Why a Goan singing contest is hitting the wrong notes

A cantar performing in Goa Image copyright Frederick Noronha
Image caption Many politicians fear the on-stage skewering of Goa's cantarists

The Goa government might have had different plans, but a singing competition it announced last week, with a rider that the tunes had to be paeans to the government and its schemes, seems to have hit all the wrong notes, writes Pamela D'Mello.

The prominent advertisement for the "Konkani Kantaram Utsav" (Konkani song festival) announced by the BJP government's department of information and publicity, called for "songs based on achievements of the present government and emphasising the schemes implemented by this government for the welfare of the state".

The contest is co-hosted by the state-funded Tiatr Academy of Goa and is scheduled for 8 March.

But if dulcet, fawning odes is what they were after, the government could not have chosen a more inappropriate community to target.

"Konkani Kantaram" is the domain of an immensely popular and irreverent century-old Goan theatrical form, locally called tiatr.

Packing a punch

The three-hour-long dramas that run to packed houses are equally famous for the songs or "cantars" (from the Portuguese word cantare, to sing) that are interspersed with set changes.

Hugely popular with wide fan followings, "cantarists" are known to pack a punch, whether they are singing about love, life or the latest socio-political issues from the morning's newspaper.

Many politicians have come to fear this on-stage skewering and governments, both past and present, have found themselves, and their policies, regularly held up to the satirical scrutiny of the cantarists.

Image copyright Frederick Noronha
Image caption The government competition is being seen as a form of interference and a desire to control

Predictably, the latest government initiative has not been taken to very kindly.

"It is a subtle form of control. How can they dictate what we should sing about," Konkani stage singer and performer Sharon Mazarello told the BBC.

A former legislator from India's Congress party, Jitendra Deshprabhu, called it an affront to artistic freedom of expression.

"Tiatr and cantaram were born as anti-establishment avenues and they have stayed true to that. To try and make it an instrument of propaganda for the government, with monetary enticements, is to attempt to cripple this cultural instrument," he said.


Many stage artists are also not too enamoured with the idea and as the competition draws near, there have been editorials and letters in newspapers, asking them to spurn the contest and its prize money.

What is also ironic is the fact that the contest is the brainchild of the same government department that just a year ago justified censorship proposals for tiatrs - a move that was quickly dropped after protests from the influential community and opposition parties.

The past few years have also seen heightened tensions with the authorities over the tiatr community's take on several controversial and unpopular government decisions, including the declassification of the coconut tree and "unfulfilled election promises".

Relations reached their lowest point last year, when supporters of a legislator stormed the stage to prevent a performance by popular political soloist, Francis Fernandes.

Image copyright Frederick Noronha
Image caption Tensions between the stage community and the government have been running high recently
Image copyright Frederick Noronha
Image caption Goa's government says the competition is only a means of disseminating information about their schemes

Hartman de Souza, an English theatre personality and author of a recent book "Eat Dust" on mining excesses in Goa, feels the government initiative will only result in cantarists being even more critical of it.

"The Konkani stage has evolved from protest and dissent, and they have an ear to the ground, to the common man. You cannot try to orient them," he said.

"You can ask people for their opinion. You can't ask people to only write things in praise. Praise me and get paid for it. Why bother with poetry then? Just hire an advertising agency," added installation artist and painter Subodh Kerkar.

However, long-time Konkani entertainer Miguel Jacob Fernandes feels differently. He says the contest can help to bridge the growing divide between the Konkani stage and the government.

"Nobody is being forced to enter the contest and say good things. Those who feel they can do so, can enter."

The government, on its part, has clarified that the contest is just a means to use the popularity of Konkani songs to disseminate information about its schemes, in the same way as it uses other media, like print or films.

But rightly or wrongly, high praise does not seem to be coming their way.

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