PAGE 08: Panjim in the Pandemic

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Just one IFFI ago, could one have imagined the circumstances in which the next one would be held? But the show must go on, apparently, quite literally.

Few people even from our tiny state of Goa realise that the magnificent building that is the home of the ESG (Entertainment Society of Goa), which hosts IFFI, once housed the Escola Medica, Asia’s oldest medical college, which was also its nerve centre when Goa faced its last pandemic (the ‘Spanish’ flu) a century earlier.

That scourge, in four waves between 1918 and 1920, was much deadlier (close to 40 million dead worldwide according to one estimate) than this coronavirus pandemic (touch wood!) has been so far. 

Yet, public memory is surprisingly short, and even chronicles on health and hygiene summarise the 1918 pandemic in just a few paragraphs. My own family’s oral history made me a little more aware, as I’m a fourth-generation doctor, and my great-grandfather Gen. Dr. Miguel Caetano Dias (1864-1936) was the Director of Escola Medica and the Serviços de Saúde (Health Services, a stone’s throw away) when it struck.

A century later, our digitally connected world has kept us plugged in with the rest of the world in a way previous generations couldn’t have dreamed, and to some extent, alleviated our sense of isolation. One wonders how our ancestors weathered their lockdown against a much more lethally contagious virus.

The lockdown in Goa was sudden and brutal, as it was elsewhere in the country. After we recovered from the shock, and food and medicine supply lines had stabilized, what was most remarkable for me was how my Panjim neighbourhood seemed to have been transported back in time to my childhood of the 1970s. The near-absence of traffic, wide-open streets uncluttered with parked vehicles, noticeably cleaner air, less dust, and the glorious sounds of nature. It seemed too good to last, and it was.

For a time, in the initial harshest lockdown months, even cycling (except for “essential purposes”) wasn’t allowed. But gradually, as restrictions eased, I returned to it as a form of exercise in these troubled times. Cycling is actually the ideal social-distancing vehicle, among its many other advantages. Another form of activity I resorted to was brisk walking within the confines of my home, Casa da Moeda (formerly Goa’s Royal Mint and the only overseas Portuguese Mint in the world still standing) ni a heritage building overlooking the River Mandovi. Each evening around sunset, I’d sprint up and down the winding stone staircase and along the verandah, often while listening to a podcast, audio-book, or music track on my phone.   

As everywhere around the world, the performing arts took a big hit. The music charity for underprivileged children that I am the founder of, Child’s Play India Foundation (, was in its tenth year in 2020 and unfortunately, all the celebratory events and our regular biannual children’s concerts had to be cancelled or postponed indefinitely.

Our music education programme had to shift online, with variable degrees of success, as so many of our children don’t own smartphones or have easy internet access. 

But on the bright side, concert halls and opera houses all over the world opened their internet archives for free to the public, a rare opportunity to widen one’s horizons and explore new aural worlds. I particularly reveled in New York’s Metropolitan Opera’s trove, and notched up over 120 operas in as many days. Similarly, art galleries and museums opened up their online archives, giving so many of us rabbit-holes to disappear down and stave off the monotony of being stuck at home. 

Book publishing houses, stores, and museums rose to the occasion, organising webinars on topics ranging from art history and current affairs to the very hot topic of identity and belonging.

For the musicians young and old among us, the lockdown was a golden opportunity to knuckle down and devote more time to practice and study new scores. As a music teacher, I’ve had to take up and teach other bowed stringed instruments (viola and cello) in addition to my chosen instrument –  the violin – to address the local paucity of teachers. The lockdown freed me up to widen my comfort zone in cello, among other things. 

Chamber and ensemble playing, however, obviously suffered. Virtual choirs and ensembles quickly blossomed all over cyberspace, not an easy feat to pull off in real-time with signal lags across the miles. 

Virtual events are likely to be the ‘new normal’, and this edition of IFFI is perhaps a good example. The advantages are that one’s living room becomes a performance space, with no interruption from coughs and other extraneous noises one sometimes endures with a live audience. The downside, of course, is missing out on the lush full-screen, digital surround glory of a cinema screening. You can’t put a price on that. 

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