A bridge between Goa and Portugal

A bridge between Goa and Portugal

A bridge between Goa and Portugal

Visitors look around Figueiredo house in Loutolim

One of Goa's largest heritage homes, the Figueiredo house in Loutolim, South Goa was recently thrown open to the public as a museum in collaboration with the Xavier Centre of Historical Research, Goa. The remarkably maintained Casa Museu Vincento Joao de Figueiredo represents a curious mélange of Indo-Portuguese history. It houses an impressive collection of furniture and porcelain -- among others, a complete early 20th century Portuguese dinner set that sits with 17th and 18th century china.

But like many upper-crust Catholic Goans, it is the indomitable Maria de Lourdes Figueiredo de Albuquerque who embodies the character and the historical circumstances that shaped the Figueiredo estate. The furniture, Christian iconography in the private chapel, Chinese silk embroidered garments, porcelain and the imposing pair of Cuban royal palms that stand at the entrance of the house are after all only mute shadows now of a fast fading era.

Well into her eighties, Albuquerque served as a member of parliament in Portugal between 1965 and 1969 under the Portuguese dictator Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, a man deeply abhorred by freedom fighters in Goa and Portugal. Set initially for life in the seminary, Salazar ruled as prime minister of Portugal for 36 years through which he built a rigidly authoritarian regime that suppressed political freedom with the use of the dreaded secret police PIDE. Salazar remained to the end unrelentingly opposed to granting independence to the colonies, directing Portuguese troops in Goa to "fight until the last man" on the eve of Goa's Liberation on December 19, 1961. Albuquerque says she turned down a second term as MP under the then prime minister Marcello Caetano, and steered instead into business in Lisbon, where her family resides.

In early 2008, Maria de Lourdes Albuquerque's sister Georgina Figueiredo died, leaving her little choice but to take a tough call on the future of the Loutolim house. Seen as something of an eccentric in the village, Georgina had spent 50 years diligently tending the house and its priceless antiques. "She worked for a legal firm in Mumbai for eight years in the 'fifties and might have become India's first woman judge had she not been asked to return to Goa to look after our father and the estate," says Albuquerque of Georgina.

Living a life divided between two countries, India and Portugal, Maria de Lourdes Albuquerque was not prepared to give up on the family estate. "She could have easily sold out," says Vivek Menezes, a member of the Figueiredo museum trust. Old Goan homes are rapidly changing hands these days with property hunters from Delhi on the prowl for bargain acquisitions and the status-conscious idle-rich competing for the 'Goan Portuguese villa'. But she chose not to. One portion of the house designated as a museum will now come under the Xavier Centre. Albuquerque who spends a greater part of the year in Goa these days also caters to guests from luxury resorts and others, who for a higher fee get a personalised tour of the house and an Indo-Portuguese buffet cooked and laid out by the feisty hostess.

The old part of the Figueiredo house with its dark brooding rooms dates back to 1604. The Figueiredo sisters ran a heritage inn there for some years. The new wing, built some 200 years later, is a sunny contrast. Books line the shelves in one wing and chandeliers reflect on china in a dining room larger than most hotel banquet halls. Priceless pieces of Into-Portuguese furniture are everywhere. Some of the pieces are unique: a rare blend of western styles infused with Indian motifs executed by Hindu craftsmen. One of the tables in the house for instance, carries a carved sequence of the dancing Krishna. Many of the pieces were made to order and reflect the confluence of two traditions that has been the hallmark of Goa, says Albuquerque.

The house is a fine example of the amalgamation of two cultures and the high living of the Goan landed gentry of the period, says Xavier Centre Director Delio Mendonca. "Had the family decided to sell, the loss would have been Goa's," he says.