Gamat Singing in Mauritius – A Unique Genre of Music

A tribute to Sona Noyan – King of Gamat

“Gharwa duwarwa sab haije rahjala

Char din ke chandani ba, phir andheri raat ba”

— from the song Khale pile

Mauritius has a rich tradition of folklore and folksongs. Though the ‘girmitias’ – indentured immigrants — brought few material belongings, yet they had a large amount of recollection of music in their throat and preserved in their memories, which they sang during the painful traversée of the kala pani and the sat samundar par to come to Marich tapu, and transmitted to succeeding generations thereafter. Bhojpuri folk songs constitute some of the precious treasures of Mauritius. It is a matter of pride that the Government has sent a nomination dossier to the UNESCO to place the Bhojpuri folk songs of Mauritius on the world patrimony of intangible heritage. It is indeed a remarkable feat that several genres of Bhojpuri folk songs have been preserved and passed on from generation to generation because of their invariable resilience and forceful sustaining element and the love and interest of the singers.

It is through music that the girmitias kept their morale high in the face of humiliation, oppression and social injustice, and this for the almost two hundred years of migration. We have different genres. On the one hand, we have devotional singing such as the vigorous chanting of Ramayana on jhal and dholak which so impressed the European scholar John de Lingen (Hazareesingh, 1975) that he wrote: ‘they worked all day long with hoe and mattock under conditions of which I have described only the physical, but not the mental hardship. And then, until far into the night, and early before dawn, their little lamps could be seen burning and their voices could be heard praying, teaching and consoling. And it is thus that the torch of faith has been kept alive.’

Then there are the rhythmical chowtals, sumirans, dhamars and hori-phagwa songs associated with the colourful spring festival of mirth and joy-Holi. On the other hand there are the temple chants and mantras, the bhajans and kirtans associated with invocation of gods and goddesses and incantations. The Bhojpuri women are the veritable custodians of traditions. Generations of women tradition bearers have kept alive in their memory and throat, an incredible variety of different sanskar geets which they sing on various occasions such as marriage, birth and other devi devta ke geet.

These geetharines have constituted their own tolis for geet gawai sessions on pre-marriage occasions. The other genres include the sabad based on nirguna, Kabir bani sung to accompany man on his last journey, the antyesti kriya. Or still, the janeogeet associated with the thread-giving ceremony, or the godna geet associated with godna tattooing. The harparawri geet is sung to invoke God Indra to send rain when drought assails the country. The pathetic Bhojpuri songs of jatsar sung in the old days of grinding of pulses and grains on the grinding stone – the janta – speak of tales of woe of daughters-in-law.

Gamat – A Unique Genre of Music

But the gamat style of singing is a genre which is unique to Mauritius. There is no doubt that it exists in variant forms also in Trinidad and Tobago, Surinam, Guyana, South Africa, Netherlands, Fiji. But the form it has developed here is unparalleled indeed. Gamat, enjoyment or entertainment is traditionally associated with haldi night. In the old days known as mehphil in the Bhojpuri belt of Bihar and UP, the gamat served to entertain the barat or marriage party which travelled long distances and used to camp two or three nights at the bride’s parents’ residence. In the immigration period and the early decades of the last century, dancing girls were hired for the occasion. Sometimes men disguised as dancing girls kept the mirth going. Some of the notables vied with each other to give the highest token of money to the dancers and singers in a bid to impress the gathering. There were poetry recitals too and even literary discourses and debates were held for the pleasure of the baraatis.

The tradition of gamat singing in Mauritius has been kept alive thanks to the dedication and perseverance of this genre of singers. They compose and set their own lyrics or contact a guru. Often they start by a doha with great philosophical meanings set to music usually in Hindi followed then by their compositions or songs. Up till the 1950s and 60s few people had a radio and the television had not yet appeared in Mauritian homes. The electricity network did not cover the whole island. The villagers used mashal or flambeaux or kerosene lamps at night in the gamat pandals. People travelled on bicycles or walked long distances to attend a gamat session.

Sona Noyan – Iconic Figure of Bhojpuri Music

In this category of singers commonly known as chanteurs la tente, Sona Noyan has definitely emerged as the king of Gamat in the collective consciousness. He has kept the flame of creative Bhojpuri singing alive for over five decades. Regrettably, he passed away on last February 8th at the age of 67, after a protracted illness of cancer of the throat.

