Between 1834 and 1917, shiploads of indentured workers had set sail for distant unknown lands, saath samundar paar , to work as coolies in the sugar plantations of British colonies. From United Provinces, Oudh and Bihar, they would be taken, some bullied, some simply tricked into signing up, in ships to West Indies, Mauritius and other countries in need of cheap labour.
Many died at sea, but those who survived the epidemics, disasters and filthy living conditions, held on to one thing apart from their sparse potlis : their music. It was a part of their quotidian life: songs for birth, for weddings, for harvest, sowing, summer, rains, parting—what are commonly called ‘women’s songs’.
Life in the plantations on the tapu (island) was tough but no hardship was unbearable enough to erase the memory of these songs that were a part of their identity and a reminder of the homeland they wouldn’t see again. Over the decades, the jahajis (people of the ship) settled down and made their home in these islands.
As for the songs from their des, recordings at the Archives and Research Centre for Ethnomusicology (ARCE) in Delhi show that many things happened to it: a lot stayed intact, frozen in time. Some changed, bringing in new themes of modern romance, baap-beta fights, and so on. And some of it absorbed freely from local styles like calypso in Trinidad to become a sparkling new thing: chutney music.
A different past
Visual artist Priya Sen, backed by India Foundation for the Arts, took a year to work her way through the fascinating collection of the music of the diaspora in Trinidad and Mauritius to craft an audio-visual display, Seevbalak’s Echo Chamber. She dips into the music collections of U.S.-based ethnomusicologists Helen Myers and Laxmi Tewari, and Mauritian scholar Prittiviraj Jayaram, to offer a glimpse of a culture that is constantly changing and constantly yearning to remain ‘pure’.
“ Dhaile dhaile kharab ho jay ,” says Seevbalak, 74, wistfully, in an interview recorded in 1991 by Tewari. With time and loss of memory, this music is going bad, complains the Trinidadian whose father arrived as a jahaji bhai from Kashi. He then proceeds to sing a quaint composition situated in a world that has no parallels with his real world: “ Mori bail, gau rahe/ doodh dahi ki nadiya bahe/ mori ma behen ki laaj rahe (May I forever have a cow, an ox/ may there forever be rivers of milk and curd/ and may the honour of my mother and sister remain forever intact.).
Seevbalak’s memory yields bhajans, unusual patriotic songs (‘Gandhi ko mil gayi bansuri’), and assorted folk songs. The genres of music that went from eastern U.P. and western Bihar to Trinidad and Mauritius are varied and rich, roughly classifiable as Bhojpuri, but it comes with the typical lilt of the purab — thumri , chaiti , kajri , sohar , biraha , byah geet , barahmasa , bandanvar and hori , among others. Given that the largest number of indentured labour went from Benares, this is understandable. There is even mention of a certain kind of dhrupad and tillana .
The magic of memory
It was while working in Mauritius on another project that Sen heard the music of its Indian diaspora. “It was like the music of the 1970s Hindi movies. There were elements of ritual music, festival and wedding songs,” she recalls. As she sifted through the collections at ARCE, it was Seevbalak’s voice coming over a distant recording that held her attention and gave her a strong narrative to pin her project on. “His words became an echo chamber where multiple experiences collided and produced something I could share.”
The older migrants, now in their 70s and 80s, are much sought after by collectors and community members, alike, for their memory of the ‘real’ thing, the music as it was closest to its arrival at the tapu .
In Mauritius, Jayaram collated the songs, memories and experiences of men and women of the diaspora: how do wedding ceremonies go, what does the ritual finery look like, when is such-and-such song sung.
Chutney music of Mauritius and Trinidad—and other plantation colonies—is the contemporary face of the melodies that came to the islands in the 1800s. These songs went from homes to weddings to radio, records, and finally the stage. Chutney music is fast, saucy, danceable, a happy mix of Bhojpuri and Creole influences. You can hear elements of calypso, soca and reggae; the sounds of the dholak and harmonium mixing with the steelpan and the guitar.
Chutney stars like Draupatee Ramgoonai and hugely successful bands like D Bhuyaa Saaj have taken Bhojpuri music a long way from its roots. But in some ways, it is closer to an archaic, long-forgotten world. ‘Kitni door torey Kasi, panditiji?’ (How far is your Kasi, panditji?) asks a D Bhuyaa Saaj song, as the band swings to a merry rhythm that is pretty close to nautanki music.
Some traditionalists are not too happy with the change, cribbing about the impropriety of bawdy lines on alcohol and sex in what were once “religious” songs. Vishnu Gosai, who heads a Trinidadian ‘Hindu’ group, complains that bhajans are being sung to themes of “wining, dancing, lewd performances and sexual acts”.
The wedding, especially what is called the “maticoor” night, still continues to be the occasion for much of Bhojpuri music, a lot of it packed with double entendre to teach the “dulahin” about the birds and the bees. Dhanawattee Seunarine Shukla of San Fernando sings some rare ‘byah ke geet’ with a beautiful simplicity. But some songs you sing when you do the ‘seven rounds’, she says she will not touch because they have “ de gaali ”.
Sen has also looked at music placed in the situation of reverse migration: the sufi music of the Siddis in Gujarat who arrived in India from Ethiopia as slave labour. Pretty much like Seevbalak’s ancestors who went to Trinidad with remembered lyrics and melodies of birahas and chaitis .
The author writes on, and lives for music, dance, theatre, and literature.