By Malavika Neurekar
Valve sets. Old speakers. LPs. Discarded furniture pieces. Bottles.
These are not usually the things that come to mind when one thinks of their childhood playthings. However these are the ‘toys’ that Victor Hugo grew up with. When the entire household was asleep, Victor used to sneak into the loft or the storeroom, integral parts of all traditional Goan homes, and experiment with the objects he found there. He brought back radios and repaired them. He played around with speakers and valve amplifiers to create sound systems. He collected discarded bike parts to put together his own bike. He once found a razor and shaved off one side of his head! (Victor Gomes recalls with amusement how his godmother, out of embarrassment, painted the shaved-off side with kaajal everytime they stepped out of the house.) The elders of the house interpreted this as a part of his schoolboy mischief. In retrospect, Victor now knows that it was simply a manifestation of his curiosity and creativity at an early age.
After completing his Bachelor’s in Fine Arts at Goa College of Art, Victor spent about three years in Lucknow. Whilst there, one thing that always awed him was the weekly antique market – artefacts of Nawabi culture were being sold in the dusty streets, evaluated by the haggling of customers and sellers. A man with a major inclination towards preserving material culture, Victor failed to understand how people were voluntarily giving away pieces of their heritage. When he returned to Goa, he discovered that all the ‘toys’ he had accumulated over the years had been discarded by his parents, with little regard for the value they held to him. But old habits die hard. He began collecting again – the difference being that the collection this time around would soon culminate into the Goa Chitra display today.
It was in 1992 that Mario Miranda extended to Victor an invitation to set up the Christian Art Museum in Rachol. Around this time, Victor began to realise that there was no value for either of his professions, painting or restoring. People preferred posters to paintings, and Indo-Portuguese houses were being brought down to make way for commercial construction. It was this helplessness that urged him to collect whatever he could whenever he could. Like a mad man he started collecting different types of windows, doors, balusters, columns, tiles, roofing wood etc. Some of the architectural scrap that he picked up has now been integrated seamlessly into the museum’s architecture. After resigning from the Christian Art Museum, he took up the work of a professional restorer. He restored old homes, and in turn, paid his clients a price to purchase articles including – but not limited to – broken furniture, traditional kitchen implements, and grinding stones.
He went on collecting anything and everything that caught his fancy, without the explicit objective of setting up a museum. The process of collecting did not take place with an end goal in mind. It was merely Victor Hugo’s desperate need to salvage pieces of our cultural heritage that he believed we were throwing away without a second’s thought. He travelled to remote areas of the state, came into contact with several dealers and scholars and farmers, followed lead after lead to build his collection. After a point, he even sold his cars and bought a pickup truck to facilitate more efficient transportation of the objects. Nobody knew what he was up to, including himself.
Of his many avatars, the one of the collector is perhaps the most interesting one, mostly because it is the source of his countless anecdotes. He believes that every implement that is housed is valuable not just for its functionality or for the historic value, but also for the memories it evokes and the stories of the people who possessed them. Such is the case of the dhali or the sieve used by the Dhangar community to heat nachne or millets. The dhali is no longer of use to the community: first, because nachne cultivation has come to a halt in Goa and replaced by imports from outside the state, and second, because the system of kumeri farming practiced by the Dhangars has been banned under the anti-Deforestation laws. In spite of this, the Dhangar from whom Victor Hugo acquired the dhali, Baburam was initially reluctant to part with it. He wanted to hold on to in case someday the government lifted the ban from kumeri farming, allowing them to return to their traditional methods of sustenance. Eventually, he allowed Victor to purchase it with the promise that if the government were to lift the ban, the dhali would be returned immediately. Baburam died subsequently, the ban on kumeri farming hasn’t been lifted yet, and the nachne available in the market continues to be imported goods.
I have seen Victor Hugo recount this story several times to different people, and what he never fails to mention in each retelling is the hope that he saw in Baburam’s eyes that day. It was perhaps reflective of Victor Hugo’s own hope to reintroduce a way of living lost in a simpler time.