East Indian drama in the Caribbean: still a work in progress
Al Creighton's Arts on Sunday
Stabroek News
May 6, 2007

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The real work is yet to be done that will uncover the development of East Indian drama in the Caribbean. There is a very wide gap between the poetry and fiction that focus on the East Indian presence and ethos and the written plays that treat the same thing. What reasons there are that can explain this are yet to be articulated, but while there is a rich and prolific tradition of Indian fiction, poetry and performing arts, plays and playwrights in the same tradition are relatively rare.

The situation is no different in Guyana, where the name of Basil Balgobin is always the only one mentioned as a Guyanese Indian working within the Indian tradition. He has been associated with the rise and activities of cultural organizations concerned with the promotion and fortification of Indian culture in the 1940s. Following the lead of pioneering intellectuals such as Joseph Ruhomon, Peter Ruhomon, Ramcharitar Lalla and Ayube Edun, the rising generations of East Indian professionals joining the colonial middle class found it necessary to further empower themselves by focusing on their cultural identity. This need was articulated by Joseph Ruhomon in India - The Progress of Her People at Home and Abroad and How These in British Guiana May Improve Themselves. One of Ruhomon's concerns was for what he described as the low, uneducated and uncultured state of the indentured Indians and their descendants in the colony. He saw them as people of India in need of improvement. The improvement which followed included the publication of The People, Indian Opinion and an anthology of poetry, but it also had other consequences.

It paralleled similar developments among African descendants, which included the pioneering work of Norman Eustace Cameron in the 1930s and the wave of consciousness which accompanied the influence of Garveyism and Garvey's visit to British Guiana, among other stimuli. This ethnic and political self-discovery saw the rise of such cultural and political organisations as the League of Coloured People (LCP), the British Guiana East Indian Association (BGEIA) and the British Guiana Dramatic Society (BGDS). These were major middle class movements whose cultural activities concentrated on the glorification of Africa and India. As it happens, those who founded and those who were moved to join the Political Affairs Committee later established by the Jagans and Ashton Chase thought those earlier associations insufficiently progressive to drive the move to nationalism and independence. In the words of Martin Carter "the LCP was somewhat reactionary in our view. So was the British Guiana East Indian Association".

It is not difficult to understand Carter's assessment. The East Indian associations seemed propelled by a felt duty to maintain cultural identity by preserving the culture and arts of India rather than the Indian cultural forms and arts preserved, rekindled and/or developed by the indentured immigrants in Guyana. Ruhomon's emphasis in his time was on the proud nation of India and the improvement of "her people abroad". The members of the associations and societies three or four decades later took that very literally with the result that they produced very little that was original. As was the case across the Caribbean and with all ethnic groups, the tendency to imitation was very strong. This was evident in Lalla's very important anthology of verse in the poems by Peter and Joseph Ruhomon, J.W.Chinapen and all those included in the 1934 collection, as it was evident in the fact that despite the prolific theatrical activities of the BGDS, the association is not known to have produced original plays or playwrights.

One notable dramatist associated with their work is Basil Balgobin, and original works even by him are not well known. An original play titled Savitri has been attributed to him, but authorship has not even been established without question. The only other playwright to have grown out of these associations is Rajkumari Singh, whose mother has been named as founder of the BGDS. Her father was an active member of the BGEIA and was named as founder of the Maha Sabha. Her playwriting, however, took an entirely different path when she developed as a writer and did not follow the preoccupations of any of those societies. In her later years, she worked with the Guyana National Service and while she is credited with great influence as a mentor to the development of a number of other writers, none of her plays is known to have contributed to anything that can be called East Indian drama.

The important theatre movements of the 1950s and 60s made more direct contributions to whatever developed in this area. These included the Sugar Estates Drama Festivals and the Theatre Guild of Guyana, whose significant influences were the development of playwrights and the introduction of original drama using entirely local material. A few local plays exploring the East Indian ethos, customs and traditions, including those practiced among the working class, peasants and petit bourgeois, emerged. One of the Theatre Guild's great achievements was their creation of the British Guiana Theatre Guild Playwriting Competition. This was responsible for the rise of a notable Guyanese dramatist who was probably the first and still one of the very few willing to take on the life of local Indians in the villages and on the sugar estates.

