Saturday 19 April 2014

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Institute Menezes Braganza caught up in a row

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While Vasco da Gama's centenary celebrations on his discovery of India are caught up in a nation-wide controversy, in Goa - the former Portuguese colony, a controversy has raked up over a 125-year old institute, started in the explorer's name in 1871.

The controversy has no relation with Vasco da Gama celebrations, but over the ownership of the Portuguese-founded institute, which owns century-old valuable paintings and antiques. The battle between the state authorities and the local intelligentsia has ultimately resulted in the Pratapsing Rane government taking over the "autonomous" institute.

Founded as Institute Vasco da Gama in 1871 to propagate Portuguese culture, it was renamed and reshaped soon after Goan liberation, to strengthen Indo-Latin cultural relations and provide an intellectual base through cultural and academic exchange. The Goa government continued financial support to the institution, while maintaining its separate identity.

Its wealth is over 250 original works in the form of oil paintings, prints, drawings and sculptures of European and Portuguese masters of the 19th century, including father of modern art Cezanne, Henry Russo, Reonar, Groze, Pissaro and Mattis Broque, a contemporary of Picasso. Even the prints are signed by the famous painters and would be valued $ one million each in the international market.

Around 100 paintings, besides this, are the original works of famous Portuguese masters while over 50 collections of Indian masters like Laxman Pai, Baburao Sadvelkar, Prafull Dahanukar, M F Hussain, Souza, Raza, Ara, Bhosle, Gaitonde etc etc. A sculpture of Beethoven's portrait is also the great pride of the Institute of Menezes Braganza (IBM). Equally valuable are the coins right from the days of Columbus, historically significant stamp collection, ceramics and wood carvings like the inquisition table of 16th century.

Claiming that it's a government property, the chief minister has now repealed the Portuguese decree of the IMB, "seeking permission of the House", while a government official has walked away with the art gallery keys. The Portuguese decree was changed in 1991. "We did not approve it because they wanted total autonomy", says M V Naik, director of art and culture.

The government has now passed the bill, repealing the decree and claiming its ownership, which is pending before the governor for his assent. While the authorities are planning to chase away the "fellows" (IMB members) after the assent is given, Dr Bailan de Sa, its chairman, is planning to file a writ challenging the government decision. "The paintings and antiques were donated to the IMB. It's not government property", he claims.

"We want to shift the paintings to the state museum as the institute has failed to preserve it and perform its duties", claims Rane, the chief minister. Naik, on the other hand, alleges that auditors have raised objections to the financial irregularities, misuse of grants given by the National Museum and even misuse of telephone by the IMB chairman.

But de Sa refuses to admit the allegations. On the contrary, he contends that the government has turned down all the requests made by the IMB to fund the renovation of the art gallery and its activities had to be curtailed due to paucity of funds. He also wonders why Rane had to object recently to the informal proposal made by Fundacao Oriente, a Portuguese cultural organisation, to get the art gallery renovated and the rare valuable paintings catalogued.

Rane however seems to have been irked over IMB's refusal to hand over the valuable paintings to the art and culture department, to be taken away for the Kala Mela in Delhi in February, organised annually by the Lalit Kala Academy. "How could we do it when Naik, in writing, refused to take responsibility for theft, damage or loss in transit, asks de Sa. He also recalls that a similar request made in '63 was turned down unanimously by the then IMB general assembly.

"Naik's ignorance about art and culture is proved by the very fact that he asked for the priceless works for the display at the Kala Mela, which is a contemporary arts and crafts fair held with a prime objective to promote latent talent of staff and students of various art institutions", observes Theodore Mesquita, secretary of the Goan Art Forum. "He even wanted to sell the paintings, if permitted", points out M K Jos, spokesman of a local NGO, showing Naik's letter.

The government's directive to shift a unique piano, finest of its kind in East Asia, to the Kala Academy, another state-funded cultural institute headed by chief minister Rane, was also not followed because it has a history of such valuables getting vanished. "A vast collection the Kala Academy had of unexhibited important paintings have found their way to the cabins of various government officials and VIPs mysteriously in the Secretariat", alleges Mesquita.

Being a Portuguese colony till 1961, Goa had valuable antiques in the form of furniture, paintings and even crockery, especially in the Raj Bhavan (former Palacio de Governador), which have vanished in the air when many past governors were transferred. On the other hand, valuable paintings donated to the Kala Academy have been deteriorating in its godowns. Young local artists are thus worried that the priceless collection of IMB may also 'disappear' from the government museum, which is ill-equipped to maintain it.

While the authorities now claim IMB to be its property and not an autonomous body, the government never maintained a healthy rapport with the 125-year old institute, alleges J B Sardesai, an IMB fellow. Though they don't say it publicly, several IMB members feel that Rane has simply made it a prestige issue and taken over one of the oldest institute of the state, which could be made more vibrant, by maintaining its autonomy and helping it with more funds.

Manoharrai Sardesai, a veteran Goan writer and an IMB fellow, describes government's decision an illegal, criminal, unscrupulous and immoral move. He seemed to be puzzled with Rane's attitude who, according to him, had told the IMB fellows last year that the institute should be called as Vasco da Gama Institute because da Gama was a great explorer. "Isn't it an insult to a nationalist like Menezes Braganza", he asks.

The institute, as per the constitution, has to be managed by 24 fellows, who are resident Goans and have attained stature of repute in the field of literature and fine arts, political science and science. Though 10 of its fellows are already out of it either due to death or migration, the IMB is yet to fill the vacancies due to "lack of reputed persons" of required calibre found in Goa. This rigid policy has however being criticised even by those, who strongly feel that it should remain autonomous.

The IMB also consists of around six honorary members, including scientists like Dr Z A Qasim while former army chief Gen. Sunith Rodricks, presently settled in Goa, is on the way of admission. Besides this, says de Sa, it has around 100 corresponding members who are working dedicatedly in the field of art, culture, literature, education, science etc.

Goa's young artists like Mesquita wonder why such an institution, which is a shrine of understanding, learning and excellence, should be taken over by the government. "If the government is not interested in funding it, it should give the institute free reign to garner financial assistance and expert opinion and undertaking from private bodies, who are willing in preserving, expanding and cataloguing the premises , as done in other cultural institutes in India and abroad", he opines.







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