In recent years there have been cases of former colonial powers deciding to return valuable and famous cultural items to the nations in the former empire from which they took them. In other cases the former colonies or conquered states are now demanding that great works of art, artifacts or other treasures be returned to them. These are statements about the importance of culture to the nations of the world, that it can hold sway in manifestations of power, enrichment, tradition and identity.
The exhibition Dis Time Na Lang Time which runs from May 4 to 14 in the University of Guyana Library is of significance to those statements. It is presented by The School of Education and Humanities in collaboration with the University Library, the UG Hindu Society, other student bodies and City Centre displaying exhibits of Indian indenturership in commemoration of Guyana’s Arrival Day 2010.
In opening the exhibition, historian Tota Mangar, who is also Deputy Vice-Chancellor of UG, emphasized the importance of Arrival Day to all Guyanese, tracing the arrivals to thousands of years ago in pre-history when the Amerindians came and the despicable institution of slavery which brought uprooted captive Africans. The post-emancipation arrivals include the Portuguese, mainly from Madeira, who numbered approximately 32,000 between May 1835 and 1882; 40,656 Barbadians who came as Creole immigrants between 1835 and 1893; 14,060 liberated Africans arriving between 1848 and 1867; two groups of Chinese who arrived from May 1853 to 1879 and again between 1880 and 1913 totalling 15,720; and European indentured labourers/ immigrants who numbered 1,000 and comprised English, Irish, Scots, Germans, French and Maltese at various times during the 1830s. Outside of these, however, may be added Ivan Van Sertima’s theory of African arrival in Pre-Columbian times and the contemporary flow of immigrants and temporary settlers from China.
The UG exhibition focuses the East Indians who made up by far the largest group to arrive in Guyana in the post-emancipation era. A total of 238,909 were brought in between May 5, 1838 and the official end of indentureship in 1917. They chose to remain or to be ‘re-bound’ and stayed in the sugar industry, which shaped their lives significantly, as is reflected in the exhibition. One of the points of the presentation is that Indian Arrival is not the limited concern of Indian descendants in Guyana, but of the whole nation because of the importance of this immigration to the country and to nation-building. It is a reminder of the national pertinence of all the arrivants to Guyanese nationhood and multi-culturalism.
The exhibition holds further relevance because of the nature and effectiveness of exhibitions, generally in education about culture. Because of the range of items on show they are archival, historical, aesthetic and time-efficient. They constitute a text that is more effective because of its efficient use of time; a text that tells the story in so much less time than it takes to read books and volumes on the subject. It is a concentrated/condensed text of effective action items for the transmission of information while being entertaining; an exhibition is a form of edutainment. It constitutes action because it is spectacle; it combines reading with seeing and with experiencing because of the dramatization provided by having actual objects from real life on show. It is a sublime experience because viewers come out of the experience that it is better informed and enlightened.
This display is titled Dis Time Na Lang Time and that is no coincidence. It is taken from a song that belongs to the indigenous chutney tradition capturing folk and popular life patterns. The chutney itself is historical in the way it descended from bhoj-puri songs into a music which moved from the folk life of Indians in British Guiana to contemporary popular music reflecting a culture of Indian descent and Creole evolution. The presentation includes artifacts used by East Indians during indentureship, dress and clothing material, household items, cooking utensils, musical instruments, photographs, books, publications, documents and paintings.
Alongside works of fiction that dramatise life on the estate and in East Indian Guyanese villages such as Rooplall Monar’s classic Backdam People and Janjhat, there are actual objects that survive from the life-styles fictionalised. These include an earthen fireside, with samples of karahe, tawa, mata and pestle, sil and lorha, ornie, flour bag, ghir-ghir-a, fishnet, cast net and milk can. There is a copy of the first East Indian publication, Joseph Ruhomon’s lecture India: the progress of her people at home and abroad and how those in British Guiana may improve themselves, religious texts such as The Holy Qur’an, the Bhagavad-Gita and the Ramacaritamanasa, as well as several publications by scholars and novelists.
Among the paintings are pieces from a suite in progress by fine arts lecturer Philbert Gajadhar, Blue Sugar and the Cowminder. They are both studies in blue and hues of blue, mixtures of abstraction and imagist representation of rural Indian life in Guyana. Blue Sugar depicts a cane-cutter at work in the field while the other captures a man tending to a herd of cattle. In both cases the human figure is de-emphasized and faceless, so that the focus carries over to the occupation rather than the man.
These fit in with the cultural heritage that the exhibition tries to communicate. It provides information about that part of Guyanese culture that is Indian heritage and culture. In the context of Guyanese multi-culturalism and multi-ethnicity this is extremely important information. Guyana is not only a country with a plural society, it is one with ethnic conflicts and insecurities in which the differences that become problems, the prejudices and biases that exist thrive on ignorance. This exhibition is an attack on ignorance and on too little information about a culture that is different. Ironically, when the problem of ‘too little information’ is overcome, one finds amazing similarities between cultures.
One small example may be taken from the drumming that was performed by Nando’s Tassa Group from Patentia. I have written about African drumming, pointing out that this is a particular form of drumming that has its distinct traditions and characteristics that are specific to styles of African performance. A close observation of the tassa will reveal that there is a bass drum, a drum called the badam known as a ‘fuller’ drum because it keeps or ‘fulls out’ the rhythm. Then there is the smaller drum with the high-pitched roll, which is a ‘cutting’ drum, used by the lead drummer to ‘cut’ at counter-point to the badam and to improvise. Added to this is the jhaal, a percussion instrument which enhances the sound, and these are all combined to create the rhythm. In describing these various parts, one could have been detailing basic characteristics of many drumming combinations peculiar to the African traditions. This is particularly so in the combinations and in the keeping of time done by the bass drum, assisted by the basic rhythm of the funde as against the improvisation of the ‘cutter’ played on the kette drum.
The exhibition Dis Time Na Lang Time is cultural history, it shows aspects of Guyanese social history and highlights the importance of culture. It illustrates this by bringing into sharp focus the identity of the Indian people in Guyana, which is a Guyanese identity, since elements of the culture of any of the arrivant groups in the country are elements of the cultural identity of the Guyanese nation. It underlines the power that culture is, as may be seen in the efforts made by conquerors and colonizers to either destroy or steal away the cultural icons of the countries they conquer or colonize. It also reminds us why the former colonies of the former empire find it so important to get back or to preserve these glorious cultural icons.