The Convent of Santa Monica, in Old Goa, envelopes within its walls several mysteries, stories and history. It served as a sanctuary for nuns and a home to those women, who dedicated their lives to God.
The convent holds several interesting tales, and its architectural elements are not just distinct, but unique, too. There are several hidden and unknown elements within, and the founder of Metamorphosis Theatre Inc and Co-founder of St Andrew's Centre for Philosophy and Performing Arts, Dr Omkar Bhatkar, from Mumbai, has documented murals from the chapel of the Santa Monica Convent in his documentary Painted Hymns.
Excerpts from an interview with Dr Omkar Bhatkar:
1. What is the documentary, Painted hymns, all about?
This film is an attempt to document, in a poetic form, the fading 17th century murals that exists in the Convent of Santa Monica, as very little is known about them to be depicted in a documentary format. Therefore, the film uses handpicked poetry from world literature, spanning across time and cultures.
2. What is it that got you interested in the murals of the Convent of Santa Monica in Old Goa?
Coming to Goa from Mumbai as an early version of myself, there was something about Old Goa that struck a chord with my heart. When I was exploring the St Augustine Ruins, the structure, like a grand matriarch encapsulated me. I could only visit the Chapel of the Weeping Cross and MoCA, and not the Convent, of course, it is closed to the public. But, I always desired to see it from the inside. Later, I stumbled upon a book, In and around Old Goa, by Heta Pandit; there was a chapter which gave me a glimpse of the murals inside the convent.
But, there was no plan of anything other than a wish to see this convent from the inside.
When the pandemic struck in 2020, and everyone was stuck at home, these places again started playing with my imagination, and that's how I ended up writing a novella in 2020, revolving around the 1630s Goa (it's a different story that it's a novella of fiction and I've not yet seen Santa Monica from the inside, and I just wrote this novella, never having time later to return to its publication or anything). In Oct 2021, through a friend and priest from Pilar, Fr Elvis Fernandes, I could visit the Convent of Santa Monica.
3. What kind of research went into the documentary?
My first aim was to go there and shoot as much as I could so that I could come back and do detailed research. With a team of four people, we went shooting with phones and cameras, because some parts of the murals were in corners, niches and of course, the ceilings that are about 30 feet high.
While I was there, I could see that the murals were soaked in mystery. Their makers, their stories and the presence of flora and fauna in murals set them apart and make them very unique to Goa.
There were some scripts or lines in a language I didn't understand.
4. How did you go about working on the project ?
When I was back in Mumbai, I shared these scripts, and a few of the paintings, with my friends in Portugal, Spain and India. It was then that we realised that it's not entirely one script. Some are in Spanish, Latin and Portuguese. Many stories painted weren't accompanied by any text. Some of these could be local legends, back then. Several of them are depicted using stories from the Old Testament.
5. What is it about the murals that you wanted to understand more about?
I tried to find as many historical facts as I could, but I realised there are a lot of 'ifs, maybes' also. In short, the information available is the only possibility due to very little available evidence. In that case, I realised that if I had to put these murals together in a film form, then I would need to change my approach.
Also, once I used the mystical poetry approach, we made about seven to eight cuts of the film to have a final one. I have a fantastic editor, Harshvardhan Shetye, who understands my approach. He has been patient and open to redrafting the changes that I make every second day.
6. Could you throw some light on what technique, style and material was used for the paintings, and who were the artists who painted these works.
The murals are painted directly on the wall, in colours made from natural vegetable dyes. The styles are again ambiguous because I find there are diverse styles. These murals could be made by different artisans over some time. I doubt they were made once and for all. They have been made over years or decades, with diverse hands at work. And, there is a possibility that some of these could also be painted by the nuns who lived here, considering their knowledge of the local birds and animals.
7. What kind of flora and fauna has been found in these murals, and what do they reveal about Goa and the nuns who were in the convent?
The animals, and especially the birds, have a very human-like childishness. It's possible that the nuns had a friendly approach to the ecology and thought about incorporating this in these murals. So one could see Paradise Flycatcher, Storks, Mongoose, Sunbirds and even trees.
8. What has been your learning about religion and art after working on this documentary?
I've always been fascinated by religion and art, and especially Christian Art. To me, these murals became a canvas to be painted with poetry on faith. The film, to me, is an exploration of this mystical aspect of life called 'faith'
9. Tell us something about you and your previous works.
I've been teaching in Mumbai, for the last eight years, in Film Studies, Gender Studies and Theatre Studies. At the same time, I've been running my theatre company, Metamorphosis Theatre Inc, which explores existential themes and has conversations about life.
Four years ago, I co-founded a theatre and liberal arts centre in Bandra, Mumbai called St Andrew's Centre for Philosophy and Performing Arts, which runs eclectic programmes in Mumbai.
I have been writing and directing these plays in Mumbai and often making my sojourn to Goa. Goa appears a lot of times in my plays. Last Dec, I wrote and directed a play, called Iktsuarpok, in which I poured my love for Goa generously. I hope to make it a film one day, if we get some generous support to make this kind of work. Loss, Loneliness, Time, Nostalgia, Geriatrics, Aesthetics, and Faith are my areas of interest.
10. At the end of the documentary, how was your experience working on it?
I can only say one thing, I'm thankful to the people who saw it in Mumbai and to the buzz created in Goa. Because I never imagined people would take interest in a film on poetry and paintings in such a manner.
I had made the film only for my gratification of preserving these murals in an archival format. I'm thankful to the people and the way they have appreciated this effort and that's my most rewarding experience.
WHEN: July 31, 2022
WHERE: The Church of Santa Monica, Old Goa
TIMINGS: 4 PM
CONTACT: 918308805399 (WhatsApp only)
REGISTRATION LINK: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/13-ZZhXaN2sm43_zcAt__MRaIsLGxPdWfxSHa6PlaF40/edit?usp=sharing