The secret of Goa’s musical past

The secret of Goa’s musical past

Local musicians revive a classical heritage in the west Indian state.


The courtyard of the Hamara School in Panjim (Panaji), capital of the pint-sized west Indian state of Goa, is an unlikely place for a music class. Beyond the low school walls, late afternoon rush hour sees tuk-tuks, mopeds, and buses jockey for position on gridlocked streets, the staccato sounds of horns and discordant cries of pheriwallas (sidewalk traders) punctuating the urban hum.

Yet nothing seems to bother the school’s young musicians. In one corner of the courtyard, 11-year-old Deepali Chauhan clasps her violin, forehead beaded with sweat, and eyes narrowed in concentration, as she practices arpeggios and scales. As a student of the Child’s Play India Foundation, a Goa-based charity set up in 2009 to teach Western classical music to Panjim’s disadvantaged children, Chauhan has been learning the violin for nearly two years.

The Child’s Play Foundation is the creation of Dr. Luis Dias, a fourth-generation physician who put aside his profession and returned to Goa to combine his passion for classical music with the realisation of a philanthropic calling.

“A decade ago I was practicing medicine in and around London,” says Dias, as he watches Chauhan practice. “At the same time, I was deeply concerned with the social disparity in Goa, where I was born. I just didn’t know how to address it.

“After learning about and witnessing the life-saving work of other charitable music programmes, I realised classical music could really empower kids in Panjim,” continues Dias.

Notes from the past

Not many people know that Goa has a Western classical music heritage that stretches back over five centuries, way before the British Raj and pre-dating even the mighty Mughal Empire. After it became a Portuguese colony in the early sixteenth century, the state gradually introduced the entire Indian subcontinent to the sounds of pipe organs and pianos, cantatas and concertos.

It was in 1510 that Portuguese general and empire builder Alfonso de Albuquerque seized the vibrant, cosmopolitan port city which is today known as Old Goa (part of Panjim). Soon a series of magnificent churches had been built, such as the Chapel of Our Lady of the Mount, the Basilica of Bom Jesus, and Se Cathedral (the churches and convents of Old Goa are today collectively recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site).

Rooted rhythms

Looking out from the Chapel of Our Lady of the Mount, the white spires and cupolas of Old Goa’s glorious ecclesiastical buildings rear upwards into the Indian sky from a sweeping expanse of jungle. The spectacular panorama seems a fitting epitaph for Goa’s former Portuguese culture, which at times appear to have been surrounded and swallowed up by more contemporary tastes and trends.

It has now been over half a century since the Portuguese ceded control of Goa. Yet the state still feels very different to the rest of India. From the distinctive cuisine and panoply of churches through to the prevalence of azulejos (ceramic tiles) and even people’s common surnames, the Portuguese influence is still evident in numerous aspects of Goan life.

And while many of Old Goa’s churches have undoubtedly seen better days, the musical rhythms of yesteryear still appear to run strong in local blood. Perhaps it is this that has seen India’s oldest and most significant Western classical music tradition come alive once again, in the exact spot where it first developed.

The Catholic church was the impetus behind classical music in the Portuguese colony;


A musical reawakening

It is difficult to determine the exact moment when Western classical music in Goa re-emerged from the shadows. Many point to the annual Monte Music ­Festival, which was first held in 2002. Taking place in early February, it is organised by the Fundação Oriente, a non-profit organisation which works to promote cultural relations between Portugal and its former Asian colonies.

The venue for the three-day festival – the Chapel of Our Lady of the Mount – could hardly be more appropriate, with the historical structure boasting fine acoustics. But what many in the audience really come to see are the selection of al fresco performances held in the chapel courtyard, set against the magnificent backdrop of Old Goa’s churches and the serpentine sweep of the Mandovi River.

The festival programme is all about opening people’s minds to different musical genres.

“This year we wanted to promote women’s voices from India,” explains Maria Ines Figueira, the ­Fundação Oriente’s Portuguese director. “We were lucky enough to have a Sufi singer, a Goan soprano, and a renowned fadista (fado is a vocal musical genre that can be traced back to nineteenth century Portugal).”

The real highlight of the festival was a haunting recital of contemporary and sacred chants by soprano Patricia Rozario, a London-based diva who grew up in Mumbai. Since 2009, the singer has returned regularly to Goa to give vocal music classes as part of a personal initiative called Giving Voice to India.

“A lot is happening now in Goa,” says Rozario. “Goans have long been naturally gifted musicians with beautiful voices. When they have platforms to ­perform, which also generate interest among local Goans, there’s an added incentive to get involved. “I wouldn’t say Western classical music was dead in Goa,” she continues. “It just needed to be woken up.”

Musicians perform at sunset at this year’s
Monte Festival.

Chorus of support

Goa’s classical music scene was given fresh impetus when the first instalment of the Ketevan Music Festival took place in February 2016. Held in the ruins of Old Goa’s St. Augustine church, the event is the brainchild of Goa expat and concert pianist Rudi Kammermeier, and Argentinian-Italian orchestra conductor and composer ­Santiago Lusardi Girelli, a visiting professor at Goa University.

Kammermeier and Girelli’s efforts have developed largely on the back of the Goa University Choir. Funded in 2013, this groundbreaking group of 36 singers has already developed a reputation for excellence under Girelli’s tutelage.

“Over the last four years we have hosted more than 100 professional musicians, composers and artists on the Goa University campus,” says Girelli.  “The Goa University Choir is probably one of the most exciting projects in India. Together with Ketevan, it has given momentum to Goa’s new musical spring. Audiences and student numbers are growing, and we are happy with it.”

This year’s Ketevan Festival took place at the Ruins of St. Augustine in the Old Goa neighbourhood of Panjim. (Photo by Ketevan Music Festival)

Challenges and opportunities

The classical music revival now taking place in Goa is also reflected in burgeoning attendances at places such as the Kala Academy, Goa’s preeminent institute for art and culture. The academy’s Department of Western Music offers government-subsidised classes in a range of instruments, as well as singing.

“More young Goans apply to the ­department every year,” says academy director Teresa ­Figueiredo. “We now have 13 teachers and over 400 ­students, so we have no choice but to turn many kids away.”

Despite its financial constraints, the Child’s Play India Foundation is also booming.

It now has 60 students, who take free and heavily subsidised classes in everything from the flute to the clarinet.

“Although we’re a grassroots organisation, we still want to encourage excellence and creativity,” says Luis Dias. “Raising standards is a great challenge here, because the classical music pedagogy in Goa isn’t in place yet. We need to gradually reduce our dependence on masterclasses from overseas musicians.”

Figueiredo agrees that Western classical music in Goa, while revitalised, has a long way to go. “Higher standards will hopefully breed opportunities for Goan musicians to earn a living from music, in India, with more orchestras and the development of world-class music venues.

The Goa University Choir and the Ketevan Festival Orchestra
perform at the Convent of St. Monica in Old Goa. (Photo by Goa University Choir)



Text and photos Daniel Allen