By Mekhla Harrison
Mekhla Harrison, Victor’s friend during his art days in Lucknow and later a participant of the Narrative Art residency camp at Goa Chitra, tells all: her interactions with Victor, bonding over ideas of art and life, and the Goa of the 90s.
Victor Hugo’s and my friendship goes back to 1990-91 when I was a scholar at the Lalit Kala Academy in Lucknow and Victor was a young visiting artist who had come looking for a studio just after passing out from an art college in Goa. I shared the Lalit Kala Academy community studio along with other Research Grant Awardees like Harshvardhanand. Victor was using the landing of a staircase as his studio. His work was very different from mine, detailed and about the universe and life. We discussed our work and what the symbols we worked with represented, since there were similarities and yet diversity in our understanding and expression. It was a struggle to portray the meaning of life and what we understood of it at that age.
We used to meet and spend a lot of time together. It was one year of intense work and discussions regarding life and politics and books…and dreams. We connected on the ideas we shared about peasants and farmers, the real people who work with the soil and are responsible for everybody’s survival. I am from the hills and I have great respect and admiration for farmers. My artist of intense admiration had been Vincent Van Gough who also worked with peasants and painted their lives. I saw Victor was also very sincere about his work but seemed uninterested in awards and recognition. I encouraged him to apply for the same Research Grant scholarship that I benefited from. He applied and was selected for the grant the following year.
Victor wanted me to see Goa and invited me as one of the National artists for an artist’s camp, which was a part of the much talked about Arlem beer festival of 1991. The festival was conceived by him as an art and culture festival to encourage families and art communities to participate. There were a few students from Goa College of Art who had participated for the art camp had put up their works too. It was my first time in Goa and I loved the life, vibrant and so much energy that I decided to stay back for 6 months or more. It was adventurous and exciting meeting people who were different and following their dreams. Seeing different places, temples and churches, farms and life in the farms was refreshing for me.
Around that time, Dutch artist Fritz Kraya, Victor and I joined hands to work together and setup a place called Spiritual Institute of Fine Arts, taking art classes and yoga in a rented house in Sernabatim, Colva. It was the most perfect part of my life. Eventually, we realized that art had not really taken off in Goa and it became a major strain on our finances. As most perfect things don’t last forever, so did this dream come to an end with Fritz having to go back to Holland. I left Goa too. But Goa was beautiful in those days, 1992….not too crowded, and definitely not these many unplanned multi-story buildings….
Since I’ve known Victor, he has always seemed to be obsessed with ideas for promoting local arts and crafts of Goa and its culture. Real culture, he said and felt was not known to people at large. He felt that the ‘Fun Goa’, known for its beach life, is not the ‘Real Goa’. He seemed to be disturbed and concerned back then.
It was many years later when we met again in Delhi around 2007-08 where he had come to put up a stall on behalf of Goa Tourism for the International Travel Mart. He spoke about trying to set up a museum in Goa and the next thing I knew was that he already started his Museum of agricultural finds in 2009. It didn’t come as much of a surprise since he had been silently collecting things from his ancestral homes and from the farmers there. However, it was the sheer single-handed efforts and determination that impressed me. One doesn’t think that the huge plans that a 22 year old had could be turned into a reality after 20 odd years.
I got a chance to visit Goa Chitra in 2014 when Victor invited me for the All Women Artist Camp which was an unforgettable experience by itself. His idea was to bring back the tradition of ‘narrative art’ and to explore the different approaches to it. He took us to visit remote villages and farmers, and we were asked to capture the female energy that exists within our society through art narratives. To re-examine the weakness of betrayal that is portrayed and capture her strengths; to let our creativity acknowledge the cultural-femininity within our daily living and traditions. We were taken to remote villages of Goa where the origins of the implements on display at Goa Chitra were collected, to connect with the lives of those that once lived and worked with them, creating visuals that narrate a story. We were given the opportunity to experience firsthand the rural life in Goa and interact with the natives of Goa. On the first 7 days we stayed at the Wildlife Sanctuary in Canacona and at a farm in the jungles of Netravali, and spent the last few days at Goa Chitra. We were made to create Illustrative and narrative expression through paintings and drawings using the museum’s immense collection of cultural and ethnographic display and site-specific projects that interpret and contribute to the awareness of the environmental challenges battling mankind in today’s era.The museum itself was impressive and has a huge collection of farming tools that caught my attention, besides the carriages from all over the country. Beautifully displayed and preserved with detailed information, Victor’s plan of expanding his museum is now a reality, and it never ceases to surprise me.
Mekhla Harrison is an artist and professor at the WLCI, New Delhi. She acquired her Bachelors in Fine Arts from JJ school of Art, Mumbai, followed by a Masters in Fine Arts from College of Art, New Delhi and a Masters in Conservation and Restoration at DIHRM, New Delhi. She has been the recipient of several awards and scholarships, which include a research grant from Lalit Kala Academy, a scholarship of the Koninklijke Academie Van Beeldende Kunsten, and a B.C. Sanyal Grant Award. She also has a wide range of teaching experience at Design institutes such as the Apeejay Institute of Design, JD Institute, Design Innovation Academy, and Amity University.