrection of Christ and pay obedience to a period of forty days before Easter day.

The Goan celebrations also reflect Hindu influences, with dancing on the streets while preserving African colourfulness due to a strong heritage of Mozambicans slaves who were brought to that part of India during the Portuguese colonial period (Mozambique was also a former Portuguese colony in the Eastern coast of Africa, and a stopover for Portuguese ships on their way to India). According to local stories, Carnival, during the 19th century, was a period of relaxation. During these celebrations, the Portuguese ‘landlords’ would play with their slaves, throwing white flour on them, who in exchange would imitate their owner’s habits. All this would happen, however, within the limits of a framework of social behaviour that dictated the owner-slave relationship.

Carnival in Goa has since been preserved for centuries as a popular celebration, where people of different cultures – Portuguese, Hindus and Africans – dance together on the streets. It is difficult to understand why Brazil had not taken advantage of this opportunity to make use of our soft power to strengthen cultural cooperation with India.

 

In February 2008, however, this situation changed with the initiative of the Brazilian Consulate General in Mumbai to participate in the Goan carnival. As the Portuguese had introduced the carnival to the Goans, the Goans had missed out on the Brazilian connection. This link came alive in 2008, with the Brazilians showcasing to the Goans their creative talents and dancing skills. In a historic description, the Brazilians made their entry into a Goan carnival celebration first, embracing the Goan float parade.

The Brazilian participation introduced the theme ‘The Discovery of Brazil: Common Heritage – Cooperation for the Future’, which followed the script adopted by the above mentioned comic book. The purpose was that our participation should showcase the Brazil-India common heritage and, through this event, foster future cooperation.

In addition to members of the staff of our consulate, twenty Brazilian citizens, residents in Mumbai and Goa, as well as 40 Indian nationals, took part in the Brazilian samba group. Months before our participation in the Goan carnival parade, several workshops were organized in order to discuss themes such as common Indian-Brazilian mythology, including legends shared by Brazilian natives and Hindu beliefs of human beings having their origins in the rivers.

The Brazilian floats depicted native Brazilians who were the original inhabitants of the land. Then there was a ‘Caravela’ signifying the arrival of the Portuguese discoverers, followed by a mystical sea goddess known as Yemanja, a highly venerated cult figure that represents the bountiful generosity of the sea. A group of about thirty female dancers, all dressed in elaborate blue costumes, represented the oceans through which the Portuguese had to travel to arrive at Brazilian shores. The Brazilian Consulate in Mumbai and the Goan carnival organizing committee had set a dress code for dancers and participants of the float parade to ensure they would dress in accordance with the local culture and ‘not show too much skin’, as happens in these celebrations in Brazilian cities.

Male dancers, dressed as ‘native Indians from Brazil’, displayed their feathers and, as if by a ‘miracle’ Pedro Álvares Cabral would resuscitate in Goa on that day, he would not be able to tell which of those men were Indian or Brazilian citizens. I took my place in the caravela, dressed as Pero Vaz Caminha, who was the scribe of the Portuguese fleet.

 

Another highlight of the Brazilian samba group was the performance of the famous Goan singer Belinda, who in her own float and band sang in Portuguese, along the Panjim and Margao streets, my composition for the occasion: ‘a Brasíndia chegou e chegou para abafar, é a Brasíndia falada, que chegou para ficar; ela divulga cultura e o comércio também, opá, ela traz alegria e muita emoção, opá, é a Brasíndia falada que trago guardada no meu coração, Opá, Opá, Opá.’ (BrasIndia has arrived, and is here to stay; it promotes culture and trade also, yes; it brings happiness and a lot of emotion, yes; it is the BrasIndia so much talked about that I keep close to my heart; Yes, Yes, Yes).

In 2008, the carnival in Goa was one of the most talked about events in India, according to the local media, as it was the first time there was a Brazilian participation in that Indian state’s festivities. People from many other parts of India came to Goa just to witness the Brazilian troupe.

 

On Saturday, 2 February, the much-awaited three-day Goa annual carnival kicked off with a colourful parade of floats in the capital city, Panjim. King Momo, atop the main float, was flanked by a lady dressed in white. King Momo then, according to tradition, pronounced the customary decree, setting the mood for fun and merrymaking until 5th February. The Goan cultural floats drew much appreciation from the crowds and were a treat for the eyes, reminding many of the fading customs and traditions among Goans. Prominent among the customs displayed were those of khambhars (potters), paddekars (coconut pluckers), nustekar, and so on.

On Sunday, Margao, the commercial capital of Goa, reverberated to the sounds of dance, music and revelry as King Momo reigned supreme in the city. The Margao municipal square was literally converted into a sea of humanity, with revelry, dance and music taking centre-stage for about two and a half hours as the float parade made its way around the city neighbourhoods.

The innovations brought by our participation in the 2008 festivities were: (a) A specific plot – The Discovery of Brazil; (b) Dancers performing on the street, assembled in groups with their own theme. For example, as mentioned above, the female dancers, all in blue costumes, represented the oceans through which the Portuguese caravelas had to travel to get to Brazil and India. The male dancers performed as the Brazilian natives or ‘Indians’, as the Portuguese called them.

Traditionally, participants parade sitting on top of trucks, holding advertisements of companies and products. Our floats, headed by the caravela, the one dedicated to Iemanjá, the Goddess of the Sea, and the one reserved for the singer Belinda and her band, were also quite innovative.

We had therefore shaken 500 years of dust (‘levantamos a poeira’, as we say after a performance of a samba school in Rio de Janeiro) that had settled over a shared colonial past that Brazil and Goa should celebrate, given the similarities in their geographies, people and Portuguese ancestors. Goa Tourism Development Corporation Managing Director, Sanjit Rodrigues, speaking to the media said, ‘Goa Carnival 2008 had created a cultural fusion like never before.’

This ‘process of cultural negotiation’ between Brazil and Goa/India, within the framework of a common Portuguese heritage, was also representative of the use of soft power, as the ability to obtain what one wants through cooperation and learning, to strengthen political relations between two emerging countries in the present world.

 

As a final thought on the subject, I would like to mention that in English the word ‘costume’ describes what one is wearing as a disguise. There is another one, ‘fantasy’, which refers to fiction. In Portuguese, there is only one word for both: ‘fantasia’.

During the carnival in Brazil, the costume is the fantasy and the fantasy is the costume, both meanings captured in the same word, ‘fantasia’. This conclusion should be enough for one of those meaningful Indian head shakes, as ‘every concept has within itself its own contradiction.’

 

* The opinions expressed in this text are the author’s exclusive responsibility and do not reflect any position in foreign affairs of the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Relations.

Footnotes:

1. The author’s declaration during a press conference after the Brazilian participation at the Goa Carnival in February 2008.

2. I will take this opportunity to acknowledge and reiterate my gratitude to Counsellor Jandira Gill Chalu Pacheco, then our Deputy Consul General, and local assistants, Youktee Tuli and Ayesha Dacosta and collaborator, Gaurav Datay for their dedication to these projects. Without their cooperation, creativeness and enthusiasm, those projects would not have taken shape or put into practice.

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