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I have been asked many times by Indian nationals as to the reasons Indo-Guyanese still sing, play, enjoy Indian music and its attendant cultural traditions almost 180 years after they were brought here and lived in slave-like conditions for many of those years.
Music originates and emanates from that most primitive aspect – the base channel – of the human soul where lurks the ecstatic condition of wonder and terror – it is the souls’ primitive and primary speech: a “speech” of rhyme without reason. Plato said that in order to take the spiritual temperature of an individual or a society, one must “mark the music.”
To the philosophers of old, the history of music is a series of attempts to “give form and beauty to the dark, chaotic, psychic forces in the soul – to make them serve a higher purpose, an ideal, to give man’s duties a fullness”. Music then plays an integral part in influencing our individual and then – as a shared cultural inventory resonating as a vibrating string through the community – our collective identity.
The majority of Indo-Guyanese came from the Bhojpuri region of India where the local Bhojpuri culture of music, songs and dances played a seminal role in everyday life.
It was the Bhojpuri region’s folk-music culture that would make up the core of the legacy brought to the West Indies. The Bhojpuri music culture imported was typically a simple rural folk-song genres but heavily oral-narrative based. It’s widespread use, even today, of the dholak and dental, in addition to the fact that great emphasis was placed on Bhojpuri words/lyrics to these early performances (contrastingly, the meaning and words of Indo-Guyanese Indian singing today is almost irrelevant!).
Even today, we are familiar with the various Bhojpuri genre that were imported, but morphed and coalesced into something uniquely Guyanese.
Many of these genres persisted and were maintained almost defensively by the cultural and religious structures that gradually solidified over the decades in the secluded and culturally isolated confines of the sugar plantations. For example, key festivals such as Divali and Phagwa supplanted older “lesser ones” and became prominent; and domestic events like bhagvats (nine-day ritual sessions), pujas (formal prayer sessions), and neighbourhood song sessions called satsangs became prevalent.
Today although some of these genre have slowly disappeared (but counter intuitively and fortunately, have sprung up in Guyanese/TT immigrant communities in cosmopolitan NY, Toronto and London), they have given way to Bollywood music, and the locally Indo-Caribbean derived Chutney-Soca. But the singing and performance of Bhajans, Bollywood Geets and Ghazals still enjoy privileged status at concerts and Mandirs wherever Indo-Guyanese reside. Virtuoso drummers, like my close friend “Biscuit”, are still prevalent.
Amid the deculturating effects of the slave plantations and the larger colonial environment, we have managed to recreate those old strands to weave an almost new repertoire and adjusted forms of the Bhojpuri compositions.
Naipaul says, “The Indians endured and prospered. The India they re-created was allowed to survive. It was an India in which a revolution had occurred. It was an India in isolation, unsupported; an India without caste or the overwhelming pressures toward caste. Effort had a meaning, and soon India could be seen to be no more than a habit, a self-imposed psychological restraint, wearing thinner with the years.”
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