Monday, April 30, 2007

Indo-Trinidadians and Carnival: Assimilation, Adaptation, and Resistance

The streets are packed with glistening bodies bedecked in gauzy, flowing costumes and shimmering paint. Ears and wrists jingle, while bellies and noses sparkle with ornate jewelry. Groups of people are color-coordinated in bright red, iridescent green, gaudy gold, seductive pink, or loud purple dress. Flags and streamers of each color decorate the sky and the sounds of the steel pan drum fill the air. It’s Carnival Tuesday in Port of Spain, Trinidad & Tobago.

Alongside the familiar sights and sounds, this Carnival features women in dazzling saris and men in traditional Indian dhotis. Rickshaws grace the streets, propping up massive models of elephant heads adorned with glitter and jewels. When the results finally come in for masquerade (‘mas’) band of the year, this India-inspired band reigns supreme.

The triumph of the mas band "India: The Story of Boyie" left Trinidad stunned. Since
independence, African cultural forms have dominated Trinidadian culture and Carnival. In one of the country’s major newspapers, The Daily Express, bandleader Brian MacFarlane commented on the band’s victory. “It [the mas band] was the first ever portrayal of an entirely East Indian large band. [T]here were many skeptics around me who thought that we were destroying any chance of success with this presentation. There were many people who thought that it would offend, and was disrespectful,” he said. In a letter to the editor to The Daily Express, an Indo-Trinidadian woman expressed her gratitude and support to the band. “Thank you, Brian, for making me feel that I can participate in all aspects of our culture, especially Carnival, without being degraded or ridiculed.”

The story above is part of a broader narrative common to ethnically mixed countries, where groups typically clash over whose culture will define “national” culture. When Trinidad gained its independence in 1956, the population was roughly split between the descendants of African slaves and Indian indentured servants, each with their own cultural forms, religious establishments (Indo-Trinidadians: Hindu or Muslim, Afro-Trinidadians: Christian), economic industries (Indo-Trinidadians: sugarcane production, Afro-Trinidadians: oil production), regional strongholds (Indo-Trinidadians: rural South, Afro-Trinidadians: urban North), and political parties. Eric Williams, head of the largely black People’s National Movement (PNM), ascended to Prime Minister at independence, and poured resources into making Carnival and other Afro-Trinidadian cultural forms (such as the steelpan drum and calypso music) central to Trinidad’s new national identity. It worked. People worldwide routinely associate Trinidad with these art forms. Meanwhile, the only time Indo-Trinidadians and their cultural traditions were included in the public arena was for mockery and denigration by calypso singers.

For their part, Indo-Trinidadians did not attempt to assimilate into the new national culture, but opted to burrow deeper into Indian culture which had long given their lives meaning.* As indentured servants, Hindu or Muslim rituals, stories, and texts were among the few things that gave the Indian community dignity and purpose while suffering on sugar plantations thousands of miles away from their homeland. Even at the time of independence in the 1950s – more than 100 years after their arrival and 30 years after the abolition of indentured servitude – half of the Indo-Trinidadian population remained illiterate and largely confined to the sugar fields. Lacking an intelligentsia and locked out of the gates of government, the Indo-Trinidadian community could not immediately alter its state of political, economic, and cultural marginalization. With an emphasis on education, though, Indo-Trinidadians practically ran up the economic ladder, gaining parity with Afro-Trinidadians in business and professional fields after a mere 30 years.

Upward mobility has caused old divisions in geography and economic industry to whither away. In addition, inroads have been made politically; in 1996 and 2000, the Indo-Trinidadian dominated United National Congress (UNC) won nationwide elections. (The 2000 government, however, dissolved after a battle over leadership, pushing the Afro-Trinidadian PNM into power again). The dissolution of these various divisions has triggered new forms of Indo-Trinidadian adaptation and resistance in the realm of culture. During this year’s Carnival season, I have observed three forms of response to national culture: assimilation into national culture, establishment of parallel cultural forms, and reversal of cultural roles.

Assimilation into Dominant Culture
Assimilation refers to Indo-Trinidadians participating in national/Afro-Trinidadian cultural forms. The opening example of the India-themed masquerade band is one such example (though, notably, the band was led by a white man and appeared mostly comprised of Afro-Trinidadians). Indo-Trinidadians regularly attend Carnival fetes (parties) where they sing along to the latest soca (a musical form mixing elements of calypso, reggae, and hip-hop) hits with ease, though there are few, if any, Indo-Trinidadian soca artists. Small numbers of Indo-Trinidadians also participate in steelbands. On the whole, though, Carnival and mainstream culture remains dominantly Afro-Trinidadian.

