Archive for July 10th, 2008

10
Jul
08

(Video) Notes from the Indian Diaspora, Part 1: Responding to Modernity and the Tyranny of Tradition


I have to begin by thanking Guanaguanare, one of the Trinidadian bloggers I admire most, for having already done such an excellent job discussing the popular Trinidadian music video below, Sumintra. I will distill some of those notes and add a few comments and sources of my own. So, yes, this is a “derivative” work (or collaboration by relay) that hopefully does as much justice to Sumintra.

“Sumintra” is the title of a well known song in Trinidad performed by the chutney soca artist, Rikki Jai, written by Gregory Ballantyne. I mentioned Rikki Jai at the start of this week, and as I said then, he is brilliance on two legs. There is an important point behind my gushing praises — both Rikki Jai/Ballantyne and Guanaguanare are doing their own engaged anthropology concerning cultural transformations in their home society, with Jai devising a tool, a response, the song Sumintra itself, for dealing with those transformations, and Guanaguanare producing a public commentary on her respected blog. Neither he nor she respectively call themselves anthropologists as far as I know, even though I am aware of some cultural activists in the UK who choose to label themselves “cultural anthropologists” without necessarily suggesting that they have any degree in that field.

•••••••

Before beginning the description/translation and discussion (along with some recommended sources for further reading) let’s look at the video of a young Rikki Jai, with scenes of dancing on top of Naparima Hill overlooking San Fernando (the hill also happens to be a sacred site of the Warao in the nearby Orinoco Delta of Venezuela).

Here are some of the key passages from the text of the video:

Hold de Lata Mangeshkar, give me soca, aha aha
Hold de Lata Mangeshkar, give me soca, aha aha
Tickle me with a lavway, soca me till I sesay
But hold de Lata Mangeshkar, give me soca, aha aha.

Lata Mangeshkar (लता मंगेशकर) is a famous singer in India who has starred in countless Bollywood movies and even sings classic bhajans and ghazals (I am lucky enough to have one of her sets of tapes). For modern traditionalist Indians in Trinidad, respecting much of what comes from the Indian motherland and sourcing it as part of their impressive cultural revitalization in Trinidad which has lasted for generations, a figure such as Mangeshkar is revered. And, as I said, she is also a tremendous singer, and more than just a symbolic figure.

(Trinidad’s Indian cultural revitalization was a subject of interest to Morton Klass, anthropologist at Columbia University who passed away in 2001. His first book on Indians in Trinidad titled East Indians in Trinidad: A Study of Cultural Persistence and published in 1961, really brought the subject of Indian revitalization to the fore, even to the point that he was publicly castigated by the historian and independence leader of Trinidad, Eric Williams, for lending legitimacy to the divisive ethnic claims of what Williams called a “hostile and recalcitrant minority.”)

Sumintra is not hostile and recalcitrant. She is what the traditionalists dread, a defector. She pledges allegiance to a “Trinbagonian” identity (the word is a composite of Trinidadian and Tobagonian). She tells Rikki to hold the Lata Mangeshkar, she wants soca music instead. And there is a silent, or muffled story of cultural creolization right there, since many doubt that soca developed without the input of East Indian musical influences. Even if the creolization theme had been made obvious at this point, it would not lessen the dread for the traditionalists/purists, some of whom have famously gone on record in protesting that creolization is tantamount to genocide.

Sumintra is explicitly against ethnic politics, making this video quite subversive in the Trinidadian context of political antagonism and sometimes even residential segregation dividing those of East Indian ancestry from those of African ancestry, with both forming roughly equal portions of the overall national population. Sumintra has the courage to say:

Sumintra charge me [Rikki Jai] for being racist
And tell mi doh take dem chance wid she
Doh let mih catch you in dat foolishness
Trying to reach de Indian in me
Like you into politics, boy, you comin on dem tricks
Boy, I’m Trinbagonian, I like soca action
Take your Mohammed Rafi and bring Scrunter [soca star] or Bally [Gregory Ballantyne, the author of this very song]
Only then you’d be talkin to me. Yes, Rikki

Sumintra charges Rikki with racism! Why? For trying to maintain her within the fold, for trying to capture her for tradition, for trying to “reach the Indian” inside her. He’s speaking like any of the other ethno-political boys of what is now known as the United National Congress. She will have none of it. Sumintra wants “soca action”. “Tickle me with a lavway” she says — lavway is a creolized version of two French words, most likely “la voix” (the voice), a reference to the call and response form of early calypso music, the progenitor of soca. (I never found anyone who could tell me what “sesay” means.) “Bindiya chamkegi” is the title of one of Mangeshkar’s songs (which you can see and hear, here). You can view Mangeshkar performing here. Incidentally, one can find Mangeshkar’s voice singing for this beautifully nationalistic video, Vande Mataram, the Indian national anthem. I warmly recommend it for the imagery alone, parts of which I think are inspired by epic moments of American nationalism, such as the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima.

