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Miniature India in Far Away Suriname

Paper No. 5928                                 Dated 07-May-2015

Guest Column by Prof. V. Suryanarayan

The Antar Rashtriya Sahayog Parishad (Indian Council for International Co-operation) in furtherance of its objective of promoting connectivity with the Indian Diaspora, organized a Baithak Gaana (musical evening) by artists from Suriname on April 27, 2015 in New Delhi. The function was organized in collaboration with the Embassy of the Republic of Suriname.

Four folk artists from Suriname, Drewindersingh, Manager of the Saranga Super Stars; Jagdiepkoemar Chedi; Taranpersad Panchoe and Jagpersad Andre Sital constituted the team of artists who enthralled the assembled audience with their rendering of folk songs. Andre Sital, the veteran artist of the dholak, played the instrument with gusto. The music was so captivating that the audience spontaneously joined the artists in the rendering of songs. They also danced with gay abandon.

The musical evening brought home to me how in far away Suriname the people of Indian origin are retaining Indian culture against difficult odds. Retention of Indian culture on the one hand while adapting to distant locales on the other are twin facets of people of Indian origin. They use musical instruments which are no longer used in India. The artists were referring to musical notes in a scribbling pad; I asked Her Excellency Aashna Kanhai, Ambassador of Suriname to India and Sri Lanka, whether the notes were written in Devanagari script. She replied: “No, they are written in Creole language”. Their names have undergone transformation, Kumar has become Koemar, Prasad has become Persad, but their hearts still remain Indian.  Amb. Ashna, herself a consummate artist, rendered a melodious song and also joined the folk dance. 

The function began with Saraswati Sumiran in Sarnami Dhrupad style. For me it was a happy experience because in Suriname also they start the function by paying homage to Saraswati, the Goddess of knowledge. The artists then rendered an immigration song in baaithak gaana style. The early migrants, hailing from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, took sail from Kolkata. They were told by the contractors that they are going on a pilgrimage to a place called Sri Ram and after six weeks of trial and tribulations, reached a country which turned out to be Suriname.   To commemorate the early migrants to Suriname twin statues are being installed in Kolkata named appropriately as Baba and Mai.

The next song was Mundan Song rendered in Sohar style. The Hindus in Suriname perform the mundansanskar either on the third or eleventh month.  The song conveys the blessings to the child for a happy and prosperous life. The Bhatwaaan song, which followed, is sung before the marriage ceremony. It is sung by artists who assemble before the bridegroom. Portions of the song ridicule the parental aunts. The next was the Londwa song, where a boy dressed as a girl, sing and dance before the bridegroom. The sixth song was holi song, a group song, which is sung during the harvest season. It was followed by uma nanga mang (women and men), sung in a mixture of Creole and Sarnami, asking men and women to unite in times of adversity. In the final section the artists rendered popular Hindi film songs sung by Mohammad Rafi and Mukesh.

To those assembled the musical evening was an exhilarating experience. The songs gave glimpses into how the people of Indian origin retain Indian culture in faraway lands. It was a proof that wherever they go the Indians carried a little bit of India with them.

Suriname is a beautiful country. Nature has endowed it with rich flora and fauna. VS Naipaul once described Suriname as Holland without tulips. The people of Indian origin, though originally went as plantation workers have transformed themselves into skilled professionals doctors, engineers, scientists, artists and politicians. Among those who have made a mark in the political field mention should be made of J Lachuman, Speaker of the National Assembly and Rattankoemar Ajodia, who became the Vice President of the country. 

The people of Indian origin in Suriname number about 1, 50,000 out of a total population of 5, 31,000. The long distance which separated India from Suriname brought about welcome changes in the Hindu society. The caste system broke down and the Hindus have emerged as a homogenous society. Among young people there is a great desire to know more about India and trace their roots. The Antar Rashtriya Sahayog Parishad can act as a catalyst in this direction by encouraging two way traffic – visit by Indian artists and educationists to Suriname and also visit by Surinamese to various parts of India. The Government of India should award more scholarships to Surinamese students to have their higher education in Indian universities. Diasporic studies should be encouraged in Indian Universities, similarly Indian Studies in the University of Suriname. As Senator Fulbright once remarked, “Educational exchange is not merely one of those nice but marginal activities in which we engage in international affairs, but rather, from the point of view of future world peace and order, the most important and potentially the most rewarding of our foreign policy activities”.    

(Dr. V. Suryanarayan is Nelson Mandela Professor for Afro-Asian Studies, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam. His e mail id: suryageeth@gmail.com)

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