The Influence of Filmi Music and Songs Among East Indians In Trinidad



The introduction of Indian movies to Trinidad in 1935 brought with it a new type of catchy, rhythmic and melodious music to the East Indian cultural landscape. It changed the face of Indian culture in the country and gave East Indians a source of new songs and music that appealed to the masses and became extremely popular among the people. After 1935, Indian movies were, for many decades, the only source of new Indian songs and music for Trinidad East Indians. Although this new filmi music was imported from India, it was not always part of the Indian cultural sphere in Indiasince it was also new to that country. Indian film music was not considered authentic Indian culture in India but mere entertainment.

The Filmi Songs and Music in Trinidad

East Indians in Trinidad, prior to the 1930s, grew up on a diet of Indian classical and folk music vastly different from the classical music of India. In India, classical music was supported mainly by those in high society among whom it was very popular, whereas in Trinidad the wealthy classes were not sufficiently numerous to sustain those activities. They therefore invited itinerant musicians and singers to their homes for performances during which time they invited the public to attend as audience. Lionel Frank Seukeran in Mr. Speaker, Sir, recalled:

Our home became the meeting place of famous classical songsters and musicians. Imami came with his sarangi, Nand Kishore with his sitar, Ramcharan with his dholak and Piranta with a shining steel rod, the dantaal; Babu Jang Bahadoor Singh came on as well with his jhangees and so too did lots of other immigrants, whose names I do not remember. Those would stay on for a week sometimes singing all night. The villagers assembled; their wives prepared the food….[1]

Those classical singers and musicians were not known to remain long in one place. They went from village to village in much the same way as Seukeran described them above, finding an affluent patron, who kept them for a while before they moved on again. In this manner, local classical music flourished among East Indians in Trinidad as those singers and their musicians moved from settlement to settlement linking those villages one to another. Those singers and musicians were a major pillar in the early construction of East Indian identity here because of the type of songs that they sang and instruments used. The type of classical songs rendered by early classical singers in Trinidad was quite different from classical songs heard in India although they carried similar names such as thumri, dhrupad, ghazal and khayal and used similar musical instruments such as sitar, dholak, mandolin and harmonium.

Contrary to Ramaya’s view that there was no musical creativity among East Indians, local classical Indian music showed a tremendous amount of creativity and ingenuity in terms of the contribution made by the early East Indian immigrants and their descendants in Trinidad. The classical singers were a much-disciplined group of people who constructed a unique form of classical singing that is indigenous to Trinidad. While its original roots may have come from India, it evolved into something uniquely Trinidadian, the likes of which cannot be found in India or any part of the world. East Indian classical singers and musicians in Trinidad had taken a cultural expression from India and reconstructed it in their own image into a local form of singing that, while it was recognized as Indian classical singing, it was differentiated from authentic Indian classical singing. The word “local” was usually placed before Indian classical singing (local Indian classical singing) to distinguish it from its Indian counterpart. The nature of this local Indian classical singing gave East Indians in Trinidad a unique identity pillar in terms of their contribution to national cultural offerings.

Since there were minimal cultural contacts with India, most items on the local cultural agenda of East Indians were local in nature and East Indians gravitated towards it in substantial numbers. Wherever a performance was held, whether it was a wedding, at a private home, or some public event, it was generally well attended because in those days villagers did not await an invitation to a wedding or to the performance of those singers at the home of one of the wealthy persons in the village. Once people knew about the event, they attended, and many offered to help in diverse ways. Seukeran, in his book, Mr. Speaker, Sir, similarly explained that many people came to the performances that were held at their home and women in the village came and helped to cook and feed those present.

In this way, East Indians continued to build their identity through songs, music, dances and other areas of life. Those activities were uniquely Indian in origin and had a great Indian flavor to them, yet they displayed a heavy local indigenous component in many ways even though the musical instruments used for accompaniment were Indian in origin with the exception of the harmonium[2] and dantaal. The dantaal was claimed as a local invention.[3]  By the 1930s therefore, East Indian culture in Trinidad consisted mainly of local classical singing, dance-dramas, inclusive of the Ramleela and other individual dances such as the horse dance; the singing of bhajans, quaseedas, and folk songs associated with weddings; the birth of a child – Chathi and Barahi -and festivals such as Phagwa, Divali and Shiv Raatri in addition to other religious and nonreligious occasions.

One of the features of Indian society that was not present in Indo-Trinidadian society was the wandering sadhoos. Those sadhoos traveled from one village to another, staying weeks at a time, imparting knowledge and teaching songs and music to the villagers before moving on. This was absent in Trinidad Indian villages and when Indian movies came, they seemed to fill that void. In filling that void, Indian films not only gave East Indians a new type of music and dance but also forged a new link with India. Indian movies, therefore, served as a pseudo-replacement for the wandering minstrels and sadhoos who were prevalent in India and became the focus of cultural change in Trinidad. Moreover, the filmi music began to influence the local classical songs in terms of their rhythm and upbeat music. This was a natural consequence because of the all-pervasive nature of the filmi music.