(Sumintra would have no time for me either, as I believe that Mangeshkar is a deity, and I am presently busy building an altar in her honour in my study. It is right next to the one for Amitabh Bachchan of course.)

Sumintra is also cast as a woman who has experienced modernity and multiple cultures, far from her birthplace, a shack in the Trinidadian village of Debe, mostly populated by Indians. Rikki Jai says of her:

Must be University or dem trips to Miami
That make she draw a border between roots and culture
She’s a liberated soul, Trinbago in she passport

University. Foreign travel. Her roots are distinct from her culture, just as the tree is larger and broader than the roots from which it sprang. It’s explicit here, she is “liberated,” a “Trinbagonian.” Rikki feels small now, and she even tells him, “Sport, you come short.” (Excuse me miss, please let that be the last time you belittle my beloved little Rikki.)

Rikki is not about to roll over and die. He comes up with a plan. He wants Indian, she wants soca. In comes chutney soca, a partial reindianization, and a creolized reinidanization at that, of something that emerged in part from Indian influences to begin with. He says:

I still believe the best gift is music
’Cause music is the food of love
But now I had to come up with new tricks
For Sumintra to get involve

Is soca yuh want eh?
I go give you what you want.
Lavway! Sesay!

•••••••

Guanaguanare is right (see “A Note from the Gull” midway down that page), this is a song one heard in the background of everyday life in Trinidad, and some of us were late in realizing the genius of the song. Guanaguanare also has a love for Mangeshkar, but understands Sumintra’s desire to transcend the binding bonds of the past and experience freedom. In a powerful paragraph, Guanaguanare writes:

While this speaking to difference may be excused or even essential in less open societies, here in Trinbago, it is often quickly seen for what it is – a ploy and often a divisive one that pits one “group” against another, whether these be distinguished by religion, ethnicity, gender, class, political affiliation. We identify the trickery by recognizing that we are being flattened, simplified, categorized, reduced to one dimensionality. We defend our multi-dimensionality by asking ourselves the questions, “Why am I not being addressed as an individual and a human being and a man or woman or child and a Trinbagonian? What aspect or aspects of my being and my life in this country am I expected to neglect, to betray? Why are these artificial distinctions being solidified?” Whether the object(s) of these strategies choose, like Sumintra, to protest, or to play along, depends on if there is the perception of benefits to be received. We are entitiled always it would seem, to sell ourselves to the highest bidder.

Do I detect some bitterness in that instrumentalist view of personal strategies? I may not be following Guanaguanare, and perhaps she will offer a clarification either here or at new collaborative blog some of us are planning (more later).

My questions about the video/song are:

Does the song preach against ethno-political divisions, or does it in fact practice division? Notice that Sumintra is to be the role model of the dominant, national, creolized identity, one that apparently leaves little room for East Indians except perhaps as background influence that is rarely acknowledged.

Does the song obscure the Indian origins of soca, and buy into the traditionalist and purist fears of creolization?

Were Indians in Trinidad ever so marginalized and alienated as some of their most prominent political leaders (for example, former Prime Minister Basdeo Panday) have claimed?

•••••••

Readers who wish to read more along this line of discussion should see these works by Viranjini Munasinghe, anthropologist at Cornell University:

Munasinghe, Viranjini. (2003). Callaloo or Tossed Salad? East Indians and the Cultural Politics of Identity in Trinidad. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Munasinghe, Viranjini. (2002). “Nationalism in Hybrid Spaces: The Production of Impurity out of Purity.” American Ethnologist, August 29 (3): 663-692.

Speaking in an interview, Munasinghe identifies some of the leading food metaphors in the politics of national identity in Trinidad. Callaloo is a stew made from dasheen. Tossed salad requires no explanation, unless the reader has been on a meat-only diet since birth. Munasinghe says:

many Indo-Trinidadian cultural and political activists I spoke with during my fieldwork in 1999 and 2000 took exception to this metaphor for the Trinidad nation. They argued that since the ingredients making up the “callaloo” are boiled down to an indistinguishable mush, the original ingredients lose their respective identities and blend into one homogeneous taste. They disapproved of this metaphor because it represented an extreme level of blending or “mixture.” Instead they opted for the metaphor of the “tossed salad“–an image which also signified diversity but one where, unlike the callaloo, each diverse ingredient maintained its originally distinct and unique identity. Thus the food metaphors of the callaloo and the tossed salad for the nation of Trinidad and Tobago convey very different ideas of mixture — callaloo depicting a process of mixture that produces homogeneity and tossed salad signifying the co-existence of diverse elements in pluralism.

