Azulejos – is the tongue twister name of colorful tiles you see at many places in Goa. Azulejos is also spelled as Azulejo and Azulezoz. Especially, in old buildings. What if I told you that each of that tile is hand painted and then glazed? The lovely nameplates you see when you walk around Fontainhas in Panaji are all hand painted.
At an Azulejos studio you not just see regular tiles and blue and white nameplates but you also come across family portraits and beautiful images transported on these small square tiles.
I had happily assumed that Portuguese brought this art form to Goa and while they left, this art form stayed back. I was both right and wrong. Portuguese brought the hand painted tiles to Goa but they never brought the skills to make them in Goa. Initially, they used to get the Azulejos tiles with them from Portugal. Later when they wanted the local themes on tiles, they used to send the sketches of the Goan landscape to Portugal. Azulejos used to be handcrafted in Portugal and then shipped to Goa for installation. So, these tiles were never made in Goa during Portuguese rule.
So, when and how did it come to Goa? Well, a couple of gentlemen from Goa, students of Goa College of Arts, went to Portugal to study this art form and they brought it back to Goa. Now there are a few Azulejos Studios in Goa that skillfully paint Azulejos Tiles for you.
Brief History of Azulejos
The art of Azulejos was potentially born in Arab world sometime in 15th CE. From there it traveled to the Seville region of Spain. Initially, it has only geometric patterns and no human or animal figurine. I assume this was in line with the Islamic idea of art. However, as it started spreading to the rest of Spain and Portugal, they started adding their own creativity to the look and feel of these tiles. Scenes of human life started appearing on Azulejos.
Other accounts say that this was born when artists were trying to imitate the mosaic paintings of Rome.
Whatever the case may be of its birth, its youth was definitely in Spain and Portugal where it bloomed.
Etymology of Azulejo
Since a lot of Azulejos work happens in blue on white, a logical conclusion is drawn that the word Azulejos comes from Azure or Blue color. That is wrong.
Azulejos has its origins in Arab word az-zulayj that really means a smooth small stone possibly referring to the fine finish these Tiles have.
Visiting the Azulejo Studio in Bicholim
One fine day, I visited Turi Azulejos in Bicholim industrial estate in North Goa. Well, it was more like a studio than an industrial unit. Shankar Turi – the founder of the studio enthusiastically showed me around his work. What I saw was a balanced combination of popular Tiles that sell and custom-made tiles for clients.
He showed me the single tile paintings to 6 tile paintings that depict the popular scenes of Goa. The most popular being a Taverna scene and the Kunbi Dance. He showed me the painted plates, mugs and framed tiles. However, it was when I entered his studio area that I saw the most amazing work.
One of the large but half-finished paintings of a colorful peacock was leaning against the wall. At the bottom of it was a small printed photograph of a peacock that was being replicated on the grid of ceramic tiles. My eyes oscillated between the small photograph and its large replica on tiles. It was incredible to see the minute details being replicated.
I turned my neck to the left to see an artist holding a family portrait in sepia color in one hand and painting the same on ceramic tiles with another. It was a pleasure to see his brush move effortlessly on tiles recreating the image in shades of brown. A slanting stick helped him keep his hand steady while he painted.
On the other side of the room, a young girl was adding colors to a single tile mural depicting the Kunbi Dance of Goa. This is where I saw all the stages that a plain Jane tile takes till it becomes the smooth and shining Azulejo.
Next room had a small screen printing equipment and in one corner another young lady was packing the finished tiles. The big hall outside had the ovens that bake the tiles that are painted.
In Goa, any art form cannot be complete without Mario Miranda and his caricatures. In fact, the new age Azulejos business is inseparable from Mario Miranda’s work. You can see the two together in Mario galleries or in souvenir shops across Goa.
How they make Azulejos?
The base raw material for Azulejo tiles is the Tile itself. These square ceramic tiles come in the standard size of 15cm x 15cm. They do not look very different from the tiles used in our kitchens and bathrooms. These tiles are sourced from India, China, and Portugal. In Goa, most tiles used are Indian but some premium work is done on Portuguese tiles.
Other ingredients are colors, glue & glaze. Mr. Turi says all these he gets only from Portugal.
The design is either hand sketched or pasted using a sticker on the Tile. Stickers or screen prints are used for tiles that are sold in bulk. The sketches are then filled with color by hand. The lady painting the Kunbi dancers told me she takes about 15-20 mins to color a single tile.
Custom made tiles and murals are completely hand painted.
Once colored and glazed, they are put into these vertical stacks for baking. The giant baking ovens can heat up to 1200 deg – imagine the heat these ceramics have to go through to get that shining glazed look.
It is not just the gold that must go through the fire to glitter.
Where do Azulejo Tiles go?
Well, in Goa you can find them in many public buildings and hotels. Recently, there have been a lot of public installations in Panaji and rest of Goa using Azulejo hand-painted tiles. The peacock I write about above is a part of a public installation.
You would see the patterned tiles on the sidewalks.
Colorful nameplates remain a favorite with Goans. Walk around a Goan village and you would see them outside every home.
A lot of designers are designing furniture using these tiles as highlighters or maybe adding the Goan touch.
Of course, souvenir shops are full of Curios made of Azulejos work – you can buy coasters, paintings, crockery or just about anything in ceramic. Single, double and 6 tile paintings remain the most popular paintings.
Shankar Turi showed me a series of photographs that he has re-created on tiles for a photographer. They looked lovely and gave me tons of ideas for our Goan images.
The market for Azulejo tiles is growing as the tourism grows in Goa. Tourists take them back as souvenirs and locals used them as a memory of bygone era.
The administrations of Goan cities are trying to give color to the walls and staircases through this art form that has now become as Goan as it can.
Where to see Best Azulejos in Goa?
- Menezes Berganza Hall in Panaji
- Wedding Hall (that was once a cinema hall) at St Estaban near Old Goa
- Chinchinim in South Goa
Where to Buy Azulejos in Goa?
- Azulejos De Goa in Panaji – website
- Turi Azulejos – Bicholim
- Mario Miranda Galleries – Panaji, Porvorim, Margao, Calangute, Carmona
So, are you tempted to get some Azulejos for yourself?
Recommend you read following Travel blog on Places to visit in Goa.