As film songs grew in popularity, the classical singers found it difficult to compete with the new filmi music and so incorporated aspects of the filmi music in their repertoire. Many local classical singers such as Tarran Persad and Yankarran had begun to include filmi songs in their repertoire and some of the classical singers remade film songs in the local classical singing style. Film songs had so captivated East Indians that some of the earliest local Indian recordings in the 1940s by Tarran Persad, Sayyid Mohammed, Edan Hosein and others on Decca and Bluebird (RCA) record labels were of Indian film songs.[4]

Many East Indians, particularly those in the rural areas, had rejected western and English music as against their traditions and values and had gravitated to the local Indian classical and folk music. However, with the advent of Indian film music this new type of music endeared itself to local East Indians who found it uplifting, emotional and all embracing.

This new filmi music had a unique melody that caught the attention of the masses and appealed to them in a way that other music did not or could not. There was something in the melody and harmony of the filmi music that lingered in the mind long after the song had been played. This musical appeal to the masses by the composers ensured the huge success of this new type of music. Ramaya suggested that in Trinidad, it was the melody and the harmony that appealed to the East Indian masses and kept their appetite, “hungry for more and more of the same kind of music and songs” so that they eagerly looked forward to hearing this “new kind of music.”[5] To the mike man this was also a challenge to go to a cooking night or other Indian social function armed with a few new good songs from films that were soon to be released in this country. Wherever he went, the mike man was sure to be the center of attraction. He was a veritable “star boy” at cooking nights with many trying to befriend him or get his attention to have their special requests played on the mike system.

Filmi music in Trinidad had an extremely negative impact on local Indian classical singing because hitherto mostly classical and traditional folk songs were the order of the day at most East Indian functions. With the growing popularity of the new film songs and Indian orchestras in Trinidad, traditional folk and classical songs were gradually pushed to the background as the filmi songs began their hegemonic march in the Trinidad East Indian musical circuit not only impacting on weddings, but on all other social and religious Indian occasions. The rapid rise of this “new music” in Trinidad sounded the death knell of local Indian classical music here, which had hitherto been flourishing.

While Indian movies had a negative impact on classical Indian singing in Trinidad, the work of H.S. Adesh, who taught authentic Indian classical music in Trinidad in the late 1960s and onwards, also had a negative impact on local Indian classical singing in the country since he tried to recreate the “authentic Indian classical styles of music” in Trinidad and some “local classical singers” gravitated to his style of classical singing.[6]  However, they continued singing the local traditional classical songs as local audiences rejected the authentic classical styles for the local classical styles.  Moreover, while Indian film songs had pushed local Indian classical singing off the center stage it was the experiments with filmi inputs, such as the filmi rhythm and the filmi remakes of some of the film songs that gave new life to local Indian classical singing and contributed to its renaissance and longevity in the 1960s. Local Indian classical singing is still popular today in many smaller circles in Trinidad and several national competitions such as the National Council of Indian Culture Classical Singing Competition and the Chinpire National Classical Singing Championship are held annually.

Indian film music had made its mark among the masses, and there was no turning back. The manner in which East Indians gravitated to this new type of music and the ramifications that followed created quite a stir in the East Indian community. It was as if Indian film music had “awakened a slumbering giant…” in Trinidad.[7] In addition to the images of the Indian motherland that remained with the individual after seeing an Indian movie, the songs from the movie remained with them. The songs remained in the East Indian public domain long after the movie had been withdrawn. Those who had seen the movie recalled the songs and sang them as best as they could for friends and relatives. As gramophones became popular and imports of Indian records from India increased, people in the villages flocked to the homes of well-to-do people who owned gramophones, to listen to Indian film songs on evenings. Many people made it “a must” to gather around the home of those individuals in various villages just to hear the recorded music coming from the gramophones.

When Kamaludin Mohammed launched his first Indian program on radio in 1947, because few people owned radios in those days, villagers gathered around the radio, at times the only one in the village, waiting to hear the Indian songs.[8] Partap Sitahal recalled that in the 1960s an overseer of African descent on the estate where he and his family worked, owned the only radio within miles of where they lived. The overseer told them that they could visit his home at the appointed time to listen to Indian songs on the radio. They walked almost two miles to get to the estate to listen to Indian songs that were mainly film songs and “never once did the overseer show any racial overtones with respect to playing Indian songs on his radio.” In fact, the overseer actively encouraged them to “listen to our culture.” [9]

Siew Gosine of Mundo Nuevo concurred with that view and indicated that the only radio in his village was owned by a Chinese shopkeeper who played the Indian programmes for the villagers. He pointed out that almost the whole village gathered at the shop on Friday evenings to listen to Indian songs on radio.[10] Similar scenes were repeated throughout the country as East Indians flocked to the nearest radio or gramophone to listen to Indian film songs. Very often, the shopkeepers in the villages were the first ones to acquire a radio and the little shop became the meeting point for many East Indians. This was the place where many discussions on things Indian, Indian movies and other aspects of Indian life took place. Furthermore, the shopkeepers benefitted from the relationship as many people patronized the shop, perhaps more than they normally would. By the late 1950s, the scenario had begun to change with the introduction of the cheaper transistor radio, which made it easier for locals to purchase their own radios. The mike men, as mentioned earlier, also made a tremendous contribution to the spread of Indian movie songs and kept the film songs in the public domain long after the movie was withdrawn.

Indian film songs were the most played and listened to type of songs among East Indians in Trinidad from as early as the late 1930s. They were played regularly at the Dil Bahar Restaurant at Queen Street in Port of Spain and many people