Sheik Sadeek, who was born in Wakenaam in 1921, will not be recorded as one of Guyana's finest dramatists. But he was the outstanding find emerging from this competition. He was also a fiction writer and poet who won the Cheddi Jagan Gold Medal for Literature with his novel Song of the Sugarcanes. Sadeek's drama covers a range of interests across ethnic boundaries, but his "Indian" plays include Namaste, Black Bush, Fish Koker and Goodbye Corentyne. They are mostly one-act plays but still stand out among the few attempting to give serious treatment to the life of the proletarian and rural Indian peasants.

Namaste won the Theatre Guild first prize in 1960 and also gained first place for the Vedic Progressive College in the Inter-Schools Drama Competition on November 8, 1964. It is about Beena Narine, the daughter of poor workers on a sugar plantation who works in the fields despite her high school education and success at the GCE examinations. It touches their struggle, adjustments and compromise, a mixed-race romance, racial and sociological issues.

Sadeek is very deliberate and specific in his conscious choice of these subjects, betrayed in the words he uses in the plays. In Namaste he describes his setting as "a Hindu peasant's hut by a rustic roadside" and models his dialogue on his own reproduction of the Creole language of the estate people. He is also very particular about a representation of customs and traditions, using the word "namaste" pronounced with palms clasped before the lips, which means both "welcome" and "goodbye" as irony and dramatic device. It is the most carefully put together of his published plays, first published in 1965 and reprinted with an introduction by Ken Corsbie in 1974.

While at the beginning of the shaping of East Indian letters in Guyana, Joseph Ruhomon was very dissatisfied with what he saw among the plantation immigrants and started off a movement that looked back across the kala paani to India for a better model, Sadeek was involved in fashioning a turning point. The acceptance of local language and grassroots settings that had long gained ground in Caribbean literature came late to Guyanese drama, but it came with the work of Sheik Sadeek. He was involved in the changes that turned what Ruhomon did not like into the development of Guyanese Indian drama.

Another play about Guyanese Indians is Fish Koker in two acts. Sadeek was moved to write it after walking through the fish stalls in the Kitty market in 1961 and being struck by the life and colour of the language of the fish sellers including the "curses and swears". His attraction led to a play described by the Guyana Graphic, October 2, 1965 as "rousing, boisterous and rustic". Sadeek seemed proud of it, set "among the earthy fisher folk hawking their goods". His own language here betrays the same middle class outlook that afflicted the imitative verses written by the Ruhomons, Chinapen and Ramcharitar Lalla in 1934. Even Lalla, who was the most progressive in his depiction of the local weeding gang still remained romantic. Fish Koker was first published in May 1967 with a special publication for schools by the Theatre Guild. It was performed by the Georgetown Dramatic Club on September 29, in the same year at the club's Playhouse on Woolford Avenue.

Sadeek's Black Bush won the Prize in 1967 under its original title The Settlers. It was, in addition, written and published as a short story, and converted into a radio play which won the Demerara Bauxite 50th Anniversary Prize in 1967. Its setting is the Black Bush Rice Project on the Corentyne and in his usual emphatic way Sadeek describes the stage set as "a rice farming family's hut. A one room affair".

In similar fashion Goodbye Corentyne, first published in May, 1974, is set in a bar in a community centre on the Corentyne Coast among Indian and other characters there. It makes use of the rhythm and lyrics of chutney as well as distinctive Creole.

After Sadeek, the ground was clear for more developed Guyanese Indian theatrical works, but they did not come rushing through the floodgates. Those that were specific and direct in their treatment of Indian affairs remained few and far between. One of the most forthright in its attention to race is a tragic full-length drama called Pillars in the Mud which was actually performed in Kingston, Jamaica in the early 1970s but is quite unknown in Guyana. No information has so far been found about its author, whether it was written or ever performed in Guyana. But it is very explicit in its dramatisation of Guyana's violent racial civil war of the sixties with its plot built around a protagonist called Dilip who ends up throwing bombs into houses.

Harold Bascom treats the same subject in his tragedy Two Wrongs which won the Guyana Prize in 1994, while other dramatists Paloma Mohamed and Michael Gilkes have published plays on other Indian themes. In the very recent years, however, Sharda Shakti Singh, resident in Richmond Hill, Queens, New York, is almost alone among Guyanese Indians who have written Guyanese Indian drama.