Madras Miscellany - Remembering the girmitiyas

Published - January 02, 2011 05:47 pm IST

Mahatma Gandhi at the Round Table Conference in London in 1931. Photo: Special Arrangement

Mahatma Gandhi at the Round Table Conference in London in 1931. Photo: Special Arrangement

On January 11, there will be unveiled at the Kidderpore Docks in Garden Reach, Calcutta, a memorial to the girmitiyas, the Indian indentured workers who went to Mauritius, Fiji, the West Indies, particularly to what is Guyana today, and Trinidad, and South Africa. From 1834 till the 1920s, ` girmitiya' appears to be a corruption coined from the fact that the workers were agreement/permit holders; the agreement was generally that they would be allowed to return to India after working in the cane fields for five years, their return passages being paid. Virtually no one came back, with the promise not being kept or because many had got a bit of land to farm in surroundings they had got used to.

The voyage by ship, always a horrific one due to treating humans like sardines, and the additional hardships they faced in the sugarcane plantations that were to become their home are what is being remembered in this memorial being erected by the Global Indian Diaspora Heritage Society. The Society plans in the second phase to establish a museum and resource centre close to the memorial.

Most of the workers who left from Calcutta were from the eastern United Provinces and Bihar. But, while they are being remembered by what is called a Global Indian Diaspora, it strikes me as strange that the many more who went as virtually bonded labour to Ceylon, Burma and the Federated Malay States and the Strait Settlements (modern Malaysia) from Madras, Negapatam and Thondi almost half a century earlier, find no mention in all that has been written about the Memorial, which, in its plaque, only mentions those who journeyed to Calcutta to cross the treacherous seas of kala pani . In fact, the far larger number who sailed from the ports of the Coromandel were mainly Tamils and it was Tamil Nadu that should have been first in recognising what this southern diaspora went through from the 1790s till the 1940s.

In all the writing about the Calcutta memorial, only one writer talks about the South Indian workers who went overseas as virtually bonded labour. And, what Satish Rai, a Sydney-based filmmaker, has to say about them deserves to be quoted in full. He writes:

“I had filmed some footage for my film The Land of South IndiaGirmitiyas , at the port of Madras, now Chennai, from where the South Indian girmitiyas were transported. They were recruited from remote areas of the Madras Presidency….the main areas (being) the Malabar Hills (Palghat District), Coimbatore, North and South Arcot, Tanjore and Chingleput Districts, and Vijayawada District. ( Note: He has left out the major exodus from the Ramnad, Madura and Tinnevelly Districts, perhaps because most of these workers sailed from Thondi.) After filming in these places I realised the distances these girmitiyas were transported from their homes and barracked in depots in Madras before being shepherded on ships to be transported to even further and distant colonial plantations. I had looked for the depots where these ‘human commodities' were held in Madras before transportation but could not find any… and no one I spoke to in Chennai even cared. Apart from girmitiyas , the port of Madras had transported some three million Indians to former European colonies, such as Ceylon, Malaysia and Singapore. There is no memorial for those Indians in Chennai as well.”

Indeed, not only is there no memorial in Madras to the memory of Indians, mainly Tamils, who went to toil in the coffee, tea, rubber and sugar plantations, as well as serve as ‘coolie' labour on infrastructural projects, in the British colonies in South and Southeast Asia, but they, as well as their descendants, are hardly recognised during the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas conventions by those who gather at it. And, that is the real tragedy.

Columbia in the South

As I expected, Carnatic music historian Sriram.V came through with more information about P.Orr's venture into music, Orr's Columbia and Talkies Ltd., but that was a company P.Orr's had set up only in 1937. In 1929, as P.Orr's, it had added music to its timepieces, silver and jewellery lines, when it was appointed sole distributors in India and Ceylon of the products of the Columbia Gramophone Company Limited that had been established in London in 1917 to take over the European business of the Columbia Phonograph Company of New York.

The very year it was appointed agents, P.Orr's organised the first recording sessions for Columbia in India and Ceylon. Around 430 recordings were done during that August session in Madras and Colombo, not all of them satisfactory. Another recording session was done in Madras in January 1931. All the pressings were done in London.

Columbia, around this time, began to appoint zonal agents in India and P.Orr's now became its agent only for Southern India. When Columbia set up its own office in Calcutta in 1931, it began pressing its discs there, but its agents could finance — and thus own — ‘Special Recordings' that were only available from outlets in the agent's territory. These as well as P.Orr's earlier recordings — done with a recording machine that cost the Company £5000 — were made in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Tulu, Konkani, Hindustani and Sinhalese. Of the 481 recordings done at a cost of Rs. 94,000, 279 were in Tamil. The expenditure included artists' fees which ranged from Rs. 2,000 to Rs. 25,000.

When Columbia's contract with P.Orr's was renewed in 1934, distribution was handled by a new wing of the Company named Orr's Columbia House. This is what, in May 1937, became a separate company wholly owned by P.Orr's and called Orr's Columbia and Talkies Ltd. In December 1938, this company became Orr's Gramophone and Talkies Ltd. when K.S. Narayanan left Saraswathi Stores to join the new firm. Saraswathi Stores, in what seems like meeting a challenge head on, persuaded Columbia to give it also the agency for its products, and in December 1939 became Columbia's second distributor in the South. In November 1941, it became sole distributor for Columbia in Southern India — and P.Orr's venture into music came to an end.

The Mahatma's message

Besides music, P.Orr's also did recordings of messages and speeches by well-known Indians. Its greatest coup in its recording history was to persuade Mahatma Gandhi to record the message I referred to last week.

‘His Spiritual Message' was recorded while he was attending the Round Table Conference in London in 1931 and was about “faith in God, His existence, His law and His Love.” That message, in part, reads:

“There is an indefinable mysterious power that pervades everything. I feel it, though I do not see it. It is this unseen power which makes itself felt and yet defies all proof, because it is so unlike all that I perceive through my senses. It transcends the senses, but it is possible to reason out the existence of God to a limited extent. Even in ordinary affairs we know that people do not know who rules, or why and how he rules and yet they know that there is a power that certainly rules. In my tour last year in Mysore, I met many poor villagers and I found upon enquiry that they did not know who ruled Mysore. They simply said: “Some God ruled it.” If the knowledge of these poor people was so limited about their ruler, I, who am infinitely less in respect to God than they to their ruler, need not be surprised if I do not realise the presence of God, the King of Kings. Nevertheless I do feel as the poor villagers felt about Mysore, that there is orderliness in the universe. There is an unalterable law governing everything and every being that exists or lives. It is not a blind law, for no blind law can govern the conduct of living beings. I may not deny the law or the law-giver because I know so little about it or him. Just as my denial or ignorance of the existence of an earthly power will avail me nothing, even so my denial of God and his law will not liberate me from its operation. I can see that in the midst of death life persists, in the midst of untruth truth persists, in the midst of darkness light persists. Hence I gather that God is life, truth, light …. He is Love. He is the supreme good.”

And, on that philosophic note let me wish all my readers a Very Happy New Year and may it bring each one of you great happiness.

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