The Indian Guyanese aesthetic

By Ryhaan Shah
Ganga Ship 1917: The Long Journey” is a visual arts exhibition that celebrates the Indian Guyanese aesthetic on this historic centenary of the abolition of the indentureship programme, and is named for the last ship, the SS Ganges, which brought indentured labourers to Guyana and Trinidad.
The exhibition will be held at the National Library, Georgetown starting Tuesday, March 28th, and is sponsored by the Arts Forum and GIIAA (Guyana Indian Indentureship Abolition Association).
It celebrates the aesthetic and creative sensibility which survived the long journey to Guyana and has become part of the cultural weave of our plural society.
The domes and minarets of mosques and mandirs; the Indian drums and the Muslim call to prayer; the jandi flags and the smells and taste of Indian cuisine; the intricacy of filigree jewellery, and the bright rose pinks, saffrons and golds of Indian dresses are all part of the local scene, and are all Guyanese to the core.
There has been some evolution due to Western influences, but the traditional sensibility towards colour, form and pattern has been retained by the descendants of the first arrivals, and continues to provide a good measure of authenticity to Indian Guyanese artistry and design.
In India, art is not restricted to gallery exhibits, but stretches to other forms, like pottery, home decorations, ornaments, fabrics and jewellery. This living art is ever present in saris and tunic designs, in henna paintings and home decor through rangoli creations and sequinned wall hangings, and in the festivities of weddings and other celebrations.
Art is intrinsic to India’s cultural identity, and this heritage is readily embraced by Indian Guyanese through an aesthetic that is shaped from diverse communities since our fore-parents arrived here from various Indian regions with their respective customs and traditions.
They came from southern India through the port of Madras; and from the north east, from the states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, through the port of Calcutta; and even from their first step into the immigration depot, they had to put aside caste and other differences and bond together in jahaji groups, a shipboard bond that was unifying and which helped them survive life in a new world.
Retaining their beliefs and culture was a major part of that survival, and this initial fusing of various Indian strands has created a distinct artistry that is recognised as Indian Guyanese expression.
Because it embodies the majestic classicism of the Taj Mahal and the vibrancy of folk art, the body of work created by artists from this community brings a unique perspective to the nation’s collection of creative design.
One of the exhibition’s participating artists, Betsy Karim, has constructed installation costumes that pay homage to the Hindu gods Ganesha, Shiva and Durga, working with her signature beaded and sequinned designs on fabric. These pieces will be displayed by live models at the exhibition’s formal opening on March 28th at 5pm.
Darshani Kistama, an emerging artist, also works with fabrics, and will be showing one of her Rajput sari designs along with more traditional works on canvas done in acrylic and water colour.
Two other newcomers whose pieces will be showcased for the first time in an art exhibition are Brian Tamkund and Ramroop Mahase; and other more recognised artists participating will be Michael Khan, Philbert Gajadhar, and Bernadette Persaud, whose works have won national and regional acclaim.
In Guyana, artistic expression by way of fine art – as opposed to street art – is not well valued or understood for its importance to national life. Such works go beyond photographic representations and can inspire discussion and pose thought-provoking ideas about the nation’s politics, society, and cultural life.
However, many businesses do not view support for the visual arts as a corporate responsibility, and many local artists are therefore dependent on governmental support, even when such funding can undermine the independence needed for the creation of good work that is untainted by propagandist and political bias.
Art is important to a nation’s collective consciousness. It begins where words leave off or even fail because of their structural and expressive limitations.
Art is limited only by the individual artist’s imagination, and for the Indian Guyanese artist who has both traditional forms, techniques and colours, and ideas from postmodern constructs to draw on, the possibilities are endless.
“Ganga Ship 1917: The Long Journey” offers a glimpse into this narrative of creative expression. The exhibition starts on March 28th and runs until Saturday, April 1st at the National Library.
There is no entrance fee, and everyone is invited to the formal opening at 5pm on Tuesday, March 28th.