Sona Noyan – Iconic Bhojpuri artist honoured at Petit- Raffray

The resounding success of Sona Noyan’s Shradhanjali Gamat Nite on Friday 31st May, at Trois Bras, Petit Raffray has come to prove beyond doubt the vibrancy and resilience of Bhojpuri language and its intangible cultural heritage. Indeed, the pandaal/pavilion put up by the Petit Raffray Village Council and the Rivière du Rempart Village Council was packed beyond capacity. The seating accommodation proved inadequate and the huge effervescent audience composed of men, women and children had to contend itself standing for hours. The event which started at 7.30 pm continued right till one in the morning of the next day. As if to keep up with the tradition of gamat singing!

Sona Noyan who has kept thousands of fans happy with his rhythmic and forceful lyrics over five decades was certainly aptly honoured on the occasion. 25 Bhojpuri artists, new wave singers and composers led by the formidable Vasant Soopaul, Sona Noyan’s legendary ‘opponent’ in l’accroche gave a magnificent performance that gave Bhojpuri its glitter. Mrs Ravita Salick Peetumber, director of the Rasika Dance Academy and her scintillating young artists in their colourful costumes and their shining jewellery indeed added glamour to the show. In fact, many artists were accompanied by well-choreographed dancers. All the singers were honoured with a shawl, cash gift and a certificate of merit for their meritorious contribution, promotion and preservation of Bhojpuri language, music and national cultural heritage of Mauritius.

The ten-minute superb PowerPoint presentation ably put up by Arvind Bissessur and Vivek Binda on the life and work of Sona Noyan not only set the audience on fire but left a nostalgic lump in the throat of one and all which was followed by a standing ovation to the artist. Mr Gulshan Sooklall, Acting Secretary General of World Hindi Secretariat and Mr Arvind Bissessur, Head of Bhojpuri Department at MGI, steered and monitored the whole event with a dashing spirit which set the tone and created the right alchemy between the performers and the audience. Furthermore, the road by the side of the artist’s house is known henceforth as the Sona Noyan gali. I made a further proposal that the junction should be known as Sona Noyan Square in the future.

Beyond the Event

The Sona Noyan event has become a musical phenomenon. There are demands now for more of such beautiful shows by the public. This event has not only confirmed the capacity of Bhojpuri as a powerful vehicle of expression that creates echoes not only in the hearts of the local audience but beyond the shores of Mauritius. It brought a fresh air in the country, lifting people’s hearts and minds beyond the humdrum of the saturated and morbid atmosphere of scandals.

Mr Mimansak, the Second Secretary of the Indian High Commission who was representing the High Commissioner of India at the event, told me that the gamat music is well-anchored in Mauritius. It has taken a tangent from its original source in Bihar, India, and developed a new trend that has a vibrancy and particularity of its own that makes it unique. It could go higher internationally given the proper encouragement, he said. He was amazed by the on-the-spot creativity of the gamat duetl singers. This leads me to the conclusion that we could perhaps start by a cultural tour of gamat singers to India first, organised by the Ministry of Arts and Culture through the Bhojpuri Speaking Union and the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) of the Government of India. We could also stretch our mind further by envisaging sending not only the gamat singers but the Githarines of geet gawai group of women singers as genres of music unique to Mauritius to perform not only in India but in the International Music fora in New York, Paris, Amsterdam and UK etc. With a good conceptualisation, appropriate translations and presentations of the songs and the genres with excellent MCs we could develop and diversify our music Industry on the International firmament.

Bhojpuri Music in the Diaspora

Prof Helen Myers, American musicologist and anthropologist explains in her book: ‘Music of Hindu Trinidad – Songs from the Indian diaspora’ (University of Chicago Press- 1998) how the Bhojpuri music of Trinidad and Tobago gained significant recognition in USA. The Trinidad Bhojpuri artists had to move to mainland USA to get a boost in sophisticated recording of Bhojpuri music from the diaspora. According to Tina Ramnarine, in an academic paper entitled ‘Historical Representation, Performance Spaces and Kingship themes in the Indo Caribbean popular song text’ as a representation of Indian Caribbean popular music in the world music market, chutney has become well-established on the public stage in the West. It is being promoted not only as an Indian Caribbean medium, but also as a national cultural forum. This is precisely, what I am proposing here for Mauritius. That we have two invaluable genres of Bhojpuri music that are proper to Mauritius: (1) the gamat genre, male-dominated, and (2) Geet gawai genre, exclusively women group singers. If Chutney music seems to be one of those music types ripe for world cultural music, then why not ‘gamat art’ (Aline Groeme Harmon- l’express of 23 May, 2013) and Geet Gawai?

