Isaiah James Boodhoo: Poet of the Plains

Boodhoo doesn't paint single pictures: he produces a series at a time, on anything from Derek Walcott's poems to the life of Trinidad's Caroni plains

  • Rhythm of the flute: Radha dances to Krishna's music. Painting by Boodhoo
  • The Abduction of Sita: the fierce, ten-headed Ravan snatches the wife of Ram
  • Moon Dancer: the Hosein festival. Photograph by Bruce Paddington
  • Divali Come: deyas like the dance of fireflies

At sixty, Isaiah James Boodhoo is enjoying one of his most successful periods as an artist. At his last major exhibition, all the paintings sold. He exhibited late last year at London’s October Gallery, and was a visiting artist at the Dominican Republic’s first Biennial. He finally completed a novel he had been working on for almost thirty years.

In 1989, Boodhoo had retired from his job as a Curriculum Officer for Art and Craft in Trinidad and Tobago’s Ministry of Education, and things changed dramatically in his life. “It was like releasing a caged bird. I just didn’t know what to do with myself. I was so happy to get up in the morning, and decide to do what I wanted to do, when I wanted to do it, with no deadlines.”

He soon settled into a daily work pattern, waking at 5:30 and walking for one and a half hours. After breakfast, he writes until ten o’clock, completing about one page an hour. From ten to two he paints, and then he reads and rests. He has already started his second novel, and is researching material for his next exhibition. He is an avid writer of crosswords, having published over 7,000 in newspapers and magazines (including this one), and looks forward to the 1993 release of his first book of Caribbean crosswords.

Isaiah James Boodhoo was born in Upper Guaico, a few miles from Sangre Grande in east Trinidad, the son of an estate labourer who went on to own a corner shop and bar. He was brought up as a Presbyterian; his father was an elder in the church. In his triple name he sees “the whole history of colonialism. You have a Judaeo-Christian first name onto a British middle name, with a Hindu surname.” Hinduism was very much a part of his childhood, as he attended pujas and religious ceremonies by his relatives. He went to a Roman Catholic school, and later taught at a Presbyterian school. Far from confusing him, the diversity was stimulating.

“Most of the children in the Roman Catholic school and in my village were of African origin. My best friends were of African origin, so going to fete and carnival and playing steelband was part of my growing up. The Hindu element was also very strong, as well as the Presbyterian, because I went to church every Sunday. That kind of mixture has enriched my life.”

Boodhoo’s interest in art started at primary school. “I always liked to paint. When I was about eleven years old, a new principal came to the school. He loved to paint. He used to set up his easel and paint coffee trees in bloom, coconut trees and wild pines with beautiful red plumes. That drove me crazy, because I thought: this is like magic.” Later, training to be a teacher, Boodhoo came under another strong influence, the painter M.P. Alladin. “He opened my eyes to the cultural aspect of painting, to painting people, especially Indian people in their villages. He introduced me to the Indian, the Hindu, the Moslem elements as topics for painting.”

At the Brighton College of Art in England, Boodhoo learned the tools of his trade. His work was mainly representational, and was frowned upon by his colleagues when he returned to Trinidad to teach: they expected him to embrace some new style. Gradually he moved towards abstraction and semi-abstractlon.

But after a few years of painting abstract pieces, Boodhoo found himself in a cul de sac. “I could have done two in a morning, or four in a day. I wasn’t saying anything that satisfied me. I wanted to break out of this mould.” He decided to head for the United States in 1968, to take a Master’s degree at Central Washington University, working as a Teaching Assistant to help finance his studies. The choice of a west coast university turned out to be important. “All of my tutors came from the Los Angeles/San Francisco area, and they brought with them the west coast figurative approach to painting. That was my greatest stylistic influence up to now.”

In America, Boodhoo found himself in the midst of student activism and political protest against the Vietnam war. He began to read widely, especially about America’s involvement in Latin America. “In that atmosphere of student protest, abstract expressionism came so easily to me, to express what I wanted to express.” It was the time of Warhol, de Koonig, Rauschenburg and Jasper Johns: Boodhoo poured his political feeling into his work, painting large six-foot-square canvasses with large brushes and dripping paint.

Returning to Trinidad in 1969, he found students there too “marching up and down, making a lot of noise.” All his paintings in his 1970 National Gallery exhibition dealt with social and political themes.

In the early seventies, Boodhoo completed his doctorate in art education at Indiana University and returned to Trinidad to develop the new Caribbean Examination Council’s curriculum in Art and Craft. He worked in the Curriculum Unit from 1976 to his retirement in 1989. During this period his major exhibition was based on the poetry of the 1992 Nobel Laureate, Derek Walcott. “For about twenty years I had wanted to paint Walcott pictures, but the time was not right. His imagery is so clear, so bright. From 1962, when I saw his first hook of poems In a Green Night, it haunted me to paint it. But I just couldn’t get it down. I tried a few paintings but it never satisfied me. But from 1980 I was ready.”

