A Study of the Commonalities between Indians in the Diaspora

Dr Sarita Boodhoo is well-known across the Indian diaspora communities for her seminal contributions to the cause of Bhojpuri culture, in particular the Bhojpri language, being the founder of the Mauritius Bhojpuri Institute and Chairperson of the Bhojpuri Speaking Union. She is also the author of several books, articles and conference papers in that discipline. Widely travelled in India, South Africa and the Caribbean countries for the purpose of her research, field work and presentations at conferences, she presented the paper that follows at the International Diaspora Conference (July 11- 13, 2014) organised by the National Council of Indian Culture held at Divali Nagar Chaguanas, Trinidad and Tobago, West Indies.

Diasporic studies are gaining much significance since some decades now. Globalization and the era of e-technology have brought peoples of the world closer to each other more than ever before, thus paving the way for much meaningful interaction and durable connectivity.

In this paper, I seek to show the connectivity and commonalities between the peoples of the global Indian diaspora and their multiple struggles and developments since their settlement. I also seek to highlight their resilience especially in the maintenance of their ancestral values, languages, folklores and traditions, verbal art, cultural traits, musicology, rites and rituals.

Interestingly, there are commonalities between names of the immigrants. They may be written differently according to which colonial masters they belonged to. Yet, they may have originated from the same village back, say, in Arrah Zilla in former Shahabad district of Bihar of the Oudh, Bengal, Behar and Orissa Presidency of British India. The observation made here is how people from the same roots have been thrown in different parts of the world and been able to successfully adapt to their new alien environment despite humiliations, prejudices, social injustices and repressions.

The Bhojpuri term Girmitia coined by the indentures all over the Indian diaspora from the English term ‘agreement’ is a symbolic one that reflects the resilience of the Bhojpuri people and their capacity to forge a meaningful place, to make a home away from home in their adopted countries.

Mauritius was the first post of the “great experiment” on the indenture route and proved a successful venture right from the 2nd November 1834 when the first batch of Indian contract labour was brought from Chota Nagpur. This paved the way for a 90-year old transaction in labour to Fiji, South Africa, Reunion Island, the West Indies, Suriname, Guyana and French Indies.

The ability of the Bhojpuri language and associated intangible cultural heritage to adapt in their new surroundings, taking new forms and morphologies is yet another remarkable achievement.

It is however in the field of socio-economic and political leadership that undoubtedly one needs to focalize in this new globalised economic dynamism. The formidable social mobility, while simultaneously preserving the verbal art and multiple identities, is yet another point that I seek to emphasize in this paper.

A Study of the Commonalities between Indians in the Diaspora

The theme of the conference rightly sets the tone for deliberations at this conference: Towards a Vision for the Indo-Caribbean Diasporic Culture.

It implies that there is serious academic work undertaken with empirical consideration combined with grassroots networking and interaction on this theme. It is high time that a vision and mission statement be chalked out not only for the Indo-Caribbean Diasporic Culture but for the global Indian diaspora of almost 30 million heads now. At this conference, it would be a welcome venture to plan a serious strategy to build a bridge across the commonalities that bind Indians together in the Diaspora. It is better to think of what binds than what separates us. The election of Narendra Modi and his elevation as prime minister of India will certainly usher in a ray of hope for the 30 million people of Indian origin scattered in about 165 countries in the world.

Indeed acculturation has been given far more importance as a research topic for anthropologists, sociologists and other research scholars. According to Lotty Eldering, Prof Emeritus at the Laden University, the Netherlands, acculturation is

“a process of cultural change that is initiated by the conjunction of two or more autonomous cultural systems, maintained by social cross-cultural systems.”

Europeans and Americans too have undergone an acculturation process. Today in a globalized society, with rapid e-Technology and rapid multimedia processes and jet space travel, acculturation is a global phenomenon. The use of spices, Indian curries or Manchurian chow-mein is as much loved by one and all. The use of bright colours is a designer symbol in the world of fashion today. At one time it was looked down upon as an inferior and ridiculous taste associated with Indians and their love for bright colours (yellow, vermilion). Today this is an economic index in fashion industry, just like the Afro hairstyles are adopted by the young people all over the world.

The Negro-Afro musical rhythms and beats have been incorporated in the world musical hits. In the same way the Bhojpuri diaspora has been led to adapt to new circumstances, languages and alien environments to create a social space for themselves away from home. Therefore, the concept of multiple identities is more accommodating and inclusive than exclusive. The Indians overseas, indentured or NRIs, have learnt to be accommodating and adaptive to survive in hostile environments while at the same time preserving their basic intrinsic value system. Globalization and the setting up of the Pravasi Bharatya Divas grand diasporic celebration by the Indian government since 2003 to coincide with the return of the great immigrant Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, not then yet a Mahatma, on the 9th of January has served to bring Indian diasporic peoples of the world ever closer to each other, enhancing interaction and connectivity.

This year Mauritius is celebrating the 180th anniversary of the coming of the Indian Indentures to Mauritius. An Indenture Labour Route is being proposed with all stakeholders round the world. An international conference on indentured immigration will also be organized by the Aapravasi Ghat Trust Fund in Mauritius. In this context, an International Bhojpuri Mahotsav will be organized by the Government of Mauritius under the aegis of the Ministry of Arts and Culture to bring together peoples of the diaspora.

Indentures were shipped to plantation colonies of the British, Dutch and French. These were found mostly in the Indian Ocean, West Indies and the Pacific. The migration flow began with a first batch of 75 hill coolies from Chota Nagpur, Bihar (now Jharkhand) to Mauritius on 2nd November 1834. Mauritius became the first country to be chosen by the British to begin its “great experiment” in the exploitation of indentured labour from India following the abolition of slavery by a Bill of Parliament in London. For the British, Mauritius held an advantageous position over other British Colonies. “It possesses over there the great advantage of being in close proximity to the great reservoir of free labour, British India…”(Merivale) In fact since Mauritius was the post for the first “great experiment” in the indentureship (Archival Documents 1829 – Chief of Police writing to the Governor about these importations) the term appeared in the book of I. M. Cumpston (1950) Indian Overseas, where he mentions that the “great experiment” of Mauritius was a test case.