Tina Ramnarine adds: ‘At the level of Cultural Policy making in Trinidad, chutney is becoming increasingly significant for it is seen as a performance forum giving a voice to Indians in the Caribbean’.

More financial empowerment for Ministry Arts and Culture

Thus recognition of Bhojpuri artists of Mauritius needs to be voiced more powerfully. The Minister of Arts and Culture is no doubt well meaning in his cultural policies and means business but is he effectively equipped and empowered? I have the impression, that this Ministry is one of the most poorly equipped in terms of manpower, financial resources and capacity building. The cadres are overstretched. There are so many well-meaning elements outside as well as inside but what can be done besides mere expressions of intention when they are not soundly equipped to execute, act and perform. The conditions in which the officers work leave much to be desired.

Compare this with the Private Museum of Photography of Mr and Mrs Tristan Breville. Where there is so much of personal investments and labour! Even Prime Minister Dr Ramgoolam has highly commended the project, not to speak of the benediction of France and the Francophone world, and the generosity of the municipality of Port Louis -though it seems there are threats of slashing the budget. What about the Plaza and the Theatre of Port Louis? If the Ministry of Arts and Culture is so poorly treated then how can we expect Mauritian art and culture to be properly celebrated locally and on the world market? As for the Bhojpuri artists, they are given the least attention in terms of resources and local visibility – save for the Bhojpuri channel of the MBC – leave alone regional and international fora. I hope that Mr Jean Claude de L’Estrac, Secretary General of COI, will consider giving a space to Bhojpuri artists in the spectacular cultural event of the Indian Ocean countries being organised next week. There have been road shows of the Ministry of Tourism importing Brazilian Carnival dancers and music – but why not also revisit, empower and export the rich cultural diversity that we have locally? They include other genres present here such as the Kollatum, and Jakri music that have a strong Mauritian identity now as well as qawwali.

Let us hope that the Ministry of Arts and Culture will give consideration to the issues raised above.

Speaking Unions

As for the Speaking Unions, what can be expected in terms of creative art and promotion if their annual budgets are restricted to a meagre one million rupees? I feel this is an injustice towards arts and culture from the financial superman of the Ministry of Finance. If some people can ascribe to themselves a monthly budget of half a million, how can it be imagined that a Speaking Union merits but a poor 1 million rupees for its smooth running and activities, half of which would be absorbed by administrative and other expenditures? How can we then mount appropriate artistic events worth the name of art and creativity? And how can the National Heritage Fund properly handle the vast field of monuments and tangible heritage with the limited budget?

In fact, in his intervention on the budget, the Minister of Arts and Culture did raise the point of limited funds earmarked for the upkeep of art and culture in Mauritius. But who listens? And who cares? Art and culture are the souls of a people and nation. If they are not nurtured properly it is for sure that government will have to spend more than budgeted for Arts on substance treatment. If music is the food of love then play on, said Shakespeare. Even Gandhiji vouched that without music a man is dry.

The Bhojpuri Speaking Union presented at the Sona Noyan event a few of its aims and objectives in order to promote, preserve and disseminate the Bhojpuri language and its culture. Some of the future objectives of the BSU is to set up informal schools: (1) to give training in composition, style and musicology of gamat genre; (2) to consolidate geet gawai singing and prepare younger generations of women to learn the oral songs; (3).to prepare an inventory of different categories of singers and artists and compile their creative works; (4) to collect folklores available such as proverbs, sayings and promote folk art; (5) organise seminars, workshops and conferences in collaboration with established state and private institutions and NGOs at academic level; (6). Establish contacts and exchanges with the Bhojpuri diaspora. It is expected that private sector will surely also patronise such activities. The next big event would be a series of Bhojpuri weeks to encourage elocution, creative writing in Bhojpuri among the youngsters. The Brihad Antarashtriya Bhojpuri Mahotsaw – Grand International Bhojpuri Festival under the aegis of the Ministry of Arts and Culture is now scheduled to take off as from 2nd November 2013.

* Published in print edition on 7 June 2013

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