Next Wednesday, hopefully recovered from the shock of voting in Local Government Elections for the first time in 22 years, Guyanese will be celebrating Phagwah or Holi. Among the numerous “Parbs” (usually translated as “festivals”) that punctuate the Hindu calendar, Holi most closely fits the English connotation of “a joyous celebration”.
Originating in hoary antiquity, Holi broadcasts the unabashed pleasure experienced by the early Hindus at the onset of spring and the end of winter. It is not for nothing that wherever there are the four seasons, winter represents death; spring life. Who does not celebrate life over death?
Maintaining the Bhojpuri culture brought over from North India, lusty chowtaals are sung by competing teams to the driving beats of the dholak (hand-drum) and the signature Jaals (cymbals). Over the years, the chowtaals began disappearing and Bollywood “filmi” tunes, centred on Holi would be played. Today there will still be unbridled revelry with the dousing of all and sundry with water and abeer; the smearing of coloured powder and the sharing of delectable sweetmeats. All done in the spirit of bonhomie and good cheer.
In Guyana and T&T, however, the festivities will spill over the following day; but literally in a different sprit. That will be the “sport day” and the rum will flow in quantities that rival the water unleashed on Holi Day. The filmi songs will now be replaced by Chutney – more precisely Chutney rum songs. The introduction of rum and its celebration in song, even in a putatively religious festival, demands explanation.
Rum, not a feature of northern rural India, was deliberately introduced to the indentured Indians as a means of immiserisation and control on the sugar plantations in the Caribbean. The specific reaction to alcohol is socially constructed and in the case of Indians, they expressed their frustrations with plantation life by venting their anger violently on each other. Violence – especially against wives and children – and alcoholism became a feature of Indian plantation life that continues into the present.
The Chutney phenomenon, grounded in the earthy Bhojpuri peasant folk songs about their lives and foibles was catapulted from the local weddings and other social/religious occasions by recordings from Surinamese Ramdeo Chaitoe in the 50s and Dropatie in the 60s that circulated widely among Indians in the Caribbean.
In 1970, Sundar Popo of T&T set the genre on its present course when he released “Nana and Nanie”. Retaining the central beat of the dholak and dhantal, Popo introduced the modern synthesiser but more pertinently, a Creole idiom on a topical subject. It was not by accident Popo mentioned that “Nana drinkin’ white rum and Nani drinkin’ wine”: it acknowledged the prevalence of alcohol in the Indian community.
It was the beginning of a gradual, inexorable commodification of what had originally been the natural, spontaneous expression of peasants to their social conditions. So we see ditty “Oh Manninja, oh Maninja”, expresses the despair of the housewife dealing with rising prices and falling wages, transformed into a product that is sold to propel a party culture. The mention of rum as a feature of Indian social life in Chutney to its active glorification not coincidently occurred by the new millennium when Chutney had moved into the national arena in T&T where the national culture is defined by Carnival and its attendant party culture.
We cannot be surprised at the marrying of this transformation of the function of folk music to the promotion of alcohol – they are both now at the service of entrepreneurs determined to commodify and profit from all aspects of life. Over the last decade, there has been a heated debate in the Indian communities of Guyana and T&T over the impact of rum songs beginning in earnest in 2002 when Trinidadian Adesh Samaroo belted out his “Rum Till I die”. From a single performance at a carnival event.
Returning to the licentiousness that will typify next Thursday in almost every Hindu home, I remind them that the most famous incident of Hindu drunkenness resulted in the tribe of Krishna – the Yadavs – exterminating themselves by their own hands. This may yet be the consequence of the commodification of our culture and even religion.