This “great experiment” in labour exploitation for the production of wealth of the plantocrats eventually contributed to world economy in so far as the sugar industry and its related secondary industries were concerned. This experiment proved so lucrative a transaction that the colonisers extended it to Trinidad and Tobago (1845) Guyana then known as Demerara (1844/1845), Natal (South Africa) 1860, Surinam in 1873, Fiji(1834), Reunion Island, and the French Indies (les Antilles). This paved the way for a 90-year old transaction in human labour from 1834 to 1924 in Mauritius. Some 450,000 indentured labour immigrants had climbed those critical sixteen steps at Aapravasi Ghat, Port-Louis, which gained recognition as World Heritage Site in 2006 by UNESCO. Incidentally this is mainly due to Criterion no.6 that is the rich Bhojpuri intangible cultural heritage so well preserved by the indentures and their descendants. Had it not been for the determined effort, inspired vision and perseverance of late Beekrumsing Ramlallah, former freedom fighter, Member of Parliament, Junior Minister and founder-editor of the vanguard newspaper for independence of Mauritius, the Mauritius Times, in upholding the Aapravasi Ghat over several decades, it would have been left in oblivion. The annual “Yaj” ceremony conducted at the site since early 1970 which I still uphold, created the awareness in the public and government towards the remembrance of our arrival as a marked turning point in our history and the need to disseminate knowledge about it in the younger generation.

It is not that there was no Indian presence in Mauritius before 1834. Indians were present in Mauritius since the Dutch period when they introduced some menial workers from Bengal. During the French Period (1715- 1810), at the time of Mahe de Labourdonnais came free artisans, engineers and traders as early as 1716 from the French comptoirs of Pondicherry, Tranquebar and others on the Malabar coast of India. Some soldiers also came during the early British period when they took over the island from the French in 1810.

But the indenture system of labour on contract of 5 years marked a watershed in a remarkable and significant way on Mauritius soil that would change the whole socio-political, sacred space and way of life of the island. And what Gordon would distinguish as the process of assimilation would in fact prove to be a veritable force of resistance by these new immigrants and their subsequent descendants to the existent culture system. (Lotty Eldering)

The success of the flourishing and lucrative trade in human labour instigated the colonial masters to try to extend the experience on a wider scale. The introduction of Indian people in Mauritius and throughout the former plantation colonies of the British, the French and Dutch saved the sugar barons from a certain and sure economic ruin after the abolition of slavery.

A large-scale movement of people of Indian origin from the hinterland of Calcutta (today Kolkata) extending up the Gangetic Belt cutting across the vast Bhojpuri-speaking districts of the then United Provinces of Agra, Oudh, Bengal, Orissa presidency took place. In 1912, the Presidency split into the provinces of Bengal and Bihar. Others came from Vishakapatnam (Andhra Pradesh), Madras (Chennai) of the then Madras Presidency and the Bombay Presidency including the districts of Maharashtra. This produced a number of sub-groups within the larger Indian family with diverse ethnic, linguistic and cultural origins and traits.

In this way, some two million Indian indentures were recruited from India to work on the plantations throughout the world. Mauritius received the bulk of them. But whether they formed ethnic minorities or majorities in an alien socio-economic environment of the countries of adoption, they have left a marked visibility through their intangible cultural heritage.

As the immigrants made their sometime unsafe journey across the dark, desperate rough seven seas, the Kala Pani, Saat Samundar Paar, a strong bond developed among them which would give the concept of jahaji bhai throughout the plantation colonies. It is this jahaji bhai concept which has helped to cement together the different ethnic groups which came from the same womb of Mother India, Bharat Mata.

The term agreement (contract) quickly came to be known as girmit in Bhojpuri. And girmitya signified the indentured immigrants in Bhojpuri and/or Awadhi dialect, the dominant languages of communication emerging among the Bhojpurias and other groups throughout the plantation colonies. The girmitya is a strong binding symbology for the new uprooted immigrants. It signifies a whole sense of belonging, faith, resilience in the face of humiliation, oppression, and subjugation. Indenture immigrants resisted the oppressive conditions of plantations whether in Mauritius, Fiji, the West Indies or South Africa. All the reports, the studies of various scholars and historians point towards the same treatment meted out to them and their descendants. Their ways of eating food, their dress, their languages were looked down upon and ridiculed whether in Mauritius, British Guyana, Trinidad or South Africa. The stories are too many and carry a similar thread, throughout the enormous geographical spread of the Indian indentured diaspora.

Sometimes the girmitya or batohia (traveller) who landed at the Aapravasi Ghat in Port-Louis, would be re-indentured for Demerara, Fiji or South Africa. Siblings were separated. In Mr Tulsi’s Store – A Fijian journey Prof Brij Lal says: “Among the million girmityas who crossed the kalapani was my own indentured grandfather. He was in fact recruited for Demerara, but when he reached the depot (in Calcutta), he found his ship full. The next available vessel took him to Fiji.” (Lal:106)

All of us who have travelled across the lands and islands of indentured diaspora have discovered the different cultural peculiarities of adaptation, but also startled by the stark similarities. That distinctive something that binds us all together is indeed remarkable. It is our civilizational ethos and rootedness, despite our being uprooted and despite our different indenture routes and passage across diverse seas and oceans. The indentures in their globality did their utmost to maintain their cultural identities. They recreated their home away from home. (Boodhoo: 1999)

On my previous travels to Trinidad, Suriname and Guyana I was startled to find the strong connectivity and commonalities between us — the values our forefathers and our generation struggled through to preserve, our family ties despite alien cultural juxtaposition, the maintenance of traditions. I was excited at the sight of jhandis all over in courtyards in the diaspora, whether in South Africa, Trinidad and Tobago, Suriname and Guyana. This evidence of common way of worship is striking indeed. Amazing is the resilience especially in the maintenance of their ancestral values, languages, folklores and traditions, verbal art, cultural traits, musicology, rites and rituals.

