From time to time in our local press, we are reminded of the rich diverse strains that make up what we refer to as Guyanese culture, and in most of those reminders we are asked to rightly reflect on the fact that right alongside that attractive span we see the disturbing signs of ethnic division among our people. It is as if we are somehow made blind – some say by politics, some say by twisted human nature – to the wonderful array of what we have within our grasp; that instead of embracing and celebrating the array we seem bent only on rejecting it, sometimes in vile ways; it is a pitiful aspect of who we are, both for its intensity and for its perseverance.
This week one of those reminders came. I did not see it in its original appearance, but Alan Fenty in his ‘Frankly Speaking’ column quotes some lines from a poem by Ryhaan Shah which I can only describe as riveting. I reproduce those words here, hopefully faithfully, because of the powerful point they make.
She wrote: “I did not begin anew but am the blood and bone of ages past and centuries of time. I did not begin anew but I am the present from a past that was never abandoned on this distant shore. I am no shard of history, no broken vase.”
I will search for the complete poem, but those quotes from Ryhaan were enough to jog once again my awareness of the astonishing burst of Indian culture that lives so trenchantly in the Caribbean, in the countries of Trinidad and our own Guyana. It is something that seems to pass unheralded by so many of us. Far-reaching anthropological minds should be put to decipher how this transportation and consequent continuation of Indian life takes place in these two countries. It is a phenomenal aspect of the panorama of how mankind behaves in his/her particular space, and I have frequently encountered people who are astonished at this transportation and at the striking validity of it, of something, as Ryhaan noted, “never abandoned” in this new home.
One can go on to list the various qualities or strains that are now a natural part of Guyanese life – the faithful Indian dress; the ingredients in our cuisine; the splash and verve of the various festivals, and the sensual lift of the music, etc – but for me one striking example of the transfer from there to here is in the display of Indian music and thought in the Chowtal singing that lives in this country around Phagwah time as naturally as if it always existed here. Simply put, it is a phenomenon.
This year, I experienced it again through an invitation from a friend, as my wife and I attended a Chowtal session in Canal No 1. As a professional musician operating in many different climes, it is simply astonishing to me to see this very complex music, born in a country thousands of miles away, so completely accepted by our population, and, most amazing of all, performed by people who do not come from a musical career. The complexity of the singing, usually accompanied by chiefly drums and percussion, comes partly from its constant shifting of tempos – it goes from slow to very fast right on the meter so that you cannot feel the shift, you have to know it – and partly from the various moods of the melodies ranging from wistful to totally exuberant. Persons who are expert at it – such as Jai Bhaiya of Canal – have basically memorized this material and now sit in an informal circle and reproduce this complexity without missing a beat, or misreading a tempo. It is pure recall based on repetition. In its expression before engrossed audiences it is an art form.
It is astonishing that it has found a home here, and equally astonishing is the expanse of its appeal. Chowtal devotees range from our very senior citizens to some of our youngest, all level with one another as their music comes pouring out. At the Canal session, one of the leading singers was a girl of 10 and many other participants are of a similar age. Spatially, as well, it is literally everywhere on the coastland. In the Canal area, there are four mandirs within close reach of each other, all engaged in the form, and every Phagwah they mount sessions of the music drawing people in rapt listening.
In his column, Fenty wondered as to why the other cultures migrating or imported here in recent centuries here have not achieved this kind of massive transfer in the host arena and it’s an interesting point. My forefathers are from Madeira, but Portugal remains a foreign country to me. Apart from perhaps garlic pork and Shrove Tuesday malasadas, nothing from that culture lives here, despite all the Portuguese migrants. By contrast, the Indian experience is a firestorm of fashion and cuisine and music and dance, and Ryhaan’s outburst – if that’s what it was – is very understandable in the circumstances. We need those kinds of nudges to bestir us into an appreciation of the intricacy that is Guyana that is lacking now. As with all the cultures which live here, and combine to make us Guyanese, it is indeed “a present from a past that was never abandoned on this far distant shore.” In a time when some are questioning, “what’s to celebrate”, our colourful origins would head my celebration list.