Maseelal Pollard: 'King of the Sitar' Celebrating our creative personalities
(This is the twenty-second article in our series)
by Dr Vibert C Cambridge
Stabroek News
April 4, 2004

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The story of music in Guyana has many dimensions. It is a story about ancestral origins. It is a story about identity. It is a story about aspirations.

The instruments that we use to make our music - the flute, the shak shak, the fiddle, the drums, the piano, the violin, the clarinet, the saxophone, the banjo, the quarto, the rajao, the danthal, the harmonium, the sitar, and the steel pan are part of the wonderful stories of arrival.

The music we have made with these instruments and our voices have served many functions, including the cultivation of national identity and a vehicle for diplomacy.

The work of Maseelal Pollard helps to demonstrate this interesting intersection of stories of origin, national identity, and diplomacy.

I have memories of Maseelal Pollard from Queenstown. I went to Comenius Moravian with his children, and I was aware that among his neighbours was the Jagan family - Cheddi, Janet, and their children. I was also aware that Mr Pollard operated a tailor's shop at the curve of Third and Cummings Streets near to Graham's Bakery.
Painting of a Indo-African fusion performance in the Catholic Hall, Paramaribo, Suriname during the 1960s. From left, Maseelal Pollard on the sitar, Etwaru Kishore on tabla, Keith Waithe on flute, and Roy Geddes on steel pans. (Photo courtesy of Roy Gedd

Mr Pollard was one of those community parents who helped to raise my generation. A word from Mr Pollard to my mother about my "cangalang" behaviour could have painful results.

In the culturally inquisitive times of the Itabo (a club on Murray Street with a Beatnik atmosphere) in the early 1960s, I was also aware that Mr Pollard had a national reputation for playing a distinctive musical instrument - the sitar.

In an interview he gave to the Guyana Graphic in 1969, Maseelal, then fifty-seven years old, said that he started playing the sitar at the age of 11. His first teacher was his father Lalta Persaud, and the instrument that he was trained on was brought to British Guiana by his grandfather who had come as an indentured labourer.

Some controversy still surrounds the origins of the sitar. The current position among scholars is "that the sitar developed in the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent not at the beginning, but at the end of the Mogul era." Further, there is emerging consensus that the sitar "was likely influenced by or evolved from the Persian lutes played in the Mogul courts." The sitar is a member of the chordophone family. Other members of that family include the popular West African instrument, the Kora.

By the late 1930s, Maseelal was enjoying national popularity, and this was facilitated by radio. Along with his brother, a tabla player, he performed on British Guiana pioneering radio stations VP3BG and VP3MR.

The sitar is a versatile instrument and is associated with many genres of Indian classical music. These musical styles tend to be very devotional and introspective. Maseelal was an expert at many of these genres, and his expertise provided cross-over appeal. So, he was even invited to perform in Christian churches.

Maseelal was very popular on the concert circuit and even performed for several governors and Indian high commissioners.

By 1967, Maseelal was one of Guyana's cultural ambassadors, representing Guyana at Expo 67 in Montreal, Canada. In 1969, he represented Guyana at Grenada Expo and created a stir.

"The Grenadians were spellbound [by his performance]. They had never seen or heard anything like it before and it was quite a hit," said a Grenadian official.

Clearly, Maseelal's performance shone a light on Guyana's cultural diversity. He had developed a reputation as a healer and a bridge builder. He performed at the concert at Queen's College in aid of the victims of the January 1969 Rupununi Uprising.

Maseelal was also an innovator. In 1970 at the Theatre Guild, along with Etwaru Kishore (tabla), and Keith Waithe (flute), he performed the 'curtain raiser' for My Name is Slave, "an abbreviated historical documentary" written, produced, and directed by Ken Corsbie to celebrate the new Co-operative Republic of Guyana. The celebrated Jamaican writer, Andrew Salkey, who attended the performance, enjoyed the curtain-raiser and concurred that it was an important innovation because of the deliberate fusion of Indian and African musical styles.

"It was the first we've tried that. It worked, I think. The combination of sitar, tabla, and flute," said Corsbie.

That experiment in the blending of the nation's musical traditions took on other dimensions in the future. For many members of my generation, the fusion of sitar, tabla, flute, upright bass, and pan at Carifesta '72 reinforced the feeling that a new and exciting moment had arisen in Guyana's creative expression. According to Keith Waithe, the group was known as the Guyana Quintet and included Maseelal, Roy Geddes, Etwaru Kishore, Keith Joseph and Keith Waithe.

Keith Waithe has very special memories of Maseelal - The Master Sitarist.

"I remember spending several hours at his shop discussing musical ideas and about experimentation," said Waithe in a recent e-mail. Waithe also stated that he learned a lot from Maseelal, and this knowledge was very helpful when he later travelled to India.

There is a painting from this period of experimentation that is displayed proudly at Roy Geddes's steel band museum in Roxanne Burnham Gardens. The spirit of creativity that Maseelal encouraged still resonates today. Guyanese are still experimenting with the sounds of our ancestors. We have tried a lot since independence - the Bhoom, the Lopi, the Afrugu, Maskee, AfroIni, Chutney, Dancehall Chutney, and Chutney Hip Hop. One day we will create the great Guyanese harmony - the best is yet to come.

Maseelal was a multi-talented and versatile instrumentalist, playing the sitar, tabla, and harmonium. He was a highly respected judge at Indian musical competitions.

According to Peter Manuel, when the harmonium was introduced to British Guiana in the 1930s, it almost made the sitar and sarangi obsolete and extinct. We must thank Maseelal for helping to keep the instrument alive.

Maseelal Pollard was recognized by the Guyana Folk Festival Committee as a 2003 Wordsworth McAndrew Awardee. His pioneering work must be remembered and celebrated.

If you have additional information on Maseelal Pollard, please share it with me at


Sunday Graphic, Maseelal - King of the Sitar, May 18, 1969.

Andrew Salkey, Georgetown Journal: A Caribbean Writer's Journey from London via Port of Spain to Georgetown, Guyana 1970. (London : New Beacon, 1972, p. 136-137)

Keith Michael Austin, What's our Guyanese rhythm, Guyana Chronicle, Wednesday, June 28, 1980.

Peter Manuel, East Indian Music in the West Indies: Tan-Singing, Chutney, and the Making of Indo-Caribbean Culture. (Philadelphia : Temple University Press, 2000.)

David Courtney, Origins of the Sitar. Available on-line at http://chandrakantha .com/articles/indian_music/sitar.html. Accessed on March 29, 2004.

E-mail from Keith Waithe, March 29, 2004