It is a matter of regret though that language loss is felt in Trinidad and Tobago, South Africa, Guyana and the French diasporic belt. In Mauritius we have struggled to maintain Indian languages at great cost. The Government of Mauritius passed several bills of Parliament to maintain languages in Mauritius. There are ten Speaking Unions to give recognition to languages spoken and written, including Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Marathi, Urdu among others. Several new Speaking Unions were created in May 2011 including Bhojpuri. All these Speaking Unions operate under the umbrella of the Ministry of Arts and Culture.

I was appointed chairperson of the Bhojpuri Speaking Union in August 2012. But as early as 1982, I had set up the Mauritius Bhojpuri Institute to promote and propagate Bhojpuri as a living, pulsating language with its lores, verbal art, proverbs, metaphors, folk songs and kahani kissas. The Bhojpuri Speaking Union has set up a Geet Gawai School since September 2013 where elder senior tradition bearers of Geet Gawai sung at marriages, birth ceremonies and janeo pass on the tradition to the younger generation. Hobby and Certificate Courses are being mounted at the Rabindranath Tagore Institute to encourage the younger generation to acquire skills in Bhojpuri folk singing and creation of new lyrics in the face of fast changing threats of modernity.

Several steps have been undertaken such as the setting up of classes in Bhojpuri along with Hindi by the Ministry of Education and Human Resources. Hindi itself is well-established from pre-primary to University Level. The Mahatma Gandhi Institute has a Department of Bhojpuri, Folklore and Tradition which prepares pedagogical materials and multimedia for teaching of Bhojpuri at Primary level. The Ministry of Education and Human Resources was called upon to implement the Government Programme 2010-15 regarding teaching and learning of Bhojpuri and Creole in Mauritius in which it envisages to introduce Bhojpuri language and literature as an elective as from Form IV at secondary level. University Students study Bhojpuri as an elective for their Humanities or as a module with other core subjects. There is a 24-hour whole year round Bhojpuri Channel run by the Mauritius Broadcasting Corporation. At the Bhojpuri Speaking Union in the context of the International Bhojpuri Mahotsav under the aegis of the Ministry of Arts and Culture, a series of literary, cultural and academic activities are on, including publications, story writing competitions in Bhojpuri, nataks, dance ballet and other extravaganzas.

I seize this opportunity to reinforce the link of the promotion of Bhojpuri in the diaspora. The Government of Mauritius has submitted a Nomination Dossier on Bhojpuri Songs and Dances of Mauritius to UNESCO under the title of Geet Gawai for inscription on the representative list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

The Phenomenon of Marich Desh

A phenomenon observed throughout the diaspora, is that of the story of Tapu or Marich desh. The new and old waves of indentured immigrants have not only told or retold and enacted the traditional Ram Kathas and Ram Lilas but innovated by creating and recreating their own new stories based on scriptural literature in their new surroundings where they built solid and resistant pillars of sacred spaces, both moral and physical. Mauritius has a rich tradition of folklore and folk songs that constitute the Verbal Arts inherited from various immigration processes and developed on our soil.

A phenomenon that developed around the Depots at the Port of Calcutta by the Hoogly River at the time of immigration (1834- 1924) is that of the mythical story of Marich Desh culled out from Ramayana. Thus a new story, a khissa developed associated with the process of immigration to far off land or countries in the minds of the indentured immigrants – the Girmityas. As they sat huddled together, waiting for the ship to take them to the plantation colonies, they related or recreated stories from the scriptures or other folk legends. They had come from several recruitment areas, and thousands of different villages from the Oudh, Bengal, Bihar and Orissa Presidency. They were going to far off countries, mostly colonies, some in the Pacific, some in the Atlantic and some in the Indian Ocean. Marich Desh became a symbology associated with the traumatic experiences of crossing the Kala Pani or Sat Samundar “dur, dur, ego desh ba: Marich Desh”.

Pahalad Ramsurrun, noted historian and writer from Mauritius has in his “Folk Tales of Mauritius” retold the story of “The Birth of the Pearl Islands”, which according to him he heard from his mother. In this story, the corpse of Marich, the magician who had created the illusion of a deer in the famous Ramayana to lure Sita and being killed by Ram, turned into pearls which consequently Ram threw to the South of India. With a fierce cyclonic wind blowing and a huge torrential rain, a deluge took place. And the pearls were swept away to the Indian Ocean and grew into small islands of the Mascaregnas.

This story became embedded in the minds of successive waves of migrants and as with all oral lores was recreated and assumed different versions with different tellers. Thus the phenomenon of Marich Desh is known not only in Mauritius but also in far off Caribbean countries such as Trinidad and Tobago.

Professor Helen Myers, noted American ethno-musicologist having done intensive research on the Bhojpuri songs and stories of Trinidad, at the very outset of her book: “Music of Hindu Trinidad – Songs from the Indian Diaspora” (University of Chicago Press) brings out the remarkable statement of the East Indians about Marich Tapu. A strange resonance with Marich Desh which signaled Mauritius. The descendants of indentured immigrants to Trinidad and Tobago told her “old times people thought we were going to work at Tapu where Marich was king.”

At the depots of Calcutta this colony became an archetype of trauma of going to the far-off islands – the TAPU, whether they were Mauritius, Trinidad or other far-flung islands or colonies. It was the same painful tearing away from one own’s soil Mati to be thrown into the unknown, typified by myth of Marich and Tapu, meaning island. Hence for all succeeding recruits, the one destination that was recurrent in their collective unconsciousness was Mauritius – Marich Tapu or Marich Desh.

Professor Helen Myers asked her respondents in Trinidad: “Marich desh? Morisu? Is Marich Mauritius?” The response was indeed stunningly revealing of the state of mind of the immigrants at the depots: “ We don’t know that: People had fear. People did not come back from TAPU. As Lakshman left the hut, Ravan came and stole Sita. So this is our story, our Ramayna.”

Interestingly each of these countries took an Indian or Bhojpuri contour. Thus if Mauritius itself was Marich, Trinidad became Chinidad, Suriname became Sri Ram and Demerara (British Guyana) Demra.

