Azulejos de Goa: ‘Tiling’ a new story!

In this unique space in Panjim, the hand-painted ceramic tiles showcase one man’s passion for preserving a piece of history.  

Orlando de Noronha went to Portugal in 1997 to learn how to play the Portuguese guitar. A year later, he returned armed with the knowledge of how to make azulejos, too. Today, 25 years later, de Noronha’s Azulejos de Goa is playing an important part in preserving this dying art of hand-painted ceramic tiles.

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A typical Portuguese azulejo tilework in the St Francisco church in Evora, Portugal. Azulejos constitute a major aspect of Portuguese architecture. Image: Shutterstock/Valerie2000.

The origins are conflicting: some say it came from Spanish moors, others say it evolved from ceramic tile decorations in Persia, before moving to Spain. Nevertheless, it was the Portuguese who introduced the art to its colonies, popularising the ubiquitous blue colour. The art found much favour in Goa.

In 1998, it caught the attention of this young Goan musician in Portugal. Noronha graduated in Fine Arts, but it was his love for music — especially the Portuguese guitar, a pear-shaped stringed instrument associated with the musical genre of Fado — that made him apply for a scholarship to Portugal. Fundação Oriente granted him a Portuguese Language and Culture Scholarship (music was not an option) and he moved to Coimbra, Portugal, for a year. During his free time, he started learning the Coimbra style of the Portuguese guitar.

Back then, Noronha lived with a Goan family whose dining hall had a portrait of a guitar player done on azulejos. “I always admired it. One day, I asked my host about its origins. He took me to the house of the artist, Fernando Martins, who saw I had an interest in the art and invited me over to learn,” he says.

Though Martins agreed to teach, getting to the artists’ house was difficult and Noronha had only four months of his scholarship left. He still absorbed what he could, returning with a portrait of then girlfriend-now wife Tina, coasters with the names of family members; a tiled panel of four was gifted to his Portuguese guitar tutor.

On his return to India, Noronha decided to pursue making azulejos as a profession. “I was not linked to the art directly because my line of work was advertising, but I fell in love with it. I thought ‘there are too many people doing advertising in the world, why not pursue this art and re-introduce it in Goa’,” he recalls. It was a big risk. He did not have a furnace/kiln, colours, or the space to create this art, and it was difficult getting people interested.

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Azulejos can also come in colours other than blue! Image: Joanna Lobo.

One of Noronha’s farewell gifts from Portugal was a book on azulejos, Azulejos Arte e História, which he would carry with him as a representation of what he could do. “I would show people the book and say, this is what can be done. I did not have a portfolio, so people did not want to take the risk,” he explains. To solve that issue, he started painting name plaques for friends and family, thus building his portfolio.

In 1999, came the big break for Noronha and Azulejos de Goa. The upcoming Taj Exotica had a requirement for azulejos — the architect wanted a mural at the main entrance. He sketched a panel of Fontainhas, and his art got approved immediately.

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The essence of Fontainhas captured on a tile. Image: Joanna Lobo.

He worked from home, from a small studio built under a staircase in his house in Panjim, with just one artist to help him. He would paint the tiles at home, then transport them in two wooden boxes — 15 tiles in each — to his furnace in Thivim Industrial Estate. “I started taking them by bus, initially, or would hitch a lift but, it wasted a lot of time and was not a reliable means of getting there and back. Tina had a Scooty, so I would pack the two boxes on it and ride to Thivim,” Noronha laughs, adding, “It is good when you come up the hard way like this, because you learn how to value things.”

By then, the orders had started coming in: Club Mahindra, Grand Intercontinental, Hotel Fidalgo, and more. Taj Exotica also wanted him to design the tiles for their swimming pool — he did the main art, and they got the tiles mass produced in Mumbai. At the time, Noronha’s focus was big projects, panels, and murals, for hospitality clients and even private homes across India.

Over time, he started getting requests for small mementos. Initially hesitant to attempt making tiles below six inches in size, his ‘why not’ attitude triumphed. Today, these small tile mementos that largely depict Goan life, and name plaques, drive much of his business.

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Name plaques made of azulejo tiles are popular. Image: Courtesy Azulejos de Goa.

In time, Noronha’s gallery moved from below the staircase to a room before moving to its current space in the other wing of the house, three years ago. When Noronha started his work, one section of the house was given out on rent. When the arrangement ended a few years back, he decided to use the space for another passion project.

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Azulejo de Goa now has its own dedicated space in the de Noronha house. Image: Joanna Lobo.

“Our family has always been connected to Portuguese culture. My eldest brother, Óscar de Noronha, founded a publishing house, Third Millennium, which published in Portuguese, Konkani, and English. I was linked to ceramics, and I love the Fado and Mandó. Coincidentally, Tina is a good cook. When this space opened, I thought of creating a centre for Indo Portuguese arts where we could preserve these four art forms: literary arts, ceramics, music, and culinary,” he says.

The Centre for Indo-Portuguese Arts (CIPA), which was formed on July 24, 2019. It now includes Azulejos de Goa; Third Millennium Publishers; de Noronha Associates, which makes customised crockery; Renascença Goa — a monthly chat show in Portuguese; Madragoa or the house of Fado and Mandó; and Cháfé Braz — a small café serving Indo Portuguese food. An extension of Cháfé Braz involves live Jazz concerts, some involving the legendary musician Braz Gonsalves, that gave the place its name.   

The de Noronha house goes back over 200 years and sits on a main road in Panjim, looking out onto the Mandovi River (now littered with casinos). A wide stone staircase leads to a landing taken up by a mural of a flower vase, which is one of Orlando’s first creations. One section of the house functions as a residence; the other is home to CIPA.

Azulejos de Goa occupies one room in CIPA and is chockful of de Noronha’s work, from bigger panels to smaller tiles (the smallest is 2” x 2”). There is a wall dedicated to some Mario Miranda prints (10 in total and taken with permission from the late artist). Some tiles are framed, others sit on a small stand, still others are hung up on the wall, or peek out from tiny replicas of Goan oyster shell windows.

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The late Mario Miranda’s work immortalised on azulejos. Image: Joanna Lobo.

There is a subtle but noticeable distinction between the hand-painted tiles and digital prints — the former has vivid colouring. Today, Azulejos de Goa has five furnaces, a studio in St Inez, and sells largely name plates and small mementos. Tina also introduced jewellery, bracelets, rings and more. “We tried to incorporate designs of azulejos or Goa-related designs in whatever items we can, from tables, stools and trays to jewellery,” says Noronha.

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Watches with the characteristic designs. Image: Joanna Lobo.

He is choosy about taking up panel work these days. “I have the café and fado and performances and cannot dedicate the required time to azulejos. I want to enjoy this work and not let it become a stress,” he avers. “It is not only about selling tiles. These are some of the things I loved doing; this is my life,” he smiles.

Good to know

Address: 7/2, DB Avenue, Opposite Captain of Ports Jetty, Panjim | Prices: Begin at Rs 275 per tile | Website: Click here.

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