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Restoring tradition

In an antique land

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TOUCH UP: The termiteruined lithograph (below) at the Holy Cross Church in Goa was re-pasted on special paper, levelled and infused with sharpness and colour

Restoration is an art that requires immense skill, patience and a historical understanding of the object being treated. In the United States, the Oliver Brothers in New York, which started out in 1850, is considered to be the longest continuously operating fine-art restoration firm of its kind. Closer home, Goa has its own version of the Oliver Brothers in the Fernandes family, who live on the outskirts of Margao, Goa's commercial capital, and who, for the last four generations, stretching back to 1857, have been committed to breathing fresh life into antique church altars, statues and ancestral mansions.

The Fernandes house at Arlem, which also acts as a studio and workshop, is where 66-year-old Agnelo Fernandes and his two sons Nixon, 29, and Glen, 25, both fine-art graduates, live. The family patriarch, who started the business, was Caetano Francsico Fernandes, popularly called Bico. Legend has it he had a hooked nose so people called him 'Bico', which means 'beak', and the name stuck. Today, even Agnelo is called Bico.

The Fernandeses are currently working on the Chapel of the Weeping Cross, St. Monica Convent at Old Goa - a project supported by the Archaeological Survey of India and in collaboration with consultants from Portugal. Material like gold leaf and certain chemicals are imported from trusted suppliers in Portugal and some from Italy and India. "We are working on the altar, the murals, the pulpit, the statues, the figurines and other antique items, " says Glen. Outside Goa, the family has worked on St Andrew's Church in Mumbai, the St Francis Xavier Cathedral in Kanyakumari, Our Lady of Hope Church on Vipin Islands at Cochin, St Bethany's Convent in Mangalore, Fr Salvador Retreat Centre in Karwar, among others. Back home, name any church in Goa and it's sure to have the Fernandes touch. Glen lists some of their more famous projects: St Sebastian Chapel at Fontainhas in Panjim, Our Lady of Piety (Piedade) Chapel at Ilha de Divar, and the houses of Justice Eurico Da Silva in Margao and Maison Rodesa (of Roldao Souza) at Cansaulim. "Agnelo's grandfather worked on the house in 1930, then his father in 1959 and now he and his sons are working on the house, " says Marconi D'souza, proprietor of Maison Rodesa.

The Cansaulim mansion is not the only continuity sheet for these restorers. In 2006, while working on the Church of Salvador do Mundo in Loutolim, Agnelo noticed by sheer accident that some of the canvas paintings he had been asked to restore had been signed by his grandfather 'Caetano Francisco Fernandes' in the year 1857. This was not the first time Agnelo and his boys had worked on Bico's work. "All four generations have worked on the Our lady of Piety Chapel at Monte, Margao, " says Agnelo.

He and his sister Maria Francisca learnt the trade just by observing and assisting their father Lawrence Santan at work, most of which was commissioned by the Portuguese governor (the last Portuguese Governor General Manuel Antonio Vassallo e Silva).

His father had the opportunity to attend a course in Portugal but Goa was liberated from Portuguese rule and Lawrence's plans were lost in transition. A similar opportunity knocked on Agnelo's door in the late '90s when the cultural institute Fundção Oriente sponsored and encouraged Agnelo to train at the Instituto de Jose Figuerdo in Lisbon. When Agnelo returned, they had him work on the restoration of the Capella Da Nossa Senhora de Monte at Old Goa. Agnelo, working with a group of restoration architects, had to clean accumulated layers of paint from the altar and then guild it with pigments, using special instruments imported from Portugal.

Architect Rajiv D'silva, also from Goa, has been a keen admirer of Agnelo's work and says he has learnt and mastered the art of the near-extinct skill of Sgraffito while working on a famous mansion, when he recreated the stencil used to paint the Azujelo. Sgraffito is a technique of applying layers of coloured plaster or ceramic onto a moistened surface, then scratching the surface, to produce an outline drawing or texture. Azulejo, which involves the painting of tin-glazed ceramic tiles, is an aspect of Portuguese culture produced in Goa without interruption for five centuries.

"I remember how Agnelo was once shocked to find an asymmetrical figure of Christ on the cross, " recalls D'silva. "He took it home with the permission of the priest and sawed off the short leg, added a length of wood, reshaped it, and returned the reworked crucifix. He also restored a wooden figure of Mary cradling the infant Jesus in her arms. It was found in the river close to the Penha de França Church at Britona. "

Agnelo, who worked in the Gulf in 1976 to support his family, returned after ten years and moved from his father's house in Borda to Arlem. He devoted himself to carrying on his father's trade. The only problems he faces are finding skilled labour and dealing with clients who are not satisfied with plain restoration but want a modern touch which goes against the principles of restoration. "Neither I nor my sons were forced to join this line of work, " says Agnelo. "And I will work till I am physically able to. This is my passion and this is my life. "

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