For Brij V. Lal, “Fiji’s migrants themselves were a part of one million Indian indentured migrants who had crossed the Kala Pani, the dark dreaded waters, to the “King Sugar ”colonies in the Indian and Atlantic Oceans. Some were enticed by the tall tales told by unscrupulous arkatis (recruiters) of easy fortune awaiting them in Marich Dwip ( Mauritius, or Chini Tapu ( Trinidad, or Demerara ( Guyana) or Fiji, sometimes called the Ramnik Dwip, colorful islands in the paradise.”

Commonalities between names of Immigrants

The visit of Prof. Dr Chandersen Choenni Professor of Indian Migration at the Faculty of Arts and Political History at Free University, Amsterdam, to Mauritius, a couple of years back set an interesting dynamism at work. The commonness of Prof. Choenni’s name to that of Mauritian Minister of Arts and Culture Honourable Mookhesswur Choonee is indeed striking. Both share the same family name – Choonee which according to the professor originates from Agarwal Bania traders. The observation I seek to make here is how people of the same origin have been thrown in different parts of the world and have been successfully able to adapt to the different environments of the host countries. As the professor revealed his “paraja” great-grandfather left India for Suriname in 1889 from the neighbourhood of Danapur while Mookhesswur Choonee’s forefathers hailed from Arrah, both within a distance of 30 kms in the former Shahabad district of former Oudh, Bengal Presidency during the British period.

Suriname and Mauritius belonged to different colonial masters in the nineteenth century when the coolie route or Indentured Labour Route took shape across different unknown oceans, to nurture the sugar plantations of the receptive colonies.

Thus if Honourable Mookhesswur Choonee’s forefathers landed in the tiny island of Mauritius, a British colony then, Prof Chandersen Cheonni’s ancestors landed in the vast land of Suriname on the northern coast of South America, a Dutch colony. This explains how the Bhojpuri name Choonee came to be written as Choenni in Dutch in Suriname, and in Mauritius it was written by the recruiting officers (or the registration/recording officers at Port authorities ) in English but with a noted French influx in the writing because these officers may have been French or Creole with little knowledge or familiarity with the Indian names. The names were written as they were heard and understood. In Suriname it was more difficult and harder for the Bhojpuri immigrants to master the Dutch language and its hard pronunciation.

It is also well-known that immigrants may have been sitting at depots waiting to be shipped to one country let us say Mauritius, but the next day they may have been shipped to another country- Suriname , South Africa or Trinidad. Sometimes brothers may have been separated. “Among the million Girmityas who crossed the Kala Pani was my own indentured grandfather.” (Brij Lal:106). “Aja had been recruited for Demerara. I remember him telling us,… Often, one agent recruited for a number of colonies. But when he reached Calcutta Aja was told that the Demerara quota had been filled. And so he was transferred to the Fiji depot”. (Brij Lal: 30) “The next available ship took him to Fiji.”(Brij Lal: 106)

Hence they were recruited by the same arkatias, from the same Gangetic belt and taken to different colonies under different colonial masters, but bearing same names, with same features and same cultural and social backgrounds. Another common factor is the immigrants often gave their first names to the registration officers upon landing. These same names were then taken as surnames by their descendants. So we are pleasantly astounded to find the commonalities in our names whether in Mauritius, Fiji, Suriname, Trinidad or Guyana – Somaroo, Mohabeer, Maharaj, Ramkissoon, and Choonee/Choenni etc.

The observation made here is how people from the same roots have been thrown in different parts of the world and been able to successfully adapt to their new alien environment despite humiliations, prejudices, social injustices and repressions.

Bhojpuri Language’s Resilience versus Language Loss

The Bhojpuri term Girmitia is a symbolic term. It reflects the resilience not only of the language and its associated intangible cultural heritage but the capacity of the immigrants themselves to forge a meaningful place in their adopted countries. The language has taken new forms and morphologies, and has borrowed as well as loaned words and terminologies, riddles, proverbs and metaphors. In Mauritius, it has given its cultural nuances to Creole. The pejorative term Bachara used in Creole is derived from either the word a) Bechara or b) Batohia (traveller) or c) Patihara (traveller). The immigrants landing at ‘Coolie Ghat’ (Aapravasi Ghat) were batohias or patiharas. This term got converted to bachara (Boodhoo: 22) and used in a pejorative way.

Another term ‘dife dan lanka’ in Creole meaning fire in Lanka is taken directly from the Ramayana. If in Trinidad a landmark place of visibility is the Divali Nagar with its annual Ramlila manifestation, then Mauritius too is the land of the Ramayana. In fact, all over the diaspora for that matter in all Indian homes Tulsidas’s Ram Charitmanas in Awadhi, which is so close to Bhojpuri, is chanted daily at home, in satsangs or in temples. We have a Ramayana Centre run by a Trust headed by Pandit Rajendra Arun in the south of Mauritius. This Trust was set following the enactment of a Bill in Parliament. It is a matter of great pride for all diasporic peoples that the Ram Lila of Trinidad is recognized by UNESCO as a World Patrimony.

Bhojpuri language has been remarkably preserved in Mauritius, in Suriname and Fiji, although with admixtures of Avadhi, Braj and Hindi or other local and tribal mix. In Mauritius the Government set up the Bhojpuri Speaking Union among others, through an Act of Parliament passed in May 2011. This has been a major historical and political landmark. It has given official status to the language. There is a strong Bhojpuri diaspora throughout the world. Maintenance of languages and identity/identities is strongly advocated. Though the present generation of Bhojpurias throughout the world are conversing more in the language/s of the host countries, yet I do not consider it a language loss. In a paper entitled “Language Loss, Language Maintenance – The case of Bhojpuri and Hindi in Mauritius” Vinesh Hookoomsingh quoting P. Sooriah (1997) says: “At one point Bhojpuri was the dominant single language throughout the island in opposition to Creole.”

It should not be forgotten that it is Bhojpuri which has nurtured and nourished Hindi in Mauritius, and in the Eastern Bihari group of languages in Bihar and UP in India. The 1983 population census gave Bhojpuri vital recognition as a language, whereas it had no such recognition prior to this. This is visibly due to a strong political will. Just as “Creole Patois” was given a formal recognition as a language, this recognition was extended to Bhojpuri too: “For the purpose of the census also, Creole and Bhojpuri should be considered as languages.”

