Paying ode to Goa’s first global poet: Luís de Camões
A link to a recent article in the Times of India newspaper about an upcoming book by Landeg White about Luís Vaz de Camões years in India – Camões: Made in India.
Later this year, a landmark new book will be released, one of the most important in the long history of India’s contact with Europe, and the crucible of globalization in the Portuguese state in Goa. Its author is the distinguished academic, scholar, poet and translator, Landeg White. The title says it all rather succinctly: Camoes – Made in Goa. The most acclaimed contemporary translator of the works of Portugal’s revered “national poet” makes a sensational case. As he outlined in a previous essay about Camoes in Goa, “it’s up to you whether or not you want to claim him, but if India can take on Kipling, at least selectively, then Camoes should pose no problem”
White’s argument is highly persuasive. He points out the poet spent 15 years in Goa. “These were the best years of his adult life, during which he wrote most of his greatest poetry…it was the experience of being in India that changed him from a conventional court poet into one of the most original poets of the period.” Naturally, “this is not something the Portuguese will ever have told you. He is revered in Portugal…But it is not good for a poet to be worshipped. It gets in the way of seeing him clearly and taking the real measure of his greatness.” It has taken this Welsh-born poet, who has spent much of his career teaching in Africa and the Caribbean, many years and a struggle to liberate Camoes from his own reputation. This new book caps his effort.
Previous generations were loath to admit it, but no country in Europe is so thoroughly remade by its experience in India. Those centuries of colonialism are central to the country’s self-image. At Jeronimos monastery in Lisbon, the very heart of Portuguese civilizational identity, the subcontinent is everywhere. The building itself was raised with monies from the spice trade. The royal family remains are entombed in caskets borne by carved elephants. Its entranceway is flanked by two caskets of the icons of Portuguese culture – Vasco da Gama and Luis de Camoes. Both of them made their name in India.
Why is Camoes so important? It is partly because of what he wrote about. ‘The Lusiads’ in particular is widely considered the single most influential work in Portugal’s literary tradition, as it glorifies the 16th century voyages of Vasco da Gama and his successors in the epic tradition of Homer’s Iliad and Virgil’s Aeneid. But even more significant is his impact on the language. The effect of these works is so lastingly immense that Portuguese is often referred to as “the language of Camoes”. It is an astonishing legacy, made absolutely unique because most of it was executed in Goa. It is as though most of Shakespeare’s best plays had been penned in Kanpur, or the majority of Dante’s works were completed in Simla.
White writes that Camoes “experienced Africa, India and the far East as a long and bitter exile. Yet he was the first major European poet to cross the equator, and experience Africa and India first-hand. More precisely, it was his experience of Ceuta and Goa that turned him into a major poet”. Even more specifically, it was in India that “Camoes discovered two things. First, he learned what it was to be Portuguese…Secondly, he learned to celebrate what the Portuguese had given the world with the pioneering voyages of the 15th century culminating in the voyage to India, in revealing the planet’s true dimensions, its wealth, and its multitudes of peoples”. In some ways, this made Camoes the first truly cosmopolitan global intellectual and artist, capable of seeing both East and West from multiple perspectives.
In Old Goa, the lofty pre-Liberation statue of Camoes was moved indoors after a mob of protestors attacked it in 1980. This was sound aesthetics, because it depicts the rebellious, impoverished poet in typically Portuguese fashion, as White says “an imperial, Parnassian figure”. More true to life is a painting that will be on the cover of White’s new book, which shows the poet jailed in Goa. White says “This new Camoes, in rags and in jail, is a figure (the Portuguese) turn from in embarrassment. It is an image for India to embrace.”
The original article can be found here.