Among the events held in Guyana to commemorate Arrival Day 2013 were an exhibition by the Ministry of Culture at the National Museum and the staging of Nrityageet 34 at the National Cultural Centre in conjunction with an exhibition of art presented by ICT under the theme The Struggle of Memory Against Forgetting.
The exhibition at the museum displayed an interesting variety of archival material – artifacts, household utensils, documents, replicas of original arrival records, food samples, narratives, books and publications. Several of these were from the holdings of the University of Guyana’s Caribbean Reference Library in an exhibition mounted by the University Library. This display covered different race groups – Indians, Chinese, Portuguese and Africans, who all came under indentureship. This multi-ethnic quality of indentured immigrants was also the theme of a comprehensive historical overview by Minister of Culture Frank Anthony at the opening.
The opening ceremony was also addressed by Chinese Ambassador to Guyana Zhang Limin and Indian High Commissioner Puran Meena. The heritage of the various groups in the performing arts were further highlighted in performances by Michael Khan as folk character Ole Man Pappie in addition to poetry performance by Natasha Azeez and dance by the Apex Academy.
Under extensive focus, though, was the 175th Anniversary of Indian Arrival which was the theme of Nrityageet and the show of fine arts as well as the 175th Indian Immigration Anniversary Commemorative Lecture Series by the Ministry of Culture. In this there were themes covered by visiting lecturers Prof Brinsley Samaroo of the University of Trinidad and Tobago and Dr Kusha Haraksingh of the UWI, chaired by Dr Prem Misir of UG. On Tuesday, May 21, the series will end with Gaiutra Bahadur, American journalist and book critic who writes on the culture and politics of global migration for The New York Times Review of Books, The Washington Post Book World and The (London) Observer, among other publications.
The first thing that may be said about Nrityageet is its unwavering consistency and perseverance, having sustained an annual dance production around Arrival Day for more than 30 years. This revision directed by Dr Seeta Shah Roath is the triumphant continuation of a tradition in the theatre and in the Shah family. It is the annual dance show of the Nadira and Indranie Shah Dance Troupe founded by the sisters whose names it carries and involving a production and artistic team which includes three generations of the family. These generations are represented by Bhanmattie Shah, the mother, Seeta, Nadira and the late Indranie the sisters, and Seeta’s daughter Suzanne. Yet the family has more extensive ties to show business because of the decades of important work by the prominent impresario Cyril Shaw, who once managed and produced The Mighty Sparrow.
The 2013 show associated with The Struggle of Memory Against Forgetting marked 175 Years of the Indian presence, but was also in memory of Indranie Shaw who died last year (and her father Cyril who also died early in 2012). It testified to the perseverance of the dance group in maintaining a tradition. Despite the fact that at present, and for quite a few years now, Dr Shah Roath is the only one still resident in Guyana, the show has continued every year, and the dance group survives.
The obvious strain on the few locally resident producers and on the dance troupe was in evidence in this production, in spite of the grandeur in presence, stature and spectacle that it still carried. With most of the directorship and artistic resources overseas, it could not be easy. There was a bit of a sameness in many of the dance pieces and choreography presented. Over the years Nrityageet has risen to a high standard, starting with Indian dance and branching out to include other modern forms and interests. This year a number of kathak pieces and folk dances, including Rajasthan, almost repeated themselves.
Some of the variety in the programme was the participation of other groups, as it has been the long practice of the Nadira and Indranie Troupe to invite other performers to the annual show. These included the Indian Cultural Centre and the National Dance Company. The NDC was outstanding as they danced with a stamp of authority.
Nadira Shah Berry has commendably contributed to stability and continuity, visiting Guyana without fail in order to ensure this. She danced her speciality, kathak, and set the standard for the show in her appearances. But there was a signal of a generational take-over, with the departure of Indranie and the sedate quality of Nadira. Suzanne Shah and Raywattie Datt carried the spirit of this new generation in their performances, including duets and solos, carrying on the mandate of the founding sisters, as if they are the replacements. Suzanne grew up with Nrityageet, from her early appearances as a child performing choreography to poems recited by her mother (Dr Roath). She progressed to be an accomplished dancer and a choreographer. Similarly, Raywattie has developed as choreographer and dancer over the years as a member of Nrityageet and the troupe.