Certainly, Bhojpuri was for centuries considered a rural and peasant means of communication and remained in the subsoil for millennia as an oral medium, both in its land of origin in Bihar and Eastern UP and considerably so in the Bhojpuri diasporic belt. But it has a very endearing and resilient force which has brought it to the front today. In his pre-electoral campaign, Narendra Modi had said in Benares that when he becomes Prime Minister he would include Bhojpuri in the 8th Schedule of the Indian Constitution, this struggle having gone for decades by successive Bhojpuri lovers and politicians. No doubt the inclusion of Bhojpuri in the 8th Schedule of the Indian Constitution will give it a greater status at all levels. Several groups of singers, promoters have come to the forefront. Many books have been written to promote the language (Sarita Boodhoo, Dimlala Mohit, Suchita Ramdin).

Bhojpuri words like “chonko, godi, odhani, dulha, dulhin, barat, bartan, lota, bhowji are recurrent in conversations to date in Trinidad. This situation prevails in Guyana where Bhojpuri words are often utilized in the Guyanese English. In Mauritius, there are several Bhojpuri words that cannot be translated and are used frequently by the French media such as ‘agwa’,’maja karo’ in a political context. Mauritian literature also whether in English, Hindi, French or Creole makes use of Bhojpuri words and terms. ‘Pagli’, a novel in French by Ananda Devi, recognized throughout the French world as a renowned literary figure, ‘Daine’ a short story in French by Robert Furlong, ‘Namasté’ also a novel in French by Marcel Cabon and the celebrated works of world famous Hindi writer Abhimanyu Unuth such as ‘Lal Pasina’ are encrusted with Bhojpuri. Losing the spoken Bhojpuri in the process of modernization in the Caribbean or in the Indian Ocean does not mean however the loss of Bhojpuri: for the same is ever intensely present in other amazing ways in the home environment, temples, socializations, songs, cuisine. According to Mahin Gosine (Gosine: 1990), East Indians in Trinidad and Guyana constitute separate cultural systems within their national communities.

“East Indians”, he says “even if they do not speak Bhojpuri currently have incorporated the teachings of Valmiki, Tulsidas, Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Puranas into their daily lives and tend to abide by them to a significant extent.”

So, though they may not be utilizing Bhojpuri as such in their day-to-day interaction, words and phrases from Bhojpuri, Hindi and the scriptures provide a structure and background which give meaning to their lives and a sense of continuity (Mahin Gosine: 1990)

“The culture which Indians brought to the Caribbean was a blend of various local practices and beliefs, but the Bhojpuri traditions of Western Bihar and Eastern Uttar Pradesh quickly became dominant. This tradition was epitomized in language by the Hindi Bhojpuri dialect and in religion by two religious epics the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, which defined cultural ideals and values in the Indian community (Basdeo Mangru: 23)

Bhojpuri Songs and Music

The Bhojpuri Speaking Union is running competitions in Bhojpuri poetry writing and songs which will encourage creative efforts in the language. The Geet Gawai, a very distinctive facet of Bhojpuri folk singing in Mauritius, is a unique element in the Mauritian musical environment. For generations women singers have preserved the old traditional folk songs associated with marriage, birth and other rites of passage such as janew, etc. These have been done by the geetharines who have learnt the songs from their dadis, nanis, mothers or other elders. To encourage younger generations of women to carry on the tradition, the Bhojpuri Speaking Union has set up a Geet Gawai school. Moreover, the Government of Mauritius has sent a Nomination Dossier on Bhojpuri Folk Songs to be considered as World Heritage to the UNESCO.

I pay homage here to artists and tradition bearers of the diaspora who have despite odds, obstacles and media blackout carried on with their oral traditions and creation of new poetry and lyrics and nature.

In his novel “A Sea of Poppies” Amitav Ghosh gives due recognition to our Bhojpuri heritage (Ghosh: 99). His heroine sings the ‘Sanjha’ song which women sing and have been singing for generations at pre-wedding sessions.

A ‘Sea of Poppies’ being acclaimed a bestseller; it takes our Bhojpuri all over the world and gives it worldwide visibility.

Music and food are two avenues which have kept Bhojpuri alive throughout the diaspora. Bhojpuri music from Trinidad, Guyana and Suriname received a great push and boost from modern musical accompaniment and music shop professional treatment in the USA and Canada, a facility not so readily available to Mauritian Bhojpuri singers. The singers like Ramkhelawon and others have become a craze in these new diasporas.

In Mauritius the Government gives financial assistance to musicians to produce their CD’s through the Ministry of Arts and Culture. Noticeably, the Bhojpuri singers have to depend on musical arrangements aligned along Sega or Western musical set-up which then dilutes the Bhojpuri style.

Bhojpuri singers in Mauritius manifest a chunk of our oral history. In fact, these singers perform at social and ceremonial occasions and lend their voices to expressions of socio-cultural, aesthetic as well as economic and political realities. Some are protest songs, others are philosophical and religious renderings inspired from the scriptures, myths and legends.

The Surinamese poet Jit Narain’s Bhojpuri shows some mixture of Awadhi and Brajbhasha and some Dutch words:

“Din ke ham kam kari

Rat ke dekhi sapna

Aja ke surat lage, thora thora apna

Hamar jahajwa ke nam na

Lala Rookwa (2)

Deshwa ke nam bhail Nederland babua”

“Working day by day,

dreaming by night

Little by little my own experience resembles Aja’s

My ship wasn’t called Lalla Rookh

And the name of my land became the Netherlands, Sir”

The pre-wedding ceremonies of matkor in the Caribbean countries and the Haldi ceremony in Mauritius have largely become symbolical in Bhojpuri musical manifestations. The matkor as part of the oral traditions associated with the vivah sanskar – (digging of earth to build the marriage altar, the Vedi) seems to have influenced in consequent terms their chutney music. The performance of matkor can be analyzed in terms of the preservation and continuity of traditions from the Indian ancestral land according to Tina Ramnarine. According to her chutney music seems to be promoted not only as an Indian Caribbean medium but also as a national cultural forum. “Chutney seems to be one of those musics ripe for the world music market. At the level of cultural policy making in Trinidad, chutney is seen as a voice to Indians in the performance forum.” Likewise, the pre-wedding ceremony of Haldi has assumed a marvelous and spectacular forum for family networking and entertainment with Haldi food served and tradition bearers singing Haldi oral songs followed by band music and Bollywood hits as well as Bhojpuri songs.