Calypso remains the bastion of Afro-Trinidadians. It’s a musical form where artists engage in social commentary or narrative, oftentimes about politics and taboo subjects. Indo-Trinidadians have frequently been the target of calypsos. For example, lyrics have glorified the kidnapping of Indians as a novel form of “economic development.” Cro Cro, one of the most notorious anti-Indo-Trinidadian Calypso artists, earned first place in the 1996 Calypso Monarch competition at Carnival for his lyrics against the new Indo-Trinidadian led government. Among other things, his calypso [baselessly] charged the Indo-Trinidadian prime minister with being a rapist and asked black men how they could condone the election of someone who would now target their daughters.

Although few Indo-Trinidadian artists have attempted to (or wanted to) assimilate into the calypso scene there are some notable exceptions. Jagdeo Phagoo, for example, placed highly in a competition for his calypso on Trinidadian unity. The greatest stir this calypso season, however, was caused by “Bodyguard” (Roger Mohammed) with his calypso “Ungrateful Pastor” aimed at Prime Minister Patrick Manning’s alleged disregard for the country’s poor (ex. “Ah went to the book store ah nearly cry / Mih children school books I can’t even buy.”) and Manning’s image as a born-again Christian (“If the church calling you / Pastor just say so / Take up your Bible and then leave the Whitehall and go”). Bodyguard won several Calypso competitions with the piece and most expected him to compete in the Calypso Monarch Finals during the week of Carnival. However, he initially failed to make it even to the semifinals, though he placed much higher than some of the 48 semifinalists in previous competitions. Bodyguard took the matter to court, and when one competitor dropped out, he was offered to replace him. At the performance, he won the crowd over but failed to convince the judges as he was not among the 14 competitors or two reserves selected for the finals. Many observers that suspected political victimization played a role in Bodyguard’s judging. Perhaps most disappointing, in my mind, was that the final featured a terrible calypso by “Singing Sandra.” She alleged that people do not need to go to Sudan to see genocide since Indian doctors were committing genocide in Trinidad against black women by tying their tubes (? – let’s just say “Singing Sandra” probably didn’t get an “A” in her college logic class). Apparently, it’s more offensive to criticize an Afro-Trinidadian prime minister’s economic policy than to level charges of genocide against Indo-Trinidadian doctors. Anyway, the success of the East India-themed mas band and the strong Indo-Trinidadian support for Bodyguard’s calypso during Carnival 2007 reveals a small, but increasing, trend toward greater assimilation with Afro-Trinidadian cultural forms.

Establishment of Parallel Cultural Forms
Indo-Trinidadians have also established a set of modified Indian cultural forms that parallel Afro-Trinidadian ones. For example, “fetes” (large parties) abound during Carnival and are sponsored by a wide range of organizations including the Water Authority and the People’s National Movement (PNM) political party (who’s voting base is dominantly Afro-Trinidadian). Soca music and pan drumming are dominant features at many fetes with traditionally Indian cultural forms rarely seen. This year, for the first time, the United National Congress (UNC) political party (the PNM’s rival, who’s voter base is dominantly Indo-Trinidadian) held its own fete. This “one dollar fete” [named for its extremely low entrance fee] included Indian forms as much as African ones.

“Chutney” music stands as another parallel cultural form. Chutney fuses Indian folk traditions, Hindu devotional songs, and Bollywood film music with Caribbean calypso, soca, and rap. Since it emerged on the local music scene in the late 1980s, chutney has enjoyed great success across Trinidad. During Carnival I attended a couple of chutney events, including the 2007 Soca Chutney Monarch Competition held at Skinner Park in San Fernando, Trinidad. Indo-Trinidadians comprised the vast majority of those attending. There were a surprising number of families and middle-aged people in the bleachers, though raucous, bandana-waving college students dominated the lawn in front of the stage. Making it closer to soca than calypso, the chutney artists mostly sang narrations about lighter topics of life like partying, drinking rum, and dating. The performances were impressive not just for the singing, but also the elaborate stage design and massive dance troupes that accompanied each singer. The dance troupes featured Indo-Trinidadian women in flashy dress that borrowed from Indian clothing but, like the chutney lyrics, also pushed against the culture’s traditional conservatism.

