September 30, 2016

Chowtaal: A fragment of the Guyanese vase

(The following introduced the HSS Chowtaal performance at State House on Purnima – full moon night – when the Holika was burnt.)

I begin my introduction with an incident from 1992: the Nobel Prize lecture of our own Dereck Walcott. On a trip to the Caroni sugar belt with some visiting friends to sight TT’s national bird, the Scarlet Ibis, he chanced upon a village performance of RamLeela, the story of Lord Rama. He confessed, “I had discovered that one of the greatest epics of the world was seasonally performed, not with that desperate resignation of preserving a culture, but with an openness of belief.”
“I had no idea what the epic story was, who its hero was, what enemies he fought, yet I had recently adapted the Odyssey for a theatre in England, presuming that the audience knew the trials of Odysseus, hero of another Asia Minor epic, while nobody in Trinidad knew any more than I did about Rama, Kali, Shiva, Vishnu, apart from the Indians, a phrase I use pervertedly because that is the kind of remark you can still hear in Trinidad: “apart from the Indians”.
“I was filtering the afternoon with evocations of a lost India, but why “evocations”? Why not “celebrations of a real presence”? Why should India be “lost” when none of these villagers ever really knew it, and why not “continuing”.
This evening you will be witnessing a performance of “Choutaal”  by youths from the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh – “Hindus for Selfless Service”. They work outside of the Mandirs…in the communities. They will present another such “celebration of a real presence”…NOT an “evocation”. Across Guyana, Chowtaal has been “continuing” for the past 40 nights, heralding tomorrow’s Holi. But who knows, “apart from the Indians”?
Chowtaal. “Tal” refers to the rhythm of the music Eachtal is characterised by a particular pattern and number of claps within a given time. Chowtaal means “four beats”. It is performed in a very heavy, powerful manner so the Dholak is the preferred percussion instrument.
The Chowtaal is performed in the antiphonal, “call and response” mode, which is common in both India and Africa where songs are performed for every possible occasion. The rising, falling rushed, vigorous and the quiet cadences will be punctuated with whistles, calls and challenges.
Brought from the Bhojpuri Belt in North India, where 90 per cent of the Indian Indentureds originated, this peasant art form can hardly be found there today. Yet it is flourishing among the youths in the Indian Diaspora in Guyana, TT, Fiji and North America. While most of the lyrics are about the exploits of Lord Rama or Lord Krishna, very early on, it was adapted to express sentiments on local conditions.
You will experience this innovation in the first piece, which is done in “Creole English”. Another innovation has to do with the performers: in India, Chowtaal was performed mostly by men – today it is mostly females who keep the flame lit.

I again quote Walcott:
“Deprived of their original language, the captured and indentured tribes create their own, accreting and secreting fragments of an old, an epic vocabulary, from Asia and from Africa, but to an ancestral, an ecstatic rhythm in the blood that cannot be subdued by slavery or indenture.”
Referring to the various “fragments” of the several peoples of TT, Walcott mourned, “I am only one-eighth the writer I might have been had I contained all the fragmented languages of Trinidad.” Why should our cultural fragments be sequestered in ethnic enclaves and likewise limit us all?
My final quote from Walcott: “Break a vase, and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole. The glue that fits the pieces is the sealing of its original shape. It is such a love that reassembles our African and Asiatic fragments, the cracked heirlooms whose restoration shows its white scars.”
Let our cultural policy – one that is truly multicultural – be the glue to bond our six fragments that lie like broken, separated shards. Then we will be firmly on our way to creating a “vase” called the “Guyanese nation”.

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