Contributions to the shaping of culture and identity
Arts On Sunday
By Al Creighton
May 8, 2005
Last Thursday, May 5, Guyana celebrated the anniversary of the day when the first group of Indians from the Far East disembarked in British Guiana, bound for indentureship on one of the Gladstone estates. Given all that it involved, the 90-day voyage across the kala paani and the experience that was to follow, it might not have been a very felicitous arrival. But the real celebration takes place every time Guyana is acknowledged as a nation because of the value of the East Indian presence to this nationhood.
For most of the 167 years since that first landing those 'arrivants' have been contributing to the shaping of the culture and identity of the nation of Guyana. It is both interesting and rewarding to follow the history of these various contributions to the making of the Guyanese imagination, the cultural expressions in the arts, literature and traditions, the demographic mosaic, as well as the political and social life. Today, those are all well worth celebrating.
Of course, great volumes have been published since the beginnings of Guyanese Indian literature in 1894 and 1934. Out of the many, a few, like those in the list that follows, do not only provide valuable and entertaining reading, but are instructive in the information they provide and the actual feel that they give for the period and the circumstances at the time when this literature began.
Clem Seecharan, who has been associated with the Universities of Guyana, Warwick, North London and Metropolitan, deserves special mention for two publications. India and the Shaping of the Indo-Guyanese Imagination 1890s-1920s was written while Seecharan was a Fellow in the short-lived Centre for Asian Migration at Warwick, and was published in 1993 by Peepal Tree. Much of the information and many of the ideas which are sketched out in this 98-page work were obviously enlarged after further research and incorporated into the much more substantial book Tiger in the Stars: The Anatomy of Indian Achievement in British Guiana 1919-1929. This was published in 1997 in the Warwick-Macmillan Caribbean Studies Series, by which time the author had taken over as Head of Caribbean Studies at North London.
Two facts are of note here: that Seecharan has a good grasp of 'Indo-Guyanese literature' and its early history, and that he was inspired by it in the writing of Tiger in the Stars. While researching for it, he had a different title in mind: Indians in British Guiana, 1919-1929: A Study of Effort and Achievement, but changed it, quite likely because of this inspiration. He was particularly moved by a piece written by Ian McDonald (1985) who recounts a story told by an old indentured labourer who crossed the 'black waters' from India. All through the voyage he was sustained by gazing at the stars at night and seeing the image formed there of a tiger leaping in the sky. This formed "a symbol of pride and strength and beauty which he could not then hope to possess but which perhaps he could yearn for in his new land one day. And it seems to me, also, that the generations have not misplaced the symbol or the old man's yearning."
It is a moving tale whose central symbol can clearly be held up as the inspiration for Indian achievement in Guyana to this day. McDonald's narrative of the Tiger in the Stars is reprinted in one of the other important volumes of Guyanese Indian writing, They Came in Ships: An Anthology of Indo-Guyanese Prose and Poetry. This collection was published under the imprimatur of the Indian Commemoration Trust with a Preface by Yesu Persaud by Peepal Tree in 1998. The anthology was obviously compiled long before that date by a team comprising Lloyd Searwar, Ian McDonald, Laxhmie Kallicharran and Joel Benjamin. The book, whose selections go back to the very beginning, takes its title from a poem by Mahadai Das, whose subject also takes us back to the very beginning.
They came in ships
Wooden missions of imperialist design,
Human victims of her Majesty's victory
They came in fields
They came in droves
The literature started in 1894 with a pamphlet by Joseph Ruhomon entitled India: the Progress of Her People at Home and Abroad and How those in British Guiana may Improve themselves, which was the first publication by an Indian in Guyana and most likely anywhere in the Caribbean. It was first delivered as a lecture and later published with the help of Rev HVP Bronkhurst. This started off, not only Indian writing, but gave impetus to Indian intellectualism and cultural advancement.
Another very important milestone in the literature was the publication by the Argosy Co in 1934 of an Anthology of Indian Verse edited by CEJ Ramcharitar-Lalla, a poet born in 1906 and educated at the Berbice High School. It was the first known publication of this kind dedicated to Indian writing (N E Cameron published a more general anthology of Guianese Poetry in 1931). Ruhomon was associated with the anthology, which includes six poems written by him and another six by his younger brother Peter Ruhomon.
As a collection of poems by Guyanese Indians from that era, it is highly instructive and just a bit disappointing. It is a collection of very, very English verse which does not tell us enough in poetry about life among the Guyanese on the plantations or in the Guyanese countryside at the time. It does, however, tell a lot about the poetry of the era and about what moved the intellectual thought and the 'Indo-Guyanese' imagination at that time. The motherland India was no doubt a major source of intellectual motivation and inspiration as may be seen in one of the poems To India by W W Persaud, which begins thus:
Save Greece, like thee, what other land
Could dare produce two epics grand
That yet would charm the ages?
Except those classic-words were sound,
Containing thoughts both wise, profound,
Could they their readers still astound -
Those deep, immortal pages?
There is no surprise in the styles of poetry used here by Persaud and by almost all the contributers to the volume. They belong to 19th Century English verse forms and language common to poems found throughout the West Indies in the early twentieth century. The Ruhomon brothers write very strictly to these forms. Joseph (born in 1873), was concerned about the lack of progress and the widespread illiteracy among his fellow Indians in BG and set out in his pamphlet of 1894 to inspire them to intellectual upliftment. His poems in the 1934 anthology show great concern for world affairs, England, the death of Queen Victoria (1901), the war in South Africa and Christianity. Peter (born in 1880), is preoccupied with Christmas and Easter, although he also writes about tropical (local) birds and landscape. One of his poems is about Albion Wilds, and one immediately takes it to be about the village of Albion in Berbice, not far from New Amsterdam where the Ruhomons lived. However, from its style, language and references, it could well be about England, also called Albion in ancient times.
The home of poesy,
My spirit brings to thee
Its songs of gratitude.
How sweet at morn,
To see high heaven's arch,
Made glorious with the march
Of Phoebus' bright return.
Nevertheless, judgements cannot be made about these poems when one considers the literary norms of the time when they were written and the newness of the very idea of literature written by local persons, Black or Indian. By far the most progressive selection in Ramcharitar-Lalla's anthology is The Weeding Gang written by the editor himself. It takes us into the local environment to describe working-class people in the estate setting. For its time, it is innovative and almost revolutionary.
The Weeding Gang
I know the girls are coming,
For I hear the gentle humming
Of choruses they're singing on the
I hear their saucepans jingling,
And their cutlasses a-tingling,
Which as their music-instruments they play.
They fill the silence after,
With their peals of merry laughter
Which float upon the pinion of the air;
And also ease their walking
With some idle, silly talking,
With kheesaz and boojhowals very queer.
Then once again their singing
They resume, until the ringing
Of their voices mingles with whistling
I love to see their faces
With their smiles and subtle graces
And I love to hear their charming melodies.