There is not a village in the country where Sona Noyan is not recognized. Known popularly as Bhai Sona, Hurrychand Noyan developed the passion for singing since his early childhood and performed his first public solo at age of 14. He used to follow his elder brothers Chandraduth and Sooroojduth, himself a Vedic pandit who is a good composer, to gamat sessions on Saturday nights or varshik outsaw bhajans.

Sona did not have the opportunity to attend secondary schooling because life was hard and college was fee paying. But seeing his passion for singing, his parents Heeralall and Phoolbassea bought him a harmonium. He contacted a musician relative of the locality ‘Dassi’ Bhagat Bholah who coached him in music for three years. He had gained sufficient confidence to perform on stage. To further his knowledge and polish and strengthen his compositions he decided to learn Hindi at the local baithka. And Hindi opened a door to a wide world for him. It took him beyond the fringes of his own village Trois Bras, to the whole of Mauritius to such remote corners as Baie du Cap, Chemin Grenier, and even beyond the shores of Mauritius to England, France, Scotland, Reunion, India, etc.

It was his scriptural readings in Hindi of the Gita, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Satyarth Prakash and Kabir which consolidated his compositions and renderings.

Thus armed solidly in the Shastric knowledge, Noyan would perform at the formidable ‘l’accroche’ ready to challenge his opponent. Overnight, he won the admiration of people and challenged such veteran singers as Basant Soopaul of Rivière des Creoles, the brothers Jeewan and Rohit Dawosing of Pailles commonly known as Jeewan and Rohit ‘Pailles’, Freeman Lagare, Parsad ‘Plaine Magnien’, ‘Thermogene’ of Tranquebar, Roodraduth Pokhun and many others.

I have met Bhai Sona many times. While writing and researching for my book Bhojpuri Traditions of Mauritius in the 1990s, I approached him and interviewed him. He invited me to attend one of his gamat sessions at Barthoso Hall at Nouvelle France. He had opposite him in the l’accroche or jugal bandi or sawal jawab (question and answer style of singing) no less a giant than Basant Soopaul, I sat there from eight in the evening till three in the morning! He kept his audience, young and old, in frenzy. There was such a deep electrifying chemistry that ran between him and his audience whom he kept aflame the whole night!

No wonder he won the First Prize of the Bhojpuri Bahar Competition organized by the MBC in September 1996 with the famous song Khale Pile that has stuck to him like a tag, a label. That particular style that he adopted of throwing back his deliberately kept long hair from his face over and over again as he drew on his harmonium would set his audience ablaze!

Indeed Sona Noyan had a large following of fans. They would wait for him at Trois Bras and follow him in all the gamat sessions every Saturday night in a rally of cars.

With growing urbanization and DJ music culture, are the gamat singers threatened? Maybe, we could set up an Informal Gamat School at one or the several state institutions and youngsters could have a training – workshop in composition, style, musicology of gamat genre. On 31st May which coincides with his birthday at his village Trois Bras, Petit Raffray a tribute will be paid to this iconic figure of Bhojpuri music in a grand spectacular way in the true gamat style indeed. The road by his house will be renamed after him. A CD – Sunte Raho of songs recorded and set to music during Bhai Sona’s illness by Ravin Sowamber, President of Bhojpuri Artists Association and currently adviser of the Ministry of Arts and Culture, will be launched. It will be known then what is the future trend of gamat singing.

As it is, the Bhojpuri channel of the MBC is giving a great boost and recognition to Bhojpuri language, culture and Bhojpuri singers. More visibility and financial encadrement could perhaps give more self-esteem and recognition to artists who have managed to preserve and promote Bhojpuri music against many odds and obstacles. The Ministry of Arts and Culture has come up with some good measures to support artists in the production of their CDs. Halls are available free of cost for performance. The setting up of the Bhojpuri Speaking Union by an Act of Parliament will no doubt consolidate the aspirations and demands of the Bhojpuri artists once empowered. The private sector could surely join forces to sponsor and patronize this art form preserved at great personal sacrifice by the Bhojpuri artists.

* Published in print edition on 24 May 2013

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