Taan singing in Guyana is dying
Language is the foundation of culture for it is a crucial tool of cultural and group identity. Once a group loses its language, it loses its living medium of expression, its links to the past and to the future, and probably its ability to survive. The Indians of Guyana have had a glorious tradition of taan singing rooted in Bhojpuri, Hindi and Sanskrit languages. Taan is an Indian folk singing style accompanied by theharmonium (pumped organ-like instrunent), dholak (two-faced hand drum), dhantal (steel rod percussion instrument), manjira (finger cymbals), and sometimes other instruments as well. Hindus were the largest group of taan kalaakaar (artistes), but Muslims and even some Afro-Guyanese were well-respected taan kalaakaars.
As in Surinam and Trinidad, in Guyana, Bhojpuri, in particular, was commonly spoken and its rhythmic melody was infectious. Up to the time of independence and in the early 1970s, before Indians started to migrate in large numbers overseas, Bhojpuri was a well-spoken language and taan singing was perhaps the most popular cultural expression among Indians in Guyana.
Today, 50 years after our country’s independence Indians have lost Bhojpuri as a spoken language and taan singing is on life support. In neigbhouring Surinam, the smallest Indian child speaks fluent Bhoujpouri and taan singing known as baithak gana there, is extremely popular with multitude of outstanding young kalaakaars(artistes). In Trinidad, taan sing is also alive and well, although a genre of chatney music has a popular presencce.
As we embark upon “celebrations” of Guyana at 50 years, I pay homage to my relatives and others, who purely on their love of culture, fought valiantly with their taan singing to hold on to their language, music, identity and heritage. Taan songs covers experiences of the human life cycle and includes ceremonial songs such as sohar (childbirth), mundan (hair shaving ceremony), vivah (wedding songs), antakarm(death), religious festivals (Holi/Phaagwa, Krishna janmasthmi, etc.), and most importantly, philosophical messages about the challenges and purpose of life. Talking about the demise of taan singing in Guyana bring tears to many of the few remaining artistes and musicians; the agonizing pain of witnessing the near disappearance of one’s own culture.
My great grandmother and her daughter Sumintra were unlettered, but outstanding taan artistes and I remember some folk songs from Uttar Pradesh they used to sing. My great grandmother used to dance in the Mandir while singing sohars to Lord Krishna and Lord Rama on their birthdays. As a boy, I regularly visited my Ajie Sunimtra at No. 59 village back-street. As soon as I arrived in front of their small house on stilts, my Aja, the grand old man, noticing my dismount from my bicycle and, looking in the direction of Ajie under the house, he would call, ”maiyaaa dekho” (mother look).
When I respectfully greeted the dignified old man, he would say, ”Nanie Nana ka pakole” (what did your Nanie and Nana cook). He knew that I grew up with my maternal grand-parents and wanted me to partake of their food too. This, indeed, is another aspect of Indian culture that is on life-support. Under their small house were two hammocks made from dhaan (paddy) bags; my Ajie would lie in one and I in the other, and she would sing short versions of melodious taan tunes to me and I would be transported to places and times unknown.
Not too long ago, just before she died, I visited my Ajie Sumintra who was in her 90s and still living at her village. All three of my Puwahs (father sisters) were there and after some searching of her memory, she remembered me. When I asked her to sing, she rendered (and I recorded it): ”ho preetam pyaare tu kahaa basatuu hai” (dear darling, where have you been), ”mohe nagariyaa batai jaa” (tell me in which in city have you gone); ”mohe dagariya batai jaa” (tell me, are you on the peak of the hill)… I feel so blessed to have had such experiences. I have gone to so many distant lands, places that my grandparents would never dream of, but whenever I hear taan, it takes me home, back to the village where my navel string is tied and where my idea of Indian culture was nurtured.
Guyana has produced countless taan singers and musicians. Some of the more recent big names include the legendary Tillack from Port Mourant, who was probably the most popular Indian singer in British Guiana in the 1940s-50s. Others are Balgobinsingh Lalljee, Dasrath Mangru, Mohit Mangru, Kalush Budhu, Babolall, Roopan Kandool, Tailor Bisnauth Ramjattan from No. 47 village, Ramdass (from No. 58 village), Goonwah, James Babulall, Hari Das, Kishun Kissoon, Sudama, Ramroop (from No. 68 village) Vincent Morgan, etc. Top dholak players were Ramdhani, Haribudhu (from No. 59 village), and Rudy Sasenarine among others. Among legendary performers, the name Dashrat Mangru was very popular because he had an amazing vocal range.
A taan singer Shri Baboolall ji, composed and sang the story of the murder/sacrifice in Stanleytown, New Amsterdam in the 1950s, of a five-year-old girl named Lilawattie. Baboolall realized that nobody would document for future generations, the murder of baby Lilawattie and the pains of her mother, Dularie, so he documented it using the medium of taan. Interestingly, the story of the murder of baby Lilawattie emerged in a Kaieteur News article published on July 5, 2009 titled “The sacrificial murders” written by Michael Jordan.
Apparently, one Kathleen Fullerton, dreamt that a demon told her that there was Dutch gold buried in her backyard, but she can only get the gold if she sacrificed a child. A plan was hatched and baby Lilawattie was sacrificed. As suspicion grew her body was dumped in a nearby latrine, but it was eventually recovered. Baboolall ji’s taan composition, ”Lilawattie ki kahani” (the story of Lilawattie) opens with the line, ”ye rho rahie mata Dularie apni beti ke yaad mey” (the crying mother Dularie remembers her daughter), ”beti bechari margaye” (the murder of her poor daughter) ”….bhaaiyo aur bhahino arey jara tu souch chalo apna dil mey dulare ke ghar mey..” (brothers and sisters let us feel the pain in our hearts for what has happened in the house of Dularie) ”…are Hindu jaati ab say tu ghar jawoo..” (she is a Hindu and henceforth let us go and visit her house – offer solidarity). Babolall’s song dates the murder of baby Lilawattie to January 1950. It is time for bold initiatives to be taken to water and tend to the seeds of taan that has been planted in our country so that once again sweet and wholesome fruits in the form of taan kalaakaars would emerge.
Dr. Somdat Mahabir