Some are not pleased by this challenge to conventional norms. For example, Narsaloo Ramaya, an expert on Indian classical music and cultural identity, describes Chutney as “a wild frenzy of pelvic gyrations in which the people have thrown modesty and self-respect to the winds, with mass dancing of unrestrained vulgarity, a spectacle that can be fittingly described as cultural demolition.” Ramaya and groups like the Hindu Maha Sabha condemn the music as a corruption of sacred traditions that have sustained the Indian community since it arrived in Trinidad. Especially irking to the religious groups is the appropriation of Hindu elements within chutney. For instance, the dance troupes are named things like the “Shiv Shakti Dancers” – “Shiv” being a primary Hindu deity and “Shakti” a concept of female strength and power associated with Hindu goddesses.

In addition, chutney music has sparked controversy because of its antecedents in a pre-wedding Hindu ritual for Indian women called mathkor. At this celebration, the bride, and her female friends and family members engage in song and dance that employ the instrumentation associated with chutney: the dholak, the dhantal, and the harmonium. The song and dance is often overtly sexual in nature, theoretically introducing the female to her sexuality and regulating it within the confines of Hinduism. According to its critics, Chutney music has taken this private female religious ritual and perverted it into a risqué public spectacle.

I ultimately disagree with this sentiment. Chutney does not need to be minimized for mathkor, in all its purity, to be performed before weddings. Chutney is the product of individual imaginativeness, an innovative form of entertainment that is simply fun. Fun in the same way that Elvis Presley was to a previous generation and hip-hop is to young people today. It also represents the indigenous and ingenious product of countries like Trinidad and Guyana, where plural populations have fused desirable elements from different traditions to create a new and valuable whole.

Role Reversal
For Afro-Trinidadians, Carnival originated as a social ritual where traditional power relations and roles were reversed. Until emancipation from slavery, the role reversals were one-sided with male slaveowners parading in costumes mocking field slaves and their wives wearing costumes mocking house maids. After emancipation, Afro-Trinidadians made the ritual their own, donning costumes to mock and subvert the white aristocratic society. Afro-Trinidadians masqueraded as the voluptuous “Dame Lorraine” character to ridicule ruling class women; as colonial militias and military bands to jeer at the forces supposedly maintaining order; and as pirates and robbers to express their support for those threatening chaos. Calypso tents (where artists practice for Carnival performances) were erected as musicians heaped scorn onto the ruling regime in lyrical form.

Carnival continued in this vein for many, many years. But, with independence a century later, the original impetus for the festival was lost. The descendants of slaves were handed the government and the first prime minister, Eric Williams, etched their traditions in the national consciousness. In sum, the former slaves were now the masters of Trinidadian society and had no superiors to mock during Carnival. Carnival became a ritual for the sake of ritual. It invoked the past in elaborate masquerade bands (and traditional characters like “Dame Lorraine”) but lacked the same iconoclastic spirit of reversing conventional power relations and social roles.

In Trinidad, I discovered the spirit of old-time Afro-Trinidadian Carnival in perhaps the unlikeliest of places: the celebrations of a Hindu ritual, Holi (locally known as Phagwa). In India and in the Diaspora, Holi, much like Carnival, has long been considered a ritual of reversal. According to Religious Studies academic John Kelly, the ritual’s mythological roots lie in the story of Prahlad, “a virtuous devotee of Vishnu [a principal Hindu deity] whose devotion saved him from death and brought the destruction of an evil king, after which all played in the ashes of the dead king and demonstrated their equality.” It is also related, Kelly notes, to Krishna, a manifestation of Vishnu, who in his early days was known for destroying demons in a forest, dancing rowdily, and playing with local cowgirls (known as gopis). The mythology adds up to a day where “participants seek god through negation and reversal, through a shedding of human social statuses and relations.”

