Arrival Day, May 5, is taken very seriously in Guyana, politically, culturally and in the general life of the people. Since the majority of the population are historically immigrants, it is worth marking the way they have contributed to national, social, political, cultural, and economic development since arrival. It has been a history of conflict, with major repercussions in the contemporary society, but also one of nation building with a very strong theme of post-colonialism. The nation created by the indigenous people as well as those who came, is multiethnic and multicultural with infinite cross-cultural possibilities yet to be fulfilled.
For those reasons and for purposes of heritage, Guyana takes Arrival Day seriously, perhaps more so than its West Indian neighbours. The day is observed in Trinidad and Tobago. It was marked in 2017 with many commercial advertisements and a number of public events, but it is not a public holiday and assumed a fairly low profile despite the advertisements and public announcements. Guyana, however, has good reason to want to atone for the ills of history and celebrate its gains with high-profiled commemoration of the day.
Another reason for the prominence this year is that 2017 is the centenary since the abolition of Indentureship. This magnified the importance and intensity of the activities this year. Of interest is the plan to hold a major conference at the University of Warwick in the UK later in the year. Among the observances in the field of culture, were a re-enactment of the landing of 164 workers who came from India aboard the Whitby at Plantation Highbury in Berbice, (followed by the Hesperus in Demerara, late in the night of the same day) and similar theatrical presentations at the Indian Monument Gardens in Georgetown.
However, most outstanding among the performances was Nrityageet 38 at the National Cultural Centre (NCC) directed by Seeta Shah Roath for the Nadira and Indranie Shah Dance Troupe. This company has been staging Nrityageet annually since 1979 and these productions have involved three generations of the Shah family following on from the notable enterprise of producer and impresario Cyril Shaw, who was manager to the Mighty Sparrow during the years of his rise to fame. The annual full dance production developed to be an outstanding tradition in dance theatre in Guyana. It has been the longest running, most faithful and consistent artistic performance to mark Arrival Day.
Nrityageet is a lesson in purpose and perseverance as well as commitment to a cause apart from being a show that grew considerably in stability and quality to the heights that it achieved as a stage production in 2017. It was founded by three Shah sisters Nadira, Indranie, and Seeta, all dancers and involved their mother – an excellent, meticulous and prolific costume maker, and later, Suzanne Mohamed. When all went to live overseas, they were determined to return every year for the show, and added to that determination, was the dedicated commitment and perseverance of Dr Seeta Shah Roath, the only one who remained at home and who has toiled to ensure that the Nadira and Indranie Shah Dance Troupe and the Nrityageet Dancers remained active and that the show continued annually.
In the face of that, and from its high standards as a production, Nrityageet 38 was quite an achievement. Roath proved herself a very efficient director, technical and stage manager. The production chose to run without breaks and unmolested by announcements. This called for flawless management and disciplined teamwork, which were much in evidence as the items moved smoothly and on time from one to the next. Precisions of lighting and sound were equally necessary and each performer seemed primed to give the show a shape and artistic neatness.
It was a simple and uncomplicated structure which enhanced the quality and sustained a good pace, and when one noted the clear, clean sound reproduction and the close appropriate lighting one wondered why the NCC does not produce that quality at all times. To complete the technical support to the many dances, were the costuming and set. Nrityageet has a history of excellent, colourful and intricate costuming, and generally speaking this was still there to lend spectacle to the presentation. Spectacle is a prominent factor in East Indian dance theatre and in most cases the costuming supported this. For many items, though, the set was fairly basic and lacked the fussiness and flambouyant grandeur often seen in the Indian dance theatre.
The show was faithful as a tribute to both Arrival and the end of Indentureship as various dances reflected relevant forms and themes. One of the very strong performance traditions in Guyana is Indian dance and its prevalence and popularity are signs of the national Indian heritage and its contemporary presence in Guyana. The show was enriched by relevant forms such as the kathak and featured one of the most accomplished kathak dancers, Nadira Shah Berry.
She was featured in a solo as well as dancing in conjunction with Suzanne Shah Nilsson (her niece) and Rewattie Datt in exhibitions of the kathak form. They all performed other choreographies such as “Namaste”, “Bangra” and “Tumri Solo”. Other tributes to the heritage were offered by guests on the programme, the National Dance Company lending its own class and elegance to the programme, performing “Holi Celebrations”.
The programme’s post-colonial component paid some attention to cultural roots which are important to a nation emerging from capitalist colonialism – a system that was responsible for Indentureship and the multicultural complexion of the independent nation. Roath offered “Finding Our Roots” and “Roots” danced by the Ramlall Sisters. In another sense roots could be a reference to the interesting folk traditions which contribute to the multiculturalism, such as the storytelling traditions and the oral literature. The programme contained a sample of that in the rendition of a Balgobin tale by storyteller Michael Khan (Ol Man Papie).
This focus continued with a glance into an extremely rich and valuable tradition – the Ramlila, brought over by the immigrants but faded away in Guyana. The Guyana Ramlila Group and the Nrityageet Dancers performed “Sita Swayamba”, an excerpt from the Ramlila epic, which focused on Sita, bride of Lord Ram. It was colourful, dramatic and spectacular in set, costuming and props. One of the outstanding things about the performance was the effectively dramatic and extraordinary reading of the text by the Narrator Daymanie Persaud.
Nrityageet also paid attention to another tradition from the roots of Guyanese folk culture – the chutney musical tradition. This form emerged from the Bhoj Puri which was very strong in the culture of Indian immigrants, providing the language and its accompanying culture for songs which emerged in the early and middle twentieth century. “Chutney Flow” was performed by Ryan and Group.
After that, on the road to development was modern dance, one of the focuses of the Nrityageet Dancers. Shah Nilssen who grew up with Nrityageet to be one of the foremost Guyanese dancers today, performed “Innovations” inspired by the music of Michael Jackson, to add further variety to the programme. This variety kept the uninterrupted procession of choreographies appealing with a series of solos.
These included Datt, who is one of the faithful members of the troupe with steady service as dancer and choreographer with “You Are My Inspiration”. Also of note was “My Devotions” by another dedicated member with noted contribution to keeping the company vibrant – Indira Itwaru, who is a student at the National School of Theatre Arts and Drama.
The full contingent of the Nrityageet Dancers performed another selection relevant to the thematic preoccupations of the programme with a dance to a patriotic song “Guyana – Our Beautiful Country”. In this, the nation, built by the people who came and the indigenous people, fortified by struggle through colonialism and strife, enriched by its cultural traditions and captivating landscape, was remembered on Arrival Day.