Roots of rhythm
The Chutney music symbolises the chord of connectivity non-resident Indians experience universally. The music group from Surinam displayed not just the Caribbean-Indian music skill, but their sense of belonging with India, the country of their origin as well. RANEE KUMAR reports.
Photos: P.V. Sivakumar
SPICY STUFF: The singing is an admixture of styles.
CHUTNEY CONCERT -- the nomenclature sounds weird; it is a peculiarly Indian recipe comprising varied ingredients that contribute to the total effect of hot, fast consuming, spicy stuff. This exactly sums up the innovative music created by the Caribbean natives of Indian origin.
The singing is an admixture of styles with a modified calypso beat called `soca' borrowed from the West and lyrics drawn mostly from the Devanagiri (Hindi) and its dialectical variations with a sprinkling of English/Dutch terms or whatever the local language.
The intonation is individualistic in as much as it can be termed Indian soca. If one imagines the outcome to be a cacophony, well, it is just the opposite. It is a melodious, meaningful, marvellous musical bonanza called Chutney! Kries (perhaps an acronym for Krishna) Ramkhelawan and his Chutney troupe from Surinam (one of the states in the Caribbean) comprising his father Rampersad Ramkhelawan, team mates Rajesh Sewnandan (probably a Surinamese version of Shiv Nandan) and Kries Puran were here in the twin cities as an extension of their tour of Indian metros beginning with the NRI festival in New Delhi recently. It was an evening of excellent musical presentation with just a harmonium and a dholak as accompaniments.
These typically Indian rustic tools could supplement an entire instrumental ensemble. Both the Kries' adept fingers could produce vibrating resonance with a stunning effect leaving most of us in a state of stupor.
The content of Chutney singing is either romantic bordering on the brazen like most of the rural notes or a nostalgic penchant mood or philosophical in the Oriental fashion.
This is directly reflective of the background of these Indians who were more or less uprooted from their motherland (India) and shipped (Lala Rookh -- the first ship) across to Surinam, then a Dutch colony to the northern side of South America, as indentured (contracted) plantation workers around 1873. Most of them were probably drawn from the north and eastern belts of India. Hence the predominance of Bhojpuri, Awadh and Bengali in their mother tongue. The nostalgic notes of the beauty of Hindustan left far behind, the influences of a Hindu undivided family where the grandparents, paternal and maternal uncles and aunts, brothers and sisters-in-law loom larger than life, where gods of the Hindu pantheon still walk, talk and sleep with human beings - these form the theme of their songs.
The Chodiye ri hindusthan ava... in Bhojpuri by Rampersad speaks volumes on the departure of his forefathers from Calcutta by ship. A tone of pathos reverberates throughout, picturising the pain and parting (the line roti huyi yeh joru mera) from near and dear ones and the motherland forever. Aaganaiyya may babura lagaiva... in the lok geeth tradition shows their preoccupation with recreating an Indian rural atmosphere in a foreign land to escape homesickness.
The typical Chutneys (the frivolous folk romance) like Rajesh Sewanandan's Jheeni jheeni chaadariya ke paar goriya... and Kries RamKhelawan's Oomanamanama, alaamalama... (a kichdi bhasha as Kries terms it in Surinami) and the popular Gori haseen... have a vein of satire running between the lines like the futility of materialistic pursuits or life idled away in romance, etc. What is even more evident is the element of Sufism in most of the Bhojpuri dialect renderings. That Sufi philosophy had a tremendous following in the northern part of
India can be seen centuries later in the pieces composed by the Surinam Indian community.
The winds of change had not dented their psyche unlike those of their counterparts here in India either because of their strong rural background which remained untarnished through the years or because they were physically and geographically far removed from the country of their birth. The purity in thought and memory therefore could not be erased even as time passed by.
Excellent philosophical and metaphysical content especially Sufi mysticism pours through such numbers like Chod kar sansar jab tu jaayega, Aadmi musafir hai, Bhol Shankar bhole nath, Maaya ki bajeriya mein kahe ko jagadiya, sung in a sonorous tones by Kries Ramkhelawan. The timbre and range of his voice and his ability to hold on one single syllable for any length of time is proof enough of his prowess.
INDIVIDUALISTIC INTONATION: The tone was a toss up between romantic and philosophical.
The rendering of the `rap' mode to a Hindi verse is remarkably innovative and artistic. The fast-track bhajan singing called the Chutney bhaitak (sitting) gaan (singing) had a magnetic quality about it as it drew spontaneous response from the audience. Chutney ensemble is actually a far bigger one (when performed in the West as a regular concert) with eight in the team and many more percussionists (both Indian and western). It is an on-stage modern dance and song presentation.
A little more history into the evolution of Chutney would not be untimely considering the insignificant presence of this music in India (it is still in the nascent stage). The indentured workers shipped to different parts of the Caribbean Islands had to evolve an entertainment to beat the fatigue of hard labour coupled with homesickness.
Group singing of rustic lays, which form an integral part of rural India were recouped out of memory and replayed at important family get-togethers like marriages, births and festivals. The orchestra was fashioned out of a home-made dholak and harmonium just to keep in tune.
Once the contract of the workers expired and freedom was declared the option of going back to India or staying put with a new citizen status in the adopted country, our natives chose not to return.
By then they had acquired lands and were on the road to prosperity. The music that was confined to private community celebrations began to feature in public functions and over the years gathered momentum with West African influence. The geographical proximity plus the presence of other than Indians in Surinam contributed to cross cultural currents that changed the lifestyles of many a new citizen.
The artistic musical creation that had a song and carnival bias emerged (as early as mid '70s) out of the varying influence was aptly christened Chutney!
Today it has taken the western world by storm with many a Caribbean of Indian origin cutting discs that have become a rage. It is a pity that such globally popular singers should draw a meagre crowd in the twin cities!
The ICCR and the AP Department of Culture under whose aegis the Chutney show was staged should have taken greater care of publicity so that the artistes and the people would be appreciative of each other.
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