In the Journal of American Folklore, July to September 1964, research scholar Vatuk mentions that he collected nine hundred songs from Guyana (British) for a paper he presented on protest songs of East Indians. That was way back in 1964. I do not know whether the political will to preserve these rich aspects of our cultural heritage is present at grassroots level in diasporic countries and even in India in the face of modernity. UNESCO has urged all Governments to take safeguarding measures to protect their intangible cultural heritage . Are they being adhered to? In Mauritius we have started to do so – promote and preserve before it is too late. Some have been lost like Alha Uddal, but others are still well preserved. These nine hundred songs of Mr. Vatuk collected in the 1960’s may be well preserved in research scholars’ archives, but what about the preservation at grassroots level? Vatuk says that these traditional songs are also sung on ceremonial occasions in India.

In my frequent travels to the Bhojpuri belt of Bihar and UP in India I have also made the same observations between those marriage songs, birth songs, janeo songs and those preserved and sung to this day in Mauritius.

“Dhaon re nowwa dhaore bariya

Hamri ajodhya lage jaore

Hamri ajodhya ma paan bahut hawe

Panawa madhowa chawawa” (Champion: 256)

And I have found the same song word for word in Mauritius, which I mentioned in Kanya Dan. (Boodhoo:207)

Run barber, run barber (fetch)

There in Ayodhya, there

are lots of betel leaves,

These will help to thatch the maroh (for wedding/janeo)

Many such songs are found throughout the diaspora. “Phul bagiya lagade maharaj gamak awe phulanke”. This song is still sung in Mauritius, Benares, Patna (India) and in Holland.

Another Bhojpuri song well preserved in Mauritius to this day is the jhumar song sung on wedding and other festive occasions.

“Kehi jāla Hazipur kehi jāla Patna

Kehi jāla Calcutta ke deshwa”

Who goes to Hazipur (a river Port in Bihar on the Ganges)

Who goes to Patna (capital of Bihar), who goes to Calcutta (the capital of Britishers and great port through which our forefathers left India)

I was astounded to hear this song being interpreted word for word by Doordarshan and ICCR artist Mrs Deepmala Mohun at the 174th Commemoration of the Anniversary Celebrations of Indian Indentured arrival on 2nd November 2009 at the Aapravasi Ghat. This song is still being sung in Mauritius and in Chappra, Arrah districts of Bihar.

Mrs Deepmala Mohun told me she had learnt it from her in-laws in Lucknow. A tradition bearer whom I have known for many years, Dadi Unmole (75 years) in Mauritius, told me she had learnt it from her grandmother, an indentured immigrant. The famous song “Calcutta se chutal jahaj…” immortalized in the Mauritius Bhojpuri Institute dance ballet (1982) is also a case in point.

The series of songs sung by women geetharines in Mauritius called Mahadeo ke geet are remarkably well-preserved in Mauritius are in fact intact so far as lyrics, tune and tone are concerned:

“Gai ke gobar angna lipaye

Gaja motiya ho Mahadeo

Chowka purai

Suni eh siwa

Siwa ke duhai

Suni eh siwa”

The song is now dramatized by Bhojpuri artists of the Purvanchal Ekta Manch of Dwarka, New Delhi, in Chappra, Patna and in Mauritius during Shiv Purana ki katha. I have heard several versions of the song with small variants. These old oral songs have come directly from the myths and legends prevalent for thousands of years in the collective consciousness of the sprawling villages of the Gangetic belt taking their origin from Shiv Purana.

One tradition bearer Mrs. Soomatee Seebun (86 years old) who has numerous Bhojpuri songs in her repertoire and living at Petite Rivière, in the west of Mauritius told me in my interview with her on Saturday 24th May 2014 that she learnt the songs from her dadi Etwarea Boodhun at the age of around ten, when she was going to sing at Geet Gawai sessions at weddings in the village of Rose-Belle in the south of the Island. She was amazed that this same story of the romance of Mahadeo and Gauri is being shown in TV serials on the Mauritian TV.

Chutney music of the Caribbean countries is on the world market now and excites great interest among diasporic peoples.

The Mauritian Bhojpurias who have migrated to England, France and other European countries have recreated their Bhojpuri space in terms of rituals, rites, customs and traditions, food habits and music. They combine Bhojpuri with Hindi film songs and bhajans and present a common front with West Indian artists. (Lock) Sashi Sohadeb, Mauritian Bhojpuria settled in UK, has collaborated with Caribbean bhojpurias on the musical front especially the Guyanese and Trinidadians. They regularly organize pan-European musical tours. In his book ‘The Impact of Mauritian Bhojpuri Traditions in Britain and Europe’ (Sohadeb: 2009) he says:

“These campaigners believe in Mother Tongue or Mother Language – which may not necessarily be the language spoken by one’s mother but the one in which a person is at home from childhood.”

Diasporic songs like “Phulori bina Chutney kaisse bani” (Trinidad), “Parosin apne murgi ko rakhna sambhal” (Suriname- Holland), “Maja karle meri jaan, phir se na hoga jawan” (Mauritius) have entered Bollywood music world.

Bhojpuri Food

An item which belongs to the world of food is the dalpuri. It is renowned and popular throughout the diaspora. It is a Bhojpuri food par excellence which is served to dulhas on the day of chauthari. Throughout the Indian diaspora dalpuris have become fast food items.

I have tasted dalpuris in Durban, South Africa, Trinidad, Guyana, Suriname, Holland, in Little India of New York, USA as well as in Jamshedpur, India where there is a big community of migrant Bhojpurias working in Tata steels. Recently on my annual trip to the Bhojpuri belt in Bihar, I tasted dalpuris in Chappra, Arrah and in Patna.

