Word of mouth (May/June 2013)

Commemorate the 175th anniversary of Indian Arrival in Guyana, celebrate our connection to nature at the Hindu festival of Ganga Dhaaraa & much more

  • Damian Marley. Photograph courtesy St Kitts Music Festival
  • Photograph by Edison Boodoosingh
  • Photograph from Twenty-Five Years in British Guiana (1898), by Henry Kirke

Arrival matters

Neil Marks previews the celebrations for the 175th anniversary of Indian Arrival in Guyana

When slavery in the British West Indies came to its final end in 1838, the sugar planters’ biggest fear was that newly emancipated Africans would abandon the sprawling estates. They looked elsewhere in the British empire for a source of new labour, and found it in the Indian subcontinent, recruiting tens of thousands of workers there.

And so it was that the first boatloads of indentured Indian workers arrived in British Guiana on 5 May, 1838, on board the transport ships Hesperus and Whitby. Today, 175 years later, their descendents make up a majority of Guyana’s population, and spectacular celebrations are planned across the country to mark the one-and-three-quarter-century anniversary.

Every year, the West Demerara Indian Religious, Social, and Cultural Organisation marks Indian Arrival Day with an elaborate parade. It’s designed to give younger Guyanese a near-authentic experience of what life was like for earlier generations of Indian migrants in the British colony. Tractor-driven trailers feature depictions of the mud houses the first immigrants lived in, and you stand a good chance of seeing old ladies dressed in traditional garb, cooking roti on mud stoves called “firesides.”

Other floats feature wedding recreations (complete with make-believe brides and grooms), showing the religious rituals of today’s Indo-Guyanese, whether Hindu, Muslim, or Christian. There are also recreations of sugar plantation life, depicting the treatment meted out to indentured workers by British overseers. The tractors pull up at Joe Vieira Park for a cultural show featuring dancing, tassa drumming, and (of course) speeches.

Elsewhere, most of the Indian Arrival celebrations take on a Bollywood flair. Movies seem to be the strongest link between Guyana and India these days. The Guyana Hindu Dharmic Sabha has roped in the mega playback singers Udit Narayan and Alka Yagnik for a concert at the National Stadium. Udit and Alka’s songs have been a fixture in Indo-Guyanese homes since they started singing in the 1980s, and the songs that launched their careers thirty years ago remain as popular now as they were then. So expect to hear Alka’s “Ek Do Teen” and Udit’s “Papa Kehte Hai” on 5 May.

The Indian Arrival Committee plans countrywide melas (fairs), all of them involving song and dance programmes. But for many Guyanese, the best part of the celebrations will be culinary. Seven-curry stalls will be out in full force — and if you’re wondering if the name is an exaggeration, well, it isn’t. You can be assured of rice and seven different curries, served up on a water lily leaf to be eaten with your bare hands — or you can go for the styrofoam plate and plastic spoon. I suggest the former. Not only is it better for the environment, but there is something special about licking curry off your fingers!



Sacred waters

Attillah Springer joins the celebration of Ganga Dhaaraa at Trinidad’s Marianne River, and explains how the ancient Hindu festival reminds us of our connection — and duty — to nature

I’m not a Hindu, and that is the least of my worries. What matters is that our rivers are sacred, and at risk of being overrun by the march towards development.

Which is why I find myself at a bend in the Marianne River between Arima and Blanchisseuse, where the Hindu faithful gather every year for a unifying experience of humanity, divinity, and their manifestations in nature.

Ganga Dhaaraa — celebrated this year on 19 June — is one of those quiet moments in the Trinidad calendar when so many things that we take for granted come together. And it is no accident that this place in the Northern Range was chosen by the Hindu Prachar Kendra: Arima, an indigenous name, means “place of water”, and Blanchisseuse is a leave-over from our time with the French colonisers who named the north coast village for the sea spray like a washerwoman’s suds.

At our first point of contact with the river, there is a Lord Ganesh murti surrounded by fruit and flowers, offerings for all obstacles to be removed. The ancient beliefs that came to Trinidad with indentured Indians and enslaved Africans live not only in Carnival or in our music. They live in nature. In the conscious recognition that Ganga Mai and Oshun are reincarnated in these waters. Far from the Himalayas, Mother Ganges finds us.

To touch the river is to understand her divinity. You must walk the path of the river to pay your respect. You must experience the shocking coolness of the water in the early dawn, the sharp jab of stones, the yielding softness of mud. The sun barely peeps through the thick forest cover in those early dawn hours when the only noises are forest ones: raucous birds and a whispering river.