Munasinghe does a great job of condensing discussion of India-Trinidad exchange and the emergence of an Indian cultural revitalization movement in Trinidad:

Identification with India heightened in the 1930s when the independence movement in India added vigor to the Indo-Trinidadian consciousness. As early as the 1930s, young Indo-Trinidadian intellectuals began staging island-wide demonstrations in support of India’s demand for freedom. Public meetings held in Indo-Trinidadian majority areas opened and closed with Indian patriotic songs and “Vande Matram,” the Indian national anthem. Many of the Indo-Trinidadian organizations formed during this period, like the India Club, were intent on spreading knowledge about India and things Indian. Wealthy Indo-Trinidadians visited India and contributed generously to famine relief funds. Visits from a host of Indian missionaries and cultural leaders generated new interest, especially among the Indo-Trinidadian middle class, in the language and culture of their “mother country.” The first Indian movie, “Bala Joban” was shown to enthralled audiences in Trinidad in 1935.

The role of the Indian mass media, especially its powerful film and music industry has been critical, and this is the backdrop against which Rikki Jai must define himself in the video above.

Munasinghe continues in that interview by discussing creolization, colonialism and racism, and contemporary ethnic politics. It is a good synopsis of the range of material she dicusses in her book listed above. With respect to creolization, and the dominant metaphor of creolization has been the callaloo, she says that this historically worked to exclude East Indians:

Creolization is a concept primarily identified with the Caribbean to describe and analyze processes of cultural adaptation and change within deeply hierarchical systems (the plantation/slavery complex and the race/color hierarchy that accompanied it) whereby new cultural forms emerged in the New World. A combination of the Spanish words “criar” (to create, to imagine) and “colon” (a colonist, a founder, a settler), the term Creole in the British Caribbean refers to people and things that constitute a mix of elements originating in the Old World. Through this mix of Old World forms, cultures and people indigenous to the New World were created. The terms creole and creolization, however, emphasize primarily the synthesis of African and European Old World elements, thereby excluding Indians. Thus while those with African and European ancestry are labeled Creoles, Indo-Trinidadians are never considered to be Creole. The implications of this exclusion from creole status is significant for Indo-Trinidadians.

Munasinghe does not explain how a cultural process, which certainly did include Indians, as in the case of soca, and moreso chutney soca, excluded them. What she is leaving out of the discussion is that political representations of creolization can and have emphasized the figure of the “Afro-Saxon” as representative of creole society, but she also should add that, like the people Sumintra rejects, some Indian nationalists are self-excluding, and disavow any ownership of the creole cultural forms that they themselves helped to create.

Creolization also implied indigenization whereby foreign elements could become native to the New World through creative mixings. Thus, all persons and things “Creole” signified native status in Trinidad, and by extension the New World. East Indians who were considered unmixables because they were thought to be so saturated with an ancient (albeit inferior) civilization, were as a consequence not accorded Creole or native status in Trinidad. Thus, Indo-Trinidadians have been symbolically positioned as outside of the nation of Trinidad before and since independence in 1962.

Here is the “hostile and recalcitrant” notion at work again. This is largely true, but let us also remember self-exclusion as well, where mixture was equated with genocide by Indo-Trinidadian political and religious leaders (the process known as “douglarization” — a dougla being the offspring of one Indian and one African parent). Even more contentious have been the occasional claims by some Indo-Trinidadian politicians that black men come to central Trinidad, where most Indians reside, in order to rape Indian women. Suddenly, the discussion has become quite ugly.

Munasinghe also explains how colonial policies of racial division continue into the present, in ways that echoe with what we saw in the video above:

Colonial policies and racial theories continue to influence contemporary politics on the island. The division between the two major ethnic groups comprising Trinidad’s population, the Afro-Trinidadian and the Indo-Trinidadian, which is marked and reproduced by race rhetoric and ethnic stereotypes with both groups jealously guarding what they believe to be their legitimate terrain, can be traced to colonial policy. East Indians were brought to Trinidad as “scab labor” to drive down the bargaining power of the Afro-Trinidadians. Thus, East Indians from the beginning occupied a structurally antagonistic position to Afro-Trinidadians.

The profligate “Negro” and the thrifty Indian are caricatures that survive to this day and inform some of the “outrage” that surrounds some of the music videos will shall be seeing:

Caricatures of the luxury-loving, lazy, immoral Negro and of the docile, hardworking and cunning Indian abound in planter discourses of the period soon after emancipation. Many of these derogatory racial stereotypes continue to this day as the two groups use these same caricatures to undermine one another. Unfortunately, as is the case with ethnic/racial stereotypes, these negative racial traits are thought to signify natural characteristics of the respective groups and the specific colonial history that led to the creation of such discourse is forgotten or remains unacknowledged.


In Part 2 of this series, I will continue by discussing, and showing, “wining”. See you then.




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