`Six Head' Lewis in mammoth New York Phagwah parade

By Bina Mahabir
Guyana Chronicle
March 15, 2001

A MAMMOTH turnout of Guyanese and other Caribbean migrants living in the South Ozone Park, Richmond Hill, Queens and surrounding areas, joined in the fun, frolic and merriment of the celebration of the Phagwah Day Parade 2001, held in Queens, New York, on Sunday, March 11.

Phagwah, which was officially celebrated on March 10, had to be observed on a Sunday here for the simple reason that many people's busy schedules would not have permitted the time for a proper celebration any other working day.

However, mandirs in the community followed through with tradition and burnt holika on the Friday, while many people showed up at their respective mandirs on Saturday evening to observe Phagwah the same day.

The Phagwah parade has grown from its small, humble beginning way back in 1990 when it all started and has blossomed into a large community affair.

As each year that goes by, it gets better and better with the help of the many community activists and businessmen in the area.

This year marks the 11th anniversary of the Phagwah day parade in New York, nine of which was held at the spacious Smokey Park in Queens, New York.

In its first three years of existence, it was held at a smaller ground near 133rd Street on Liberty Avenue, but as it gets bigger and bigger, the organisers saw the need for a bigger ground in order to accommodate the large number of people.

Pandit Ramlall, the spiritual leader of the Arya Spiritual Center in New York, is one of the founding fathers of the Phagwah parade. He, along with others, helped pioneer the importance of this festival of colours and paved the way for others to enjoy the celebration of Holi on such a grand scale as is possible today.

A Guyanese by birth, who hailed from Skeldon on the Corentyne, Pandit Ramlall was one of the recipients of an award in recognition for his sterling contribution to the New York Tri-State area and the Guyanese community back home. The award was presented to him at City Hall in New York at last year's Guyana Independence Day celebration.

According to Mr. Phils Sparacio, Deputy Chief for Queens Park, he said that this year, his department had loaned the organising committee of the Phagwah parade the entire stage setting and other accessories that go with it.

President of the Federation of Hindu Mandirs, Dharmacharya Pandit Chandreka, along with others, coordinated the grand parade. Many mandirs affiliated to the Federation participated in the floats of Sunday's event.

The parade got under way at around noon on 133rd Street on Liberty Avenue, also called the Cheddi Jagan Square in Queens, with rays of brilliant sunshine streaming down for most of the day. The temperature reached a high of about 50 degrees on Sunday.

Leading the parade were the grand marshalls, including Dharmacharya Chandreka, Pandit Ramlall, along with other pandits, Ms Audrey Pheffer, a candidate for the Borough of Queens President's Office and other officials in the community.

The floats danced their way to the tantalising beats of the tassa drum, the intriguing singing of chowtaals, and the enchanting sound of the manjera (jals) throughout the parade. It then waltzed its way down 129th Street all the way to 124th Street, made a U turn on 123rd Street and converged at Smokey Park in Queens for a rich cultural presentation.

About 15 beautiful floats took part in the parade; a small increase from last year and they all depicted some sort of significance of the holi season. They were identifiable by fancy banners beautifully engraved with the name of the organisastions boldly displayed on them.

The floats were richly decorated with a variety of beautiful dressing accessories that handsomely showed off the many bright colours of this festive season.

They represented the religious, commercial and civic organisations in the community.

The Durga Maa Mandir, the New York Hindu Sanatan Mandir, the Shri Murti Bhavan Mandir and the RSS organisation were among the religious bodies that participated in the floats.

The Laparkan Group of Companies, Sybil's Bakery, Century 21and Connections Realty represented the business entities in the community. Friends of Trevor, a group that supports Trevor Rupnarain as their slate for the City Council later this year, also capitalised on the event.

Both sides of the streets on Liberty Avenue were lined with scores of people, a good percentage of which included children, all having a good time as they sprinkled powder, abeer and abrack onto other participants.

Even the police officers on duty good-naturedly took it in their strides when the kids on the sidelines on Liberty Avenue, gleefully sprouted abeer and abrack on them.

Policemen blocked off the streets along the route of the parade with many NYPD officers on duty to ensure that the rule of law was the order of the day and thus avoid any conflicts among spectators along the way and throughout the day's celebration.

While many policemen were on their feet performing their duty, a good number of them took to the bicycles, cycling around the area to make sure everything was going as planned.

Mr. Cea, Commanding Officer of Precint 102 confirmed that there were "about 200 police officers on duty" throughout the day's proceeding.

Many of the officers were of West Indian background and according to the Commanding Officer, "since they are familiar with the culture, they are the best candidate to be on duty at the Phagwah parade", adding that the parade was just great.

Though the parade was a very lively procession with its enthralling music, singing and dancing, echoing across the streets on the famous avenue, it picked up momentum as it neared its journey to the park.

The tempo of the tassa drumming was increased to a high pitch crescendo and with the heavy chowtaal singing resonated in the air, the already high spirits of the people were plummeted yet another step.

The cultural programme started almost immediately that the parade reached the park, featuring songs of the festive season with plenty of chowtaal singing and an intermittent sprinkle of a few spicy Indian folk dances to tease the enraptured crowd.

The park was transformed into a beautiful, distant rainbow as a kaleidoscope of colours, red, blue, green, yellow and rosepink powdered the atmosphere and lent the colourful hues that add beauty to the celebration.

Indeed, abeer, abrack and powder were very much in fashion that day.

The air was also sweetened with fragrant perfumes as many participants sprayed each other, wishing family members, relatives and friends a happy holi. Others took to the gleeful spouting of the abeer, using the ancient "pitch-karry" method.

When Guyana's World Welterweight Champion, Andrew "Six Head" Lewis put in his guest appearance act, the crowd gave him a rousing welcome.

Sporting his golden Championship belt, Guyana's latest celebrity was bombarded with eager fans, hustling to get his autograph.

Among local community leaders who briefly addressed the gathering, were Trevor Rupnarain, Tony Andrews and Inderjeet Singh, all candidates who will be taking a shot at the New York City Council later this year.

The beauty of the holi season was captured when the famous phagwah song "Range Bari Se Bige..." reverberated through the sound system.

The crowd went wild, as practically everybody started to sing and dance to the hot, enticing beat of the dholak and immersed themselves in the unique joy of that moment.

The atmosphere was shrouded with a thick blanket of powder, abeer and abrack as the people ceremoniously threw their things in the air.

Indian wear such as the sari, shalwar, kurta and lehanga were very much in vogue on Sunday.

The large turnout of about 13,000 people at the parade was a complement to the glorious weather condition on that day.

According to Pandit Yoganand Ramnarain, "this year's phagwah was better than last year's"

"There were better decorated floats and a larger turnout on the streets", he said, adding that, the crowd was larger too, "and this because of the good weather".

Many Guyanese overlooked the long, tedious journey from New Jersey all the way to Queens, to be at the parade, which also drew quite a crowd from the Bronx, Brooklyn, Long Beach and Long Island.