Tuesday January 16, 2018

Hindu Childbirth Ceremonies in Trinidad and Tobago

Among all ethnic groups in Trinidad and Tobago, Hindus perform the most intricate childbirth ceremony

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Diwali. Pixabay
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October 23, 2016: In the Ramayana, the Hindu scripture written in 500 BC in India, the chatti [sixth-day childbirth ceremony] of Lord Rama, the son of a king, is described lyrically:

“There was happy music of festivity in every house because the very fountain of beauty had manifested himself. All the men and women of the city were full of joy, everywhere. The city was full of flags and banners and festal arches. …Showers of flowers dropped from heaven ….”

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“Women streamed forth in troops …. carrying jars of gold and salvers full of auspicious articles. They entered the grounds of the royal palace singing as they went along, waving lights and passing offerings round and round over the child’s head as an act of exorcism. They threw themselves at the babe’s feet again and again. Bars, minstrels, panegyrists and songsters chanted solemn praises to the Lord of the Raghus [dynasty].”

Hindus in Trinidad and Tobago, and elsewhere, have been profoundly influenced by the holy Ramayana, the longest epic poem in the world. The poem is dramatised in the form of Ramleela, which has been proclaimed as a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” by UNESCO in 2005. Therefore, it is not surprising that the Ramayana has also inspired participants of the chatti and barahe [12th day] celebrations in Trinidad even after the birth of Rama 7,130 years ago, and at such a great distance ((14,459 km (8,984) airplane miles)) from India.

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Among all ethnic groups in Trinidad and Tobago, Hindus perform the most intricate childbirth ceremony. The sixth-day postnatal chatti ceremony is both a cultural celebration and social proclamation of the safe return of the new mother and her newborn from the perils of childbirth. Some families prefer to observe the birth celebration on the twelfth day, in which case it is known as a barahe and is of greater magnitude than the sixth-day celebration.

Diwali
Diwali

This is one of the rare Hindu religious ceremonies in which a female [masseuse] officiates. She prepares and administers a brew made from the rhizomes of both the hardi and ginger plants. The masseuse [dhagrin or maidy] also gives the new mother and her newborn their first full-body ritualised herbal bath. The masseuse also performs other rituals such as gently tossing the baby into the air, dragging the newborn in a scoop (“soop”), applying kajal [lamp mascara] to the baby’s eyes, and dotting her forehead [tika] to protect the newborn from being infected by najar [evil eye]. For several days, the traditional masseuse massages the baby and the new mother, and she also attends to the maternal abdominal band.

On the evening of the celebration, guests arrive and are served food and drinks. A special dessert called halwa is prepared mainly with hardi [turmeric], a yellow, pungent “heating” herb which is a native of India. The evening begins a long night of noisy rejoicing when chutney and sohar songs are rendered in Hindi and English. The sohar songs, accompanied by a dholak[hand drum], majeera [cymbals] and a dhantal [metal rod], usually draw their sources from child-centred episodes in theRamayana. A sample of a stanza of a sohar is reproduced below.

ráma ke gūráwá gūngru á nīckālā gāīho

[Ráma loves the ghūngru (anklets) on his feet]

… gūngru á nīckālā gāī

… loves the ghūngru

… gūngru á nīckālā gāī

… loves the ghūngru

ráma díré díré chal á backání kausalyá rání mandilá mễi

[Ráma creeps slowly slowly with Queen Kausalyá into the palace]

The participation of relatives from both sides of the family emphasises the importance of birth in continuing family lines and cementing family bonds.

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The chatti and barahe ceremonies are observed as a triumph over infant mortality, particularly perinatal mortality. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines perinatal mortality as the number of stillbirths and deaths in the first week [7 days] of life per 1,000 total births. In 2013, about 2.6 million babies died before reaching their first month in the world.

– by Dr. Kumar Mahavir

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Is Chutney out of place in Carnival?

Chutney has been able to resist the domination of calypso as the heartbeat of Carnival music

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Chutney has been able to resist the domination of calypso as the heartbeat of Carnival music. Wikimedia Commons
Chutney has been able to resist the domination of calypso as the heartbeat of Carnival music. Wikimedia Commons
  • Chutney soca music is a crossover style of music incorporating Soca elements
  • The satire on Prime Minister Rowley’s mother has been arguably the most controversial song in the history of calypso, soca and chutney in the country.
  • It is the International Chutney Queen Competition to be held on February 2 at Guaracara Park in San Fernando, the second largest city in the country

By Dr Kumar Mahabir

When people get angry, they tend to speak their mind. Their emotions explode in words that they have been suppressing for some time. Psychologist Dr Jeffrey Huntsinger proved this theory after conducting experiments at Loyala University in Chicago in the USA in 2012.

Chutney Soca promoter George Singh really spoke his mind when he became upset on learning that his 2018 show was not funded by the National Lotteries Control Board (NLCB), an agency of the Afro-dominated Government in multi-ethnic Trinidad and Tobago  (T&T).

