By Russell Murray
Victor Hugo Gomes pursued his artist career in Lucknow for three years. He returned from Lucknow to set up the Christian Art Museum. After years of investing his time, energy, and passion into the Christian Art project, he resigned over unresolvable disputes with the museum committee. Having lost everything he held dear, he slipped into a low point in his life – personally and professionally. Then life presented an unforeseen opportunity, and overnight he became an important name in the advertising world. Successful ventures followed one after the other. He organised music festivals, he set up an organic farm, he started restoring houses. Throughout all of this, and through so much more, one person who knew and understood Victor’s passion better than most was Russell Murray. Right from Victor’s days in college as an activist and General secretary and university representativeto the curator of Goa Chitra, Chakra, and Cruti, Russell has been witness to Victor’s idiosyncrasies and in the following piece, he briefly tells us what it has been like.
Victor Hugo Gomes has been many things in the more than 25 years I have known him: artist, impresario, soft-drink marketer, advertising entrepreneur, restaurateur, event manager, organic farmer, restorer of old Goan homes, museum curator. A surprisingly diverse range of activities for someone who has often insisted to me that “Life is not an experiment”. But all of his pursuits, whether successful or not, have had one common factor: complete, unrelenting focus and a commitment to do the best job possible. No half measures. It is something to which his many friends will testify, and which his equally numerous detractors cannot deny: once Victor takes something up, it takes over his life.
During his first stint as a curator in 1992, I often found myself on the back of Victor’s clapped out Yezdi with the self-detaching seat, heading to the Christian Art Museum at the Rachol Seminary at 2 or 3 in the morning after a pleasant evening relaxing at a beach shack in Colva or Benaulim. All I wanted to do was go home and sleep, but he would insist on going to check that the museum guards were awake and his precious exhibits were safe.
He loved that job, despite the frustrations. It was the first time I had seen him involved in something that had no commercial aspect whatsoever (the pay was modest) and it was educational to accompany him on his collecting trips, talking to sacristans and parish priests to track down potential exhibits, getting them to let him poke around in the musty storerooms of churches and chapels despite their insistence that they had nothing of interest. They were often wrong, and the next challenge for Victor would be to convince them to donate or loan the objects he discovered to the museum. Although many agreed willingly, there was surprising resistance from some church officials who objected to these treasures (which they did not even know they had and had been rotting away unnoticed for decades) being taken away, restored to a semblance of their former glory and put on display for everyone to appreciate. Using charm, persistence, and contacts, however, Victor managed to bring many of these vestments, statues, paintings and ceremonial objects to the museum, where his next task was to work out how best to preserve and display them. It was exhausting work, and when growing differences with the museum directors forced him to leave the job, Victor was heartbroken. And furious and bitter. I cannot say for sure, but I think it was the anger that he channeled to pick himself up and throw himself into something new. Quite naturally, knowing Victor, it was setting up an advertising firm. But that is another story.
I had already moved out of Goa by the time Victor began developing the site of what is now Goa Chitra in 2000, so the first I heard of it was from our mutual friend John Rodrigues in Bombay. He’s started an organic farm?! It was the last thing I would have expected, though in hindsight it makes perfect sense.
The traditional farming that sustained Goan society for centuries is the basis of everything he is trying to preserve. The knowledge that makes it possible to extract a living from our environment without harming it, to use indigenous resources to provide for our needs, is being lost in the onslaught of modernisation after having been passed down through the generations.
Travelling with Victor across Goa to collect artefacts for the museum has opened my eyes to how rich this knowledge is. For example, I had no idea of the variety of implements used in growing rice or how they differed, both in design and the materials, according to the type of land being farmed. Many of these tools had been cast away, thrown on to roofs or into sheds, forgotten and decaying.Much like in the church museum days, Victor tracked these down relentlessly, driving to remote areas to find them – a plough here, a harrow there – some intact, others fallen to pieces.
Like much of what is on display at Goa Chitra, these objects would be painstakingly restored by Chacha, Victor’s loyal carpenter and odd-job man of many years who sadly passed away in 2015. Victor sometimes jokes that his museum is built on a passion for collecting junk and firewood, and it was Chacha’s skill that turned much of that into treasure.
Fifteen years is the longest I have known Victor to be committed to a single cause, and I believe that in Goa Chitra he has found his life’s work. Friendship aside, I am grateful for it, and for having been able to, even in a very small way, be a part of it. There are so many wonderful aspects to the history of this place I call home that I would never have been aware of otherwise.
Russell Murray is a senior journalist who has worked for several newspapers, including the Herald in Goa, Mid-Day in Mumbai, and The Nation in Thailand. He has spent most of the last twenty years outside Goa, and is currently working with The National in Abu Dhabi.