Local Indian music: End of an era

The passing of Mohan Nandu (3/9/1936 – 8/2/1924), the iconic Guyanese Indian singer, marks the end of an era in local “Indian” music. When Indians were brought as indentured labourers between 1838 and 1917, they inevitably brought their languages and ways of life with them. In a word, they were carriers of their cultures – plural, with 16% from South India (“Madrasis”) and 12% Muslims to the majority Hindus. But being rural peasants, their perspectives, practices and “products” – the “3Ps of culture” – had strands of commonality that soon coalesced around the majority North-Indian Bhojpuri variant.
On the plantations, the first era of “Indian music” was represented by the folk songs they brought from India, which offered a respite from the unremitting toil demanded from them, just as “back home”. These songs were of several genres, of which the “work songs” such as “jatsar” (while grinding grain) or “ropani” (while planting rice);  life cycle songs like weddings songs of the “matikor” or “dig dutty”; childbirth (sohars), funeral songs; songs of the seasons like saavan, kajri etc. songs of parting (bidesia) and the call-and-response biraha. Religiously, there were the Hindu Bhajans and Dhoons; joyous Phagwah songs, Muslim Qaseedas and Qawalis, while South Indians sang to their village deity Mariamman.
There is the distinction between the above as the “little tradition” and the “great tradition” of the upper classes, which in Indian music includes the raag-based genres predating the Moghul courts. While the latter was not replicated in Guyana after the end of indentureship, an acknowledgement was made in the introduction of an indigenous “classical music” called “taan singing”. The style alludes to classical styles like dhrupad, tillana, ghazal, and thumri, but are quite distinct. It has been suggested that the name derives from “Tan Sen”, one of the great classical musicians from the Mughal Court. This era of folk and taan singing extended into the 1940s, and Mohan Nandu’s father was a popular Taan singer. The biraha tradition lent itself to witty topical compositions in a mixture of Bhojpuri and English, becoming a vibrant art form.
In 1962, the ethnologist Ved Vartik collected and recorded thousands of songs from across the country.
The introduction of Indian “talkies” with playback singing in Guyana from the end of the 1930s presaged the end of this first era of local Indian music, and we enter the second era from the 1950s, represented by Mohan Nandu and his great contemporary, Gobin Ram. This new era coincided with the great exodus from the logies into new villages occasioned from 1947 by the Sugar Industry Labour Welfare Fund. Mohan Nandu’s parents would have moved from the logies of Cornelia Ida to the housing scheme of Anna Catherina.
Indian movies now became the exemplar of “authentic” Indian culture – including music. Ironically, those movies were suffused by western influences, while the folk music performed in Guyana were much more “authentically” Indian. Radio stations were established during this period, and every Indian “high house” had to have a radio, from which sponsored Indian programmes blared Indian film tunes. That these programes were assigned to the unholy hour of 5am signalled the dominant creole “white-bias” culture’s view of Indian culture’s peripheral standing. By the 1960s, there was a “Local Indian Performance” programme on Sundays, to which Indian singers – backed up by their bands – were invited to compete in singing Indian film songs.
From the 1950s, musical bands with western and Indian instruments had sprung up across the country, and they and their singers – like Gemini and Gobin Ram, or Mohan Nandu and the Uitvlugt Community Center Band- became household names in the Indian community. There were also fairs – especially the Maha Sabha Diwali fairs – that sponsored singing competitions. Gobin Ram and Mohan Nandu were inevitable finalists, and some saw them as rivals, but the reality was far from that. The late 1950s to 1969 was the heyday of Indian musical renaissance but the capture of the Maha Sabha by the PNC led to the politicization of the fairs and their demise. On radio, one popular announcer, Eshri Singh, revealed that he emigrated to NYC after Minister Harewood-Benn instructed him to include “English’ songs in his Indian-sponsored programme.
From the 1980s, the Maticore-influenced Chutney music arose out of the folk-song era, and its popularity eclipsed film music by the 1990s. While there are some practitioners of the latter in NYC, the passing of Mohan Nandu also marks its passing.