I experienced this shedding of conventional social roles first-hand in Trinidad, joining members of the University of West Indies Hindu Students Council for the festivities. Instead of playing in ashes (like Prahlad) to show the equality of devotees under Hinduism, we doused each other in bright red, orange, green, pink, and purple powders. We also sprayed each other with a mixture of water and the powder through pipe-like waterguns, known as pichakaarees. After we were done, we packed into the back of trucks and vans with the Hindu students singing Hindu hymns at the top of their lungs until we arrived at a Hindu elementary school. There, the second we stepped out of the vehicles, swarms of children threw powder and sprayed pichakaarees at us, and we, naturally, responded in kind. After a few more schools, we arrived at Diwali Nagar, a Hindu temple and concert ground where hundreds more were celebrating Phagwa. The spectacle of hundreds of Hindus – from all corners of Trinidad and all drenched in colored powder– descending upon the site in central Trinidad is certainly extraordinary for the diverse communities in Trinidad and can be viewed in itself as a way for Hindus to lay claim to the physical space of the nation.

At Diwali Nagar, the spirit of reversal and negation found in the original Trinidadian Carnival and mythology of Holi assumed an even greater intensity as a concert began. For the musical competition, also known as Pichakaaree, artists use the traditional instrumentation of the Indo-Trinidadian community, namely the dholak (Indian hand drum) dhantal, and harmonium, mixed with modern instruments such as a synthesizer. The lyrics and sound can accurately be described as “Indian calypso” since the performers, in a true reversal from Trinidadian Carnival, belt out criticism against Afro-Trinidadian leaders and (occasionally) culture. Importantly, the political and social commentary is rooted in Hinduism with many allusions to gods and goddesses, theological concepts such as shakti and dharma, and ancient epics such as the Ramayana.** In an interview, spiritual leader Raviji of the Hindu-Trinidadian organization Kendra, which sponsors the event, explained why the competition is named after the pipe-like watergun used for spraying color during Phagwa. “Pichakaaree is about ingesting material from where it was located and now expressing it in the open by shooting it out at others in public. It leaves a signature and transforms the landscape, just like Indian people here by being brought transformed Trinidad’s landscape. It’s a metaphor for an Indian presence,” Raviji said.

At this year’s Pichakaaree, performers left their mark on a wide range of issues facing the country and the Indo-Trinidadian community. Among them:
  • The exponential rise of kidnapping in recent years typically carried out by gangs targeting Indo-Trinidadians: “Like Rawan kidnap Sita, they gone and kidnap Vindra.” Note: Rawan is the demon in the epic of the Ramayana who kidnaps the protagonist, Ram’s, wife Sita. Vindra is a reference to a prominent Indo-Trinidadian businesswoman, Vindra Naipaul-Coleman, who was recently kidnapped.

  • Environmental consequences of a proposed aluminum smelter plant: “Ma Dharti [Mother Earth] gone to Bhagavan Vishnu cryin’ / Aray! Smelter comin’ and smelter goin’ / In Amazon tree disappearin’, global warmin’ / Shiva abode [the Himalayas] meltin’, mahapralaya [final dissolution] comin’”

  • The Afro-Trinidadian Prime Minister Patrick Manning’s political platform called “Vision 2020” to make Trinidad a developed country by 2020: “Now bend it on Born-again Preacherman / For a blind 20/20 vision.”

  • The practice by the ruling government to give supporters housing in electoral districts where elections are competitive: “Just like Africans getting them houses / From the Housing Ministry / Voter padding rampant now.”
    Indo-Trinidadians who have joined the Afro-Trinidadian political party, the PNM: “Crack it on Indians in PNM Party / For betraying sweat and tears of we Jahajees”

  • PM Manning becoming a regional power by giving assistance to other Caribbean countries: “Caribbeean ke swami, only giving charity / While people in yoh own country, begging for roti.”

  • Consequences of a lewd popular culture: “Wineum jamum music on top / Aids spreadum nonstop / Value system gan down the drain / TV life take over.” Note: “Wineum jammum” is a reference to “wining” (a popular, provocative hip gyrating dance) and jamming (sexual relations).

  • The political future of Indo-Trinidadian leader Basdeo Panday who is widely seen as corrupt: “With Bas, Indians politically dead / The man is a shraap on we collective head.” Calling for change in the upcoming elections: “Is nahi [not] equal place for a certain race / Who blood getting shed / Is written in red / … / When election call / Change the writing on the wall.”