In the Caribbean as well as in Mauritius, Indian food floods the fast food markets. Besides the dalpuris we have a number of snacks and curries. In Mauritius we have roti chaud, ti Puri and jalebis, thekwa and a variety of other Indian delicacies. I have seen huge electric tawas in Trinidad, Suriname, Guyana as well as in South Africa, and in New York too where second and third waves of Guyanese and Trinidadian Indians have settled.

As Brij Lall too has observed the “the Roti) the double “ deep fried roti” stuffed with vegetables, the aloo parathas are popular food among Blacks and Indians. I in fact, ate at Roopram’s roti shop in Paramaribo the last time I was there (2007) or, rather,, jahaji bhais were entertained there during the World Hindi Conference at Paramaribo in 2007.

Indian food is reflective of the culture and tradition that the immigrants transplanted with them as they moved and settled in different part of the world.

“What one eats is part of the cultural and religious identity and heritage.”( Mazumder: 51)

Calendric Festivals

Hindu festivals are calendric, based on the lunar or solar calendar. It is to be observed that festivals such as Maha Shivratri, Deepavali, Durga Puja and Holi are celebrated throughout the Indian diaspora at one and the same time. The panchang is yet another determinant for home or community rites and rituals. Dates for vivah sanskar, the moving into a new house, the naming of a newborn (namkaran sanskar), the buying of a car depend for many Hindus on the star constellation or position. Horoscopes are consulted. In Namkaran Sanskar, the beginning of the child’s name is determined by the star under which the child is born. Death rituals are also governed by the calendar. If somebody dies in Pachka, then a series of additional rituals are conducted to prevent further deaths in the kul.

Even though geographically the Indians in the diaspora are on the opposite hemispheres (to India) yet they maintain their religiosity according to their panchang.

“The Hindu festivals and seasons are celebrated/observed in South Africa according to the calendars used in India. Although South Africa is in the Southern hemisphere and as such the arrival of seasons is in complete opposition to that in India, South African Hindus have not made any changes in their religious calendars….Celebrating festivals is seen as an important occasion to bring unity and oneness among different groups of Hindus in South Africa.”(Pratap Kumar: 68)

The panchang binds the Hindus together, though the geographical space has changed. The same Vedic mantras are chanted in all the temples and the Ramayana is chanted all over keeping the cultural ideals and values of the community.

The Jhandi

A Bhojpuri artefact which is visible all over the diaspora countries is the red jhandi of Hanuman. It is clearly a vivid manifestation of “uniquely reshaped Hindu culture outside its original home India” (Pratap Kumar: 1). In Mauritius, Hindu homes have a shrine in the courtyard: a Hanuman Chabutra where the red jhandi is a strong symbol perpetuating a semi-Brahmanical tradition. In my several trips to the Bhojpuri belt of Bihar and UP, I have seen unsophisticated long bamboo poles perched in the sheer soil at the top end of which floats a red flag. But the degree of sophistication the Hanuman jhandi has received in the diaspora is unique. It gave me a thrill to see these jhandis in front of Hindu homes on my trips to South Africa, Suriname, Guyana and Trinidad, which reminded me of Mauritius. No doubt, to the battered immigrant and his descendants, in the harsh days of oppression, injustice, humiliation and exploitation, it was Veer Hanuman the brave, the Mahabir Swami who is the God of valour and courage who stood out among the multitude of Gods and Goddesses to inspire him to plod on. Thus, armed with his valour and courage, they could defy and resist insolent colonial might and oppression. His giant figure gave support : “Bal budhi vidya dehu mohi harahu kalesh vikar.” Anything was made possible, was surmountable with the imposing shadow of Hanuman ever present. With material well-being of the PIOs and social mobility, as their houses became more sophisticated with double or multi-storeyed floors, Hanumanji too got a better location in their homes, sometimes perched on the roof, graduating from little cement cones to well-designed shrines and marble statues. Hanuman is outstanding as a God to the diasporic Indians. While in Mauritius we have the uniquely red flags in front of specially designed chabutra, in the West Indies I have noticed besides Hanuman’s red jhandis other flags- white for Brahma, yellow flags in honour of Jupiter and black flags in honour of Saturn (planet propitiation). These reflect a graduation of typical Bhojpuri folk ritual and village folk customs and practices which have undergone transformation in the diasporic countries.

These religious flags are so conspicuous and symbolical that at the International Indian Diaspora Art Exhibition held by the Fine Arts Department at the Mahatma Gandhi Institute in July 2009, Artist Bernadette Persaud from Guyana utilized the “Jhandi” as a basic background for developing her artistic concepts around themes like war, power politics and other recurrent global situations. “Persaud’s concerns are predominantly narrative, spiritually and socially aware, reflecting upon her ethnic identity and the political history of her country.” (Parul Dave Mukherji : 2009)

Socio-Economic and Political Leadership

It is a matter of pride that the Indians in the diaspora have made an immense contribution to the socio-economic and political leadership of the countries which their forefathers adopted. Their formidable social mobility despite trials and tribulations and marginalisation is a remarkable achievement to be reckoned with. And this they have done while at the same time they have preserved their verbal art, albeit with great difficulties. They forged a niche for themselves in all the hemispheres and spaces of adoption. After the great debatable concept of one identity, today it is necessary to review this as in a globalised world, inter- and intra- culturalism and multiculturalism, a sense of multiple identities makes the Indians more comfortable with themselves and acceptable with other ethnic groups with which they have had to share physical, socio-economic and living space.

The PIOs, in particular the indentured labour have made significant contribution to the overall development of their new homes. But that does not necessarily mean that they have been successful in all the societies where they live (Mahin Gosine: 6). “The reality of the matter is that in most of the societies in which they settled, the East Indians have had to contend with a rather difficult life.” (Mahin Gosine: 6)

When Brij Lal went to the Caribbean, in May 1998, on a journey of “diaspora exploration” He saw developments made by the Indian people that speak for themselves.

“Everywhere, I am reminded of the contribution Indian people have made to the economic and social development of the countries where they live: in agriculture, commerce, the professions. People recite the story of success proudly and with good reason. The statistical evidence of achievement is impressive.” (Brij Lal:107)

This speaks for all the colonies where Indian indentures made back-breaking contributions, whether Mauritius, Fiji, Suriname, Trinidad, Tobago and Guyana and elsewhere. The story runs like parallels.