Later in the morning, as the devotions begin, the forest sounds are joined by drums and laughter. By conch shells and the surprised wails of baby boys receiving their first hair-shaving. Mothers and daughters offer coconut-shell boats of flowers and camphor, and young couples and young hopefuls line up for love blessings. The river is busy with the music of devotion, and everyone moves to the water’s rhythms, consciously or unconsciously.

Vedic and Puranic myths of the goddess Ganga differ, but the shared understanding is that she was sent to earth to purify negativity. Bathing in her sacred waters is act of spiritual cleansing. But in the midst of this celebration, the children of the Kendra are giving us a terrible reminder of the reality of our rivers. Ganga Mai staggers along the river bank in a sari covered in trash, followed by a troop of demons intent on destroying her beauty. She pleads with devotees to take their devotion beyond this pilgrimage, to stand up for her wherever water flows.

After the devotions and meditations, the river receives an offering of a sari full of yellow flowers. Everyone is wet and tired and happy from a morning’s worth of singing and splashing and fully engaged worship.

Retreat out of the river now, and leave her in her forest silence. Back past Ganesh, still fat-bellied and smiling. I have a little yellow string on my wrist as a reminder of Ganga puja. To remind me of a commitment to giving respect to the river. Not just because she is sacred, but because without water, human beings cannot exist. The flow of consciousness between us must remain unbroken.



Island eclectic

Garry Steckles on the unexpectedly various line-up at the St Kitts Music Festival — from classic reggae to classical Chinese

The following names have one thing in common — and it’s not just the fact they all are, or were, top-flight musicians:

Wyclef Jean, Dionne Warwick, the late Dennis Brown, Hugh Masekela, Peabo Bryson, Roberta Flack, Toni Braxton, Stephen Marley, Damian Marley, Sister Sledge, Percy Sledge, Sparrow, the late Arrow, David Rudder, Kenny Rogers, Kool and the Gang, Buju Banton, Akon, Machel Mantano, Billy Ocean, Arturo Tappin, Kassav, Calypso Rose, Burning Spear, Tabou Combo, Inner Circle, Beres Hammond, Steel Pulse, Beenie Man, Yellow Man, Elephant Man, Lady Saw, Chaka Khan, Ludacris, Air Supply, Tarrus Riley, KC and the Sunshine Band, Sean Paul, John Holt, the Manhattans, John Legend, Phil Perry, Busta Rhymes, DMX, Freddie McGregor, Sizzla, Shaggy, Bunny Wailer, the Temptations.

This wildly eclectic assortment is just a sampling of the smorgasbord of singers, songwriters, and players of instruments who have graced the stage of one of the Caribbean’s most unique music festivals.

Which one? Well, if you add to the list the Su Wen-Ching Chinese Ensemble and Louis Farrakhan, many dedicated followers of festivals — which have become a major part of the Caribbean’s music scene over the past few decades — will know right away that I must be talking about St Kitts. The island’s music festival made its bow in June of 1996 to the sounds of the Chinese musicians, in full stage regalia, performing their nation’s classical music with traditional instruments. A couple of nights later, Farrakhan, who was an accomplished violinist and popular calypsonian before becoming leader of the Nation of Islam, joined Inner Circle on stage in a spirited rendition of Bob Marley’s “One Love”.

The way-off-the-beaten-track curtain-raiser and Farrakhan’s impromptu appearance were just a taste of things to come in a festival which has established a reputation for featuring a dizzying mix of music with something for just about every taste, and which will do more of the same on 27, 28, and 29 June this year.

In recent years, with the Caribbean tourist industry feeling the impact of global economic doldrums, the festival, now a robust teenager, has really started to earn its keep, attracting an ever more diverse range of music lovers to St Kitts during the traditionally slow summer tourist season. It’s an evolvement that brings particular satisfaction to Ricky Skerritt, St Kitts’s minister of tourism. “We used to get mostly visitors from other parts of the Caribbean,” he says, “but in recent years the festival has been bringing in significant numbers of people from outside the region and playing an increasingly important role in our tourism industry.”

Skerritt is equally enthused when he talks about the price of admission to the St Kitts Music Festival — which has been kept at a more than reasonable EC$100 (US$37) per night for many years, despite budget constraints and rising costs. “It’s got to be one of the best music deals anywhere,” he says.

No arguments there. And while there were some frustrating budget-related delays in finalising the 2013 lineup, at the time of writing the artists festival organisers were hoping to sign up included reggae giants Jimmy Cliff, Toots and the Maytals, and Ken Boothe — none of whom have appeared at the event previously.

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