    The winning Pichakaaree song came from the reigning champion, Jagdeo Phagoo, with his track “Rawan Ketchum Koorkutoo.” The song is a narrative from the perspective of the infamous demon Rawan and tells about how he joined forces with Eric Williams, Trinidad’s first Prime Minister, at independence to oppress Indo-Trinidadians but was fired by the current Prime Minister Patrick Manning because even Rawan wasn’t evil enough for him. The song is beautifully written and manages to weave a broad set of issues together without losing the narrative structure. The performance was striking as well with Phagoo dressed as Rawan and another character openly mocking the Afro-Trinidadian prime ministers.

    Like Calypso, Pichakaaree has a captivating sound with smart and cutting lyrics that sometimes crosses the line into the absurd (such as Phagoo’s lyric that compares Manning’s policies to the holocaust) and the incendiary (such as another song which invokes the Bhagavad Gita to call on Indo-Trinidadians to “fight fire with fire” and take up arms in self-defense). The fact that Indo-Trinidadians can and do cross the line in this new cultural space is yet further evidence that conventional cultural norms are reversed in the spirit of the original Carnival and mythology of Holi.

    Whether considering the changes made within traditional Afro-Trinidadian cultural forms or the production of new Indo-Trinidadian forms such as chutney and pichakaaree, it’s clear that mixing between Trinidad’s divided communities has produced some intriguing and valuable results. In the long-run, the mutual exchange and trading of barbs is less likely to destabilize the country than to promote a richer cultural heritage and stronger sense of nationalism since everyone can lay claim to distinctly Trinidadian traditions.

    *Pride in culture as a form of resistance was also a defining feature of Indo-Fijian identity as I explained in previous posts. In Fiji, indigenous Fijian traditions characterized Fijian national culture while Indo-Fijian traditions were mostly sidelined. In the country’s first coup in 1989, the head of the military, Sitveni Rabuka, even took things a step further by removing Indo-Fijian workers from the airport and tourist hotels since the face of Fiji was to be indigenous not Indian. Even today, tourists can go to Fiji for a week and fail to notice a single Indo-Fijian though they comprise 35-40 percent of the population.

    **At the same time as writing this blog post, I was reading an article in the New Yorker called “Homer in India: The oral epics of Rajasthan” by William Dalrymple. He made an interesting point about how, particularly in times of tragedy, Indians tend to draw on epics, while Americans draw on movies to make sense of the events around them. Here’s the section from the article:

    India's population may not be particularly literate-the literacy rate is sixty per cent-but it remains surprisingly erudite culturally, as Wendy Doniger, an American Sanskrit scholar, has pointed out. Anthony Lane noted in this magazine in 2001, in the aftermath of the attacks on the United States, that the people of New York again and again compared what had happened to them to films: "It was like 'Independence Day' "; "It was like 'Die Hard' "; "No, 'Die Hard 2.' " In contrast, when the tsunami struck at the end of 2004, Indians were able to reach for a more sustaining narrative than disaster movies: the catastrophic calamities and floods that fill the Mahabharata and the Hindu tradition in general. As Doniger puts it, "The myths pick up the pieces where philosophy throws up its hands. The great myths may help survivors to think through this unthinkable catastrophe, to make a kind of sense by analogy."

    Most Indians in the Diaspora that I have met have lost an understanding of most epics, but remain closely tied to the Ramayana. Particularly in terms of politics, the Ramayana was indirectly (and successfully) invoked by Mahendra Chaudhry in Fiji who was ousted by a coup in 2000. The parallels between his loss of power and the protagonist Ram’s exile in the Ramayana provoked many Indo-Fijians to draw the connection and feel an emotional tie to Chaudhry characterized by an almost unconditional devotion. During Diwali, which celebrates Ram’s return to India after exile, I was in Mauritius where the epic was appropriated by the Indo-Mauritian leader Navin Ramgoolam. In Trinidad, it has been invoked when considering who should succeed the long-time leader of the Indo-Trinidadian community, Basdeo Panday.


Blogger Sweettrinigyul said...

Whilst there are many notable points in your blog. Your assessments of Singing Sandra and Cro Cro left a lot to be desired. As an indo trinidadian myself your views seemed bias and prejudice. Apparently you could never be ah TRINI and have no concept of that term. you are still stuck in the mode of Indo- Trinidadian. you can stay there while I and others like me look on and revel in the true knowledge that AH IS AH TRINI.

12:30 PM  
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12:44 PM  

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