The offerings in the show drew a comment from a member of the audience who is a journalist and a UG student of English. Her concern was the obvious Hindu bias in the celebration of Indian presence and the limitations of what could be greater variety in the show. The concern is not a serious damning criticism, as it is Hinduism that drives dance, music and the arts in Guyana in a way the other religions populated by Indians do not. Islam does have its theatricals, but is largely much more introverted and much less ostentatious. Neither does Christianity put out anything in Guyana to match the histrionics of Hinduism, to which dance, dance drama and theatre are outreach and spiritual arms.
Where the student’s comment may carry more weight is in the presentation of folk dances. Indian folk dances were a part of the programme, and the Rajasthan is popular on stage here. But Nrityageet also presented a performance of an excerpt from the Ramlila tradition by the Guyana Ramlila Association. This was among the most interesting pieces in the show because of its exhibition of what the student critic found missing. It was a piece of Guyanese folk dance and folk theatre of an indigenous nature. The Ramlila has died out in Guyana. Guyanese performers and dance researchers need to go more into the field and draw out what remains of the Indian folk traditions and represent them on stage, the way a group from Cane Grove in Mahaica used to do. This includes what remains of the old chutney tradition as well.
Nrityageet was accompanied by an art exhibition to celebrate 175 years of Indian presence. The exhibition was small but deep and spectacular. The Struggle of Memory Against Forgetting showed the work of three outstanding Guyanese artists ‒ Philbert Gajadhar, Bernadette Persaud and Betsy Karim. These appeared along with sculptor Desmond Alli as well as Malinie Tulsie, Ramroop Mahase and Viskash Bhawani.
The point raised by the student comes in here in an interesting way where the Hindu dominance is concerned, through the work of Bernadette Persaud. Persaud explored Muslim preoccupations in her The Mosque at Chateau Margot and In The Name of Allah, The Beneficient The Merciful. It is well known that Islam prohibits visual images of Allah and the Holy Prophet Mohamed. This is fiercely defended and taken to dangerous levels by extremists, so that it is unusual to paint images associated with Islam as Persaud does, while there is no inhibition in Hinduism. The artist here makes use of images and symbolism in the pieces which end up being visual representations and colourful works of art.
Yet in these religious themes Persaud also paints the Hindu heritage in other pieces involving flags and rituals. The paintings on display included The Tree of Life II: Jhandi and Flag on the Earth: Guyana. This artist also revisits a long-standing preoccupation of hers – that is, paintings inspired by Martin Carter’s poetry, particularly a subtle theme of oppression and resistance with a motif of soldiers with guns. The Burning Square: We Live and We Die is a large, vivid, impressive work of the imagination.
In 1996 Persaud joined fellow painters and UG lecturers Doris Rogers and Philbert Gajadhar on an excursion to India. Some of the work described above formed part of what she took with her. Some of the work on display by Gajadhar represented what he produced after research on the Untouchables in India when he returned to Guyana. They are some of Gajadhar’s most outstanding paintings, such as Journey into the Dark Circle: The Arrival and Journey Out of the Dark Circle: The Exodus. His texture, blends of colour and treatment of subject matter produce memorable and spectacular works which speak to the extended issue of Arrival and Indentureship.
Following from that, he also researched estate life, cane-cutting and sugar plantations. Blue Sugar is one of the products of this research and another outstanding piece touching on Indian arrival and the work on the plantations.
Betsy Karim continues those themes in her amazing work in mixed media and acrylic on canvas. Crossing the Kalapani and Durga are relevant to those interests, and her venturing into Islam connects with the religious themes dealt with by others. She produced Koranic Verse: There is No God But Allah. These Muslim explorations are rare in Guyanese art.