At a news conference which he convened, Singh said that “the decision by the Government not to support chutney soca was an insult to the art form” (Express 05/02/17).

George Singh is a Chutney Soca promoter. Wikimedia Commons
George Singh is a Chutney Soca promoter. Wikimedia Commons

Singh raged: “The Government, over the last three years, has consistently reduced funding to Chutney Soca Monarch and various members of the present administration have stated directly to me that chutney soca brings no value to Carnival” (emphasis added).

At the same news conference, Singh said that the Government had approved a budget of TT $146 million to the National Carnival Commission (NCC).

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“I think this administration is hell-bent on seeing that it [chutney soca] has no place in Carnival. It is a slap in the face to Indo-Caribbean entertainment,” he said.

Singh’s outburst was a public exposé of what the Indo-Trinidadian (Indian) community had always known i.e. Indian culture (e.g. chutney, pichakaree ) is given marginal or no space in “national” and regional shows (e.g. CARIFESTA).

Sing’s rant is more revealing since he has admitted that he has “family ties” to Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi (Express 27/12/17).

Carnival in Trinidad has long been the cultural preservation of the Afro-Trinidadian (African) community. Wikimedia Commons
Carnival in Trinidad has long been the cultural preservation of the Afro-Trinidadian (African) community. Wikimedia Commons

In all his anger, Singh was careful not to confirm what almost every Trinidadian suspected i.e. that Government initially denied him funding because he was allowing Massive to perform his hot chutney hit “Rowlee Mudda Count.”

The satire on Prime Minister Rowley’s mother has been arguably the most controversial song in the history of calypso, soca and chutney in the country.

I have always contended that chutney concerts, competitions, tents and fêtes must be recognised as part of Carnival and must be a given an equitable share of culture funds, media space and stage presence.

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My argument is contained in detail in a chapter entitled “Chutney Music in Carnival:

Re-defining National Identity in Trinidad and Tobago” in the book Caribbean Dynamics:

Re-configuring Caribbean Culture (2015). The book is edited by Drs Beatrice Boufoy-Bastick Savrina Chinien and published by Ian Randle in Jamaica.

In the chapter, I discussed how Carnival in Trinidad has long been the cultural preservation of the Afro-Trinidadian (African) community. To this day, the major players and champions of calypso, soca, extempo, steelpan and masquerade, whether in Jouvert (“Jour Ouvert”) or Dimanche Gras, remain participants of African descent.

The emergence of chutney music and artists in 1995 – when Basdeo Panday was elected as the first Indian Prime Minister of T&T – was historic. In 1996, the rendition of Sonny Mann’s runaway hit “Lotay La” by DJs in soca parties, and by steel bands as their Road Mach tune during Carnival signalled the advent of chutney into the national urbanized festival/centre.

Chutney is being strongly influenced by calypso and soca rhythms and dance styles. Wikimedia Commons
Chutney is being strongly influenced by calypso and soca rhythms and dance styles. Wikimedia Commons

In the following years, Indians continued to change the ontology of “the national festival” to the extent that Carnival has to be re-defined to include Chutney Monarch, Chutney Brass, Chutney Soca, Chutney Calypso, Chutney Glow and Chutney Mardi Gras.

For the first time this year, a new chutney show is being introduced to the Carnival calendar. It is the International Chutney Queen Competition to be held on February 2 at Guaracara Park in San Fernando, the second largest city in the country. The event is being hosted by Randy Glasgow Productions.

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Chutney is being strongly influenced by calypso and soca rhythms and dance styles, but the genre is also used as an alternative to the Afro-Creole music formats. There have been two institutionalised chutney calypso theatres: “D” Massive Gosine Roving Calypso/Chutney Tent and the National Chutney Calypso Touring Tent.  Now in its eighth year is the National Carnival Schools Intellectual Chutney Soca Monarch Competition held at the Queen’s Park Savannah in Port of Spain.

These chutney competitions cum fêtes allow Indians to gain a sense of inclusion in this grand “national” festival, although on the periphery of the capital city. These cultural incursions also allow Indians to actively participate in Carnival without losing their (sense of) ethnic identity.

Dr Kumar Mahabir is an anthropologist who has published 11 books
Dr Kumar Mahabir is an anthropologist who has published 11 books

In 1998, cultural critic Burton Sankeralli wrote: “Indians are claiming Carnival space as Indians…. [and] … The flagship of this Indocentric presence and contestation for space is chutney …” With the re-creation of chutney, Indian artists are refusing to be subjected to silence and invisibility on mainstream radio, television, newspaper and the stage.

Chutney has been able to resist the domination of calypso as the heartbeat of Carnival music. The subversive spirit of calypso and Carnival is perhaps being re-incarnated in chutney.

(Dr Kumar Mahabir is an anthropologist who has published 11 books)