Boodhoo’s 1982 exhibition, consisting of 40 pieces, was based on three poems from Walcott’s book The Star Apple Kingdom: “The Schooner Flight”, “The Saddhu of Couva” and the title poem. Walcott read at the opening, and in a note to Boodhoo wrote: “To lames with profound gratitude, for the honour of deepening my poems.” Boodhoo felt so satisfied with the show that he didn’t know what to do for an encore. “I was dried up; it would take me at least a year to build up any desire to paint. Because more and more I find myself not being a one-picture person. Something had to grow in my mind, and then I could work on a theme, and paint ten or twelve paintings on it. Then I would be satisfied.”

What was taking root, as an off-shoot of “The Saddhu of Couva” series, was his feeling for the life and landscape of central Trinidad, the Caroni plain with its Indian villages, its river, its sugar cane and sugar factories. This is where many of the Indian labourers imported into Trinidad by the British administration in the 19th century had settled, preserving much of their lifestyle.

Boodhoo became more involved with his curriculum duties, and became the CXC’s Chief Examiner in Art in 1985. This involved travelling throughout the Caribbean, training markers and supervising examinations. He only did one or two paintings a year. But after his retirement in 1989, he started to make sketches on themes like the ones he had explored in his paintings on Walcott’s poem “The Saddhu of Couva”. He started to paint the life of the East Indian in Trinidad.

One day he finished a picture which he called “Caroni Jail”, and showed it to the painter Ken Crichlow. Crichlow was excited by it; encouraged by his colleague’s comments, Boodhoo started to work on a whole Caroni series. He spent days researching East Indian culture, driving slowly in his car, taking photographs, making sketches and recording images to work on in his studio. He began to paint in earnest, working on as many as ten paintings at a time, each at a different stage of development.

Before starting the series, he held an exhibition in Toronto, and visited India. India affected him deeply. For the first time in his life, he said, he could walk in the streets in a place where everybody looked like him. By 1992 the “Caroni” series was completed and successfully exhibited: it was a brilliant fusion of expressionist style and strong figurative elements. “No matter how abstract my paintings have become, they are always based on something realistic, something actual, something in the landscape, in the people. It was never just working in shape or colour.

The “Caroni” exhibition captured the life of Trinidad’s Indian-descended population in all its aspects. In the paintings, Caroni is seen as more than just a river or a plain. It has religious significance, as though the Ganges had been transported to Trinidad. Titles such as “Caroni Jail”, where the cane has imprisoned the workers, and “Waiting For What The Government Owe”, where a single faceless figure merges with the landscape wondering if he will ever receive his back pay, express the working life of the Caroni Indian. Traditional religion and culture shine through in paintings such as “Rhythm Of The Flute”, where Radha dances to Krishna’s music, and “Moon Dance”, a composition in blue and purple on the Hosein (or Hosay) Festival that is celebrated each year in Trinidad.

Boodhoo describes Caroni as that “lazy looping yellow ribbon that cuts through the flat geometric shapes of green. It is the rhythmic rolling of the bare earth like tassa drums from light ochres to deep reds. It is the bloody wounds of the furrowed land and the black and the grey and the browns. Caroni is the scent of marigold and agar-batti (incense sticks); the sweet sickly smell of burnt cane mixed with sweat and smoke. It is the drone of Ramayan chanting, the wheeze of the harmonium, the tinkle of bells; the call to prayer at sunset, the questioning sound of the conch shell, sometimes imperious and sometimes mournful; the sucking of feet being lifted from the rice swamp; the grunts that accompany the cutting and the lifting and the pulling; the patient sighs of those waiting for someone to notice them standing in the sun, rooted in the land.”

If 1992 was a good year for Boodhoo, the future seems equally exciting. He has started work on his second novel, continues to work on crosswords and puzzles for Caribbean Beat, and a theme is emerging for a series of new printings. He looks forward to the publication of his first novel, Between Two Seasons, by Longmans in January 1994. Boodhoo admits he should have retired earlier in order to concentrate more fully on his painting and his writing. But the last thing he expresses is regret. “What is important is the quality of work you do. If you can do some very good work for a few years it is better than doing ordinary work for forty years. At my stage I prefer to print some very good pictures, a few rather than volumes of work, and do some writing, taking my time, and to do the things that I would like to do.”

Rabindranath Tagore became an artist at 74, Boodhoo points out; Grandma Moses started to paint at 72. “I don’t think the age matters.”