The Genius of José Pereira

Iris C F Gomes

Eccentric scholars do not abound in Goa and most recently she lost one of her most enigmatic sons. Tenacious in his pursuit of refined scholarship, José Pereira formed the fourth member of an intellectual group (Mario Miranda, Alban Couto and Eusebio Rodrigues) that had sworn to resurrect intellectual endeavours so dominant in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but perhaps hindered by the censorship imposed by Portuguese dictator, Salazar. He passed away after completing 84 years of age, on the 26th of January in the USA.

Though a native of Curtorim, Goa, José Pereira was born in Mumbai and spent much of his life outside the realm of his ancestry. His literary contribution is vast, amounting to 145 articles and 24 books. His knowledge spanned a range of subjects, including theology, architecture, literature and ethnomusicology. Some of his books are Hindu Theology and Golden Goa’s Art.

José Pereira’s illustrious academic career began with an honours degree in Sanskrit from Siddarth College, 1951, progressing to a PhD in Ancient History and Culture from St Xavier’s, Bombay. He had to cut short his stint as a lecturer at Insituto Superior de Estudoes Ultramarinos in Lisbon because he publically defended Goa’s cultural identity as being distinct from that of Portugal. He went on to do research in the London School of Oriental Studies and after six years he left for Banaras, India, to carry on research there until 1970. Finally, he remained at Fordham University, New York, until his retirement as the head of the Department of Theology.

As a polyglot, he was acquainted and well versed with numerous languages. However, he conferred the highest place to his mother tongue, Konkani. He described the language as having, ‘… music in its veins and the noble blood of Sanskrit in its arteries.’

An artist par excellence and alumnus of JJ School of Art, José Pereira was all of eighteen years of age when he showcased his first exhibition in Mumbai. The Padmabhushan awardee is acclaimed internationally for his frescoes. In 2010, he courted controversy with his painting collection titled Epiphanies of the Hindu Gods. Conservative and fundamentalist elements protested the nudity present in the painting. But as Fr Tony D’Silva, SJ recalls the incident at the Xavier Centre of Historical Research, he marvels at the nerve and depth of knowledge of the man. José Pereira was able to placate the leaders of the mob by explaining the paintings in the scriptural context by quoting Sanskrit text. Nonetheless, the leaders, though amazed at the learning possessed thereof, requested him to withdraw the exhibition as unschooled and academically limited men would not appreciate the paintings in their true light.

At the memorial held at the Xavier Centre of Historical Research, Dr Maria Aurora Couto remembered José Pereira, the friend. He was lifelong friends with her husband, Alban Couto, notwithstanding the ups and downs in the course of their friendship. She said, ‘The fact that there has been a belated recognition of Dr José Pereira in Goa…belated because it started only about eight years ago, points to a certain indifference to scholarship in our society in Goa,’ also indicating that DD Komsambi was derided as a braggart in his time. During his last years, the attention of the journalism fraternity and the connection with the Xavier Centre of Historical Research made a positive difference in José Pereira’s life.

His adherence to the vow taken to energise Goa intellectually and culturally was very firm and this did not bode well for his friendship with Alban Couto, who became a civil servant in the IAS. He, however, renewed the friendship with nonchalance typical of his eccentric nature. Dr Couto expressed her amazement at the friendship maintained between her husband and José Pereira, when Mario Miranda fell afoul of him and his friendship with Eusebio became limited to messages transferred back and forth through Dr Couto. ‘… a feeling heart, a mind that collects all experience and filters it through erudition to express man’s capacity for transcendence…,’ is how Dr Couto described José Periera’s qualities, well captured in his paintings and frescoes.

Advocate Uday Bhembre commended José Pereira’s contribution to the Konkani language. Providence had endowed him with a rare combination of intellect and artistic talents. José Pereira’s greatness lies in his acknowledgement of his gifts by utilising them for the upliftment of his homeland. His perseverance and indomitable spirit can be evinced in his dedication to painting the frescoes in the chapels of Borda and Fatorda in Margao, which was no mean task.

A frugal soul, who disdained any sort of extravagance, he chose Sunlight soap over the more expensive Lux and declared he needed neither butter nor jam to whet his appetite. José Periera could be seen in short pants, slippers, backpack, riding his cycle from Curtorim to Margao, whenever he came down to Goa. Such was the simplicity and humility of this distinguished scholar, who naturally modified his conversation to suit the abilities of the less proficient. His genius was unduly labelled as madness by the ignorant.

Fr Joaquim Loiola Pereira spoke of José Pereira eschewing a meal after having laid his hands on a book he had been in search of. Such was his dedication to scholarship. Fr Pereira said, ‘Charles Dickens described himself as inimitable. I think the epithet suits José Pereira perfectly!’

Prominent writer, Damodar Mauzo, expressed his astonishment at José Pereira’s singing of the national anthems of different countries, revealing his aptitude for languages. Other speakers, José Lourenco and Savia Viegas, went on to honour the man with their speeches, recalling experiences and professing to be inspired by the man to stoke a cultural revolution that will change the face of Goa.

José Pereira will be missed greatly by those who had a taste of his friendship, and sense of humour. But death leaves not a sting, for the man’s legacy will live on long after he has been committed to the earth.