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Chutney music: A story of women empowerment

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the symbol of the genre suggests celebration of female body
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BY MEGHA SHARMA

This video is an analysis of the Trinidadian Chutney music by Dr. Kumar Mahabir. He has a YouTube channel with his name, where he focuses on the Indo-Caribbean relations. He is an eminent anthropologist and a professor at the University of Trinidad and Tobago. It was uploaded on 6th of July in 2012. It is interesting to note how this music with its origins in a Hindu wedding ceremony of cooking night. The dance was triggered by the labour class women of the place. Chutney is an Indian delicacy, used-as a side dish in most of the Indian households. it is a mixture of various spices, also known as a pickle. The Music is native to Trinidad and is a hypnotic, explosive, fast-tempo one with simple refrain verse (repeating the signature line) with Hindi lyrics.

It was performed by women mainly, though now it is a male dominant space. The women, who used to perform it, gave it a private space and involved in erotic dances. While the ceremony was going on, no man was allowed to enter the space. Today, the genre has been reinvented and one has different variations in it with Chutney soca (a Trinidadian style music), Chutney parang (Trinidadian folk music performed at Christmas), Chutney gospel (ethics), etc.

a still from the Chutney soca dance
a still from the Chutney soca dance

The researcher has done a study of some chutney songs which here I would discuss. Down the ages, one has seen how women have been looked as a property by women. They are possessions and an entity of the private sphere. Thus a release from the longish submission is always impossible. However, this genre of Music, a dominant working of Trinidadian females, comes across as a crucial step towards self- development.

The Dance and Music performed in it, as Dr Kumar observes, gives them liberty to perform. This liberty is inclusive of a celebration of their body, which is unthinkable within the public space they are devoid of. Today, the performances have increased and found a great excursion of women in the public domain. In 1960’s, when the feminist movement was at its peak, this traditional genre broke out and opened up ways for these women artists. These artists were disdained in the initial years (Alice Jan and Champa Devi being the first of them), and were regarded as immoral.

In the later years, the dancing and singing was made much available to the women of Trinidad. The performances brought profitable amount for them. The lines between the private and the public sphere are now blurred and it is seen how the exposure is given to the women who stand aside with men. They perform, dance, sing and even register their own subjection before the audience. The songs are their verbal accounting of denial of submission and being restricted to a private space.

The research further moves giving details of the outreach of this genre. Not only literature, but media, social media and even renowned music accounts include celebrate their existence. Therefore, one sees how a minor feminine genre has achieved greater names in and about the world.

(Megha is a student at the University of Delhi. She is pursuing her masters and has done her studies in german language.) GMAIL- loveme2010.ms@gmail.com

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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)