There is a particular social problem that has been developing over the past decade and has become a source of great concern, specifically to the Hindu community of Alexander Village on the south-western edge of Georgetown. It is a particularly dangerous and disruptive development that has attached itself to the Diwali night celebrations in that community and it has managed to bring the popular, secular extensions of those celebrations into disrepute. This has been a very controversial development which has generated considerable public attention because of the reports of anarchy and destruction that seem to have accompanied it. But what can explain it and how is it to be understood?
In the first few years of the 21st Century as well as between 2007 and 2008, gatherings on certain thoroughfares around Georgetown became increasingly popular and particularly in Alexander Village. Larger areas were becoming populated by revellers until most of the streets in that community were so congested that by 2007 it was impossible to drive through the borough.
The dangerous elements of these gatherings were growing since 2000 or 2001. One of the main sources of fun is the lighting and explosion of fire crackers (squibs) which are flung about indiscriminately, or, often, aimed at persons. This seemingly brings great delight, given the loud laughter when these missiles are thrown on the ground at the feet of girls who would then jump away screaming (not necessarily with displeasure). But the risk of injury is obvious.
Another ‘fun’ activity is the revving up and riding of motorbikes swerving through the crowded streets, sometimes moving in groups. It was also clear in 2003 that the crowds were becoming disorderly.
Diwali is a traditional religious celebration also called the festival of lights which has deeply religious significance to Hindus, but which also has a distinct element of outreach. It has a universal message as well as symbols which express some of what is sacred to the celebrants. I refer to this as “outreach” because these beliefs and messages are communicated through the public activities in which spectacular symbols are used.
The two main occasions of outreach are the grand motorcade through the streets on the night before Diwali and the lighting of diyas, which are both very spectacular and attract the attention of multitudes.
Lights are the main symbols in a festival whose messages include the triumph of light over darkness and good over evil; in which the goddess of light Laxmi is invited to bring prosperity into the hearts of devotees. The motorcade of lighted and decorated vehicles displays several holy pictures as well as tableaux made up of images and human performers.
It is these public events that attract the participation of the general public including thousands of non-believers. They are spectators and flock the streets during the motorcade, fill the LBI ground for the concert on stage at the culmination of the motorcade and gather at certain locations to viewing the lighted diyas. It is these large gatherings that end up as events of revelry. They are also some of the features of cultural change associated with the festival though not necessarily with the religion and certainly not with the religious rituals. In some cases the activities run counter to what is considered sacred; for example, the drinking of alcohol.
The very disorderly characteristics and ugly repercussions have made the Diwali night activity in Alexander Village a social problem and a security concern. However, it is very much part of a cultural phenomenon relating to cultural change, the nature of traditional festivals, the secularisation on the fringes and outreach of religious festivals and the dynamics of the popular culture.
It is a feature that is not unknown in other countries, particularly where there is the carnivalesque in public festivals. Ugly developments with roots in serious social issues have been known in London’s Notting Hill carnival, in the troubled history of Trinidad carnival and to a lesser extent in Barbados’ Crop-Over. In religious festivals, there is the example of both Trinidad’s Hosay and Guyana’s Tadja.
The case of Alexander Village is that large crowds of revellers gather on the streets in the community on Diwali night to celebrate their own street party. Although it went on for a time in a fairly uneventful way, over the past number of years this revellry has been accompanied by growing indiscipline and there have been reports of vandalism which has left the Hindus aggrieved. Some have seen it as an attack against their place of worship, their holy ground, a violation of their festival and an attack on their religion. The public comments include a feeling that the religion and its celebrants are targeted and the mandir is singled out for defacement because it is their sacred space. However, although there might well be an element of insensitivity, the revelry on Diwali night is totally secular with no religious component at all. In order to understand it as a factor of cultural change, it must be made clear that there are two elements. One is street revelry that has developed as a feature of the public holiday in various locations around Georgetown on Diwali night. Alexander Village is one of these locations. The other is a regrettable element of anti-social disorder that has spun out of control among the crowds at this holiday night street revelry in Alexander Village.
The development of ‘street parties’ or ‘limes’ or ‘street fetes’ on the night of the Diwali holiday is a feature of cultural change and the popular culture. The crowd behaviour in Alexander Village is a problem relating to the crowd and the nature of the revelry at that location.
I have previously commented in Arts on Sunday about trends in traditional cultural and religious festivals and, in particular, about the public outreach of Diwali and secular extensions of the festival. One of these is this very phenomenon of street celebrations and in 2003 I commented on the trend emerging in Alexander Village, remarking that it was not a development that celebrants of Diwali would find pleasing. Neither would non-Hindus find it comfortable.
In Guyana cultural change has taken place in many areas of Diwali, including this one that has led to the development of street revelry. Throughout history in the Caribbean lumpen elements have on occasions made their presence felt in these kinds of events, sometimes infiltrating them in significant ways.
Yet there are many other factors of cultural change within Diwali itself which have to do with the very ways in which it conducts its rituals. These include the invasion of electricity over earthen diyas, and various other ‘modernisations’; the current prevalence of tableaux and images in the motorcades, the differences between celebrations in the capital city and those on the Essequibo Coast, the features of the past which still exist and those that have faded, the way music is used, the use or non-use of bamboo and the differences between the celebrations in Guyana and Trinidad. These are numerous and prove very interesting when studied.