However, Brij Lal could not also help making the observation that there was a deep feeling of alienation prevailing among the Indians, during his visit to the Caribbean countries. This feeling of alienation has had to be fought constantly in Mauritius too, ever since the Indians reached a demographic rise equaling 2/3 of the total population as way back as 1860. This figure has more or less remained constant to this day. Earlier the Indians were considered as aliens, and were often subjected to pressures in the Mauritian press to the effect that Asians should go back to India. Later on, however, it was the reverse attitude that developed. There grew the feeling then that they should integrate the Mauritian society with one brand of Mauritianism. Their languages were considered as foreign and therefore should not be given prominence at the national educational level. It was with constant struggles that acceptance has been made in every field, be it languages, politics, education or on the socio-economic front.

If Indians have forged a successful dent on the political front in Mauritius, it is not without constant threats and moves to break apart the consolidation. The fabric becomes sometimes fragile as ethno-politics is a dominant factor in the geopolitics of the Indian Ocean.

The backdoor of political power is still controlled by the PIOs in Mauritius. The election of Honourable Mrs. Kamla Prasad Bissessar as first lady PIO Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago is a pride for all PIOs in the diaspora, and a matter of historic importance.

For it reflects not only the socio-political mobility of PIOs in general but of women as well who were doubly prejudiced against, within the confines of the orthodoxy of Indian society, then the larger society of the adopted country and finally moving forward in a male-dominated arena of politics.

Brij Lal’s remarks to the effect that still “Indians in all three Caribbean countries have a deep sense of ambivalence and alienation” is a constant reminder of prevalent undercurrents of racial conflicts and pressures. This is a feeling prevalent throughout the plantation diaspora.

“Even after a century many do not feel fully accepted as part of the region. The situation varies from country to country, but it is a difference of degree, not of substance. The most obvious marker of uncertainty is the emigration of large numbers of Indians to North America and Europe.” (BrijLal: 107)As Mahin Gosine says: “In the Caribbean country of Guyana, East Indians continue to live under conditions of depravation and want.” (Mahin Gosine: 6).

He ascribes this to blatant racism and exclusionary policies. Mahin Gosine further observes that the East Indians of Fiji like their counterparts in Guyana and Uganda too suffer from ostracisation. Quoting Brij Lal, he says that

“East Indians who had for the first time begun to achieve some measure of legitimate political power in that country, were overthrown in a bloody coup by members of the indigenous Fijian population who resented and openly opposed the many but nevertheless mounting successes of the East Indians.” (Mahin Gosine:7)

“Indians are now in the process of being permanently relegated to second class status in Fiji.” (Brij Lal 1988:2) Although Indians have made a great achievements on the political front in Mauritius yet on the economic front, they have a long way to go. Out of the 100 top businesses and companies in Mauritius, the descendants of the plutocracy still control 99%.

The image presented of Mauritius as “an economic tiger” in the Indian Ocean (Trinidad Guardian, Dec 16, 1988) is largely ascribed to the political stability maintained by a majority of Indians in political power. “Moreover what has helped the East Indians in their quest for economic power is the fact that they also control the political reins of the country”- (Mahin Gosine: 5) quoting Jumeer, 1988, Kalla 1988, Reddi 1998.

“Here, it must be pointed out that, due to a number of factors, the quest for political power is something that has eluded most East Indian communities around the world” (Mahin Gosine:5)

M.K. Gandhiji’s accidental sojourn in Mauritius in 1901, when his ship from South Africa to India halted for a fortnight in Port Louis harbor for repairs and revitalization, has had far reaching consequences on the minds of the Indo-Mauritians. The two lessons that he gave during that visit to the effect that 1) they should educate their children 2) join politics, seem to have had a far-reaching impact on the socio-political mobility of the Indians here. As he could not afford to come again to Mauritius due to his pressing involvement in Indian political liberation movement, he consequently delegated Manilal Doctor, a French-knowing barrister to take the cudgels in favour of disfavoured Indian labour and planters. His bold socio-economic and political moves and those of other local prominent Indian leaders have prodded the Indo-Mauritians towards the altar of political power to which they have clung through thick and thin till now.


Towards A Policy of Global Sharing of Culture and Knowledge

The Indians in the diaspora have no doubt delved deep in their innate spiritual strengths to carve out a niche for themselves in their new homes with a remarkable sustainability of their languages, religious tenets, cultural heritage verbal art and values. At the same time they have learnt to develop a new “Indian Culture” with roots in their adopted lands all visible in terms of their vibrant cuisine, dress, worship modes, ritual space and music.

Their determination to survive and remarkable adaptability in their new lands reflect their efforts and abilities to persist and sign, without cutting their ancestral cultural linguistic and spiritual roots which sustain and nurture their souls.

There is a new attitude manifesting all over whether in the Caribbean countries of Guyana, Trinidad or in French Guadeloupe long cut off from their Indian roots or in French Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean. The new awakening to their roots is markedly felt. The new attitude arising in the Caribbean intellectuals is more forceful and articulate in challenging the long-held view of Caribbean identity being essentially black, especially in Guyana and Trinidad (Brij Lal: 108)

There is a “defiant expression” of Indian cultural and religious manifestations as markers of identity at grassroots level. The pertinence of this international conference focused around the theme “Towards a vision for the Indo-Caribbean Diasporic Culture” is a forceful effort towards this “defiant expression” of cultural identity.

I seize this opportunity, especially in view of the global networking through GOPIO and other bodies, to support the venture of a global vision of Indian diasporic culture. The annual grand event of the Global meet of the diasporic people at the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas organised by the Government of India, all help to bring us closer and cement the common bond of “Indianness” and “apnapan ki bhawna”, a sense of sharing, longing and belonging among all of us.

We should have a more interactive vision and dialogue between different geographical diasporic areas, learn and share ideas, knowledge and promote institutional exchanges. Younger generations should be encouraged to have more cultural and sports interaction. They should be encouraged to learn our diasporic history, do research on the diaspora, exchange their findings and consolidate their experiences in more interface conventions.


* Published in print edition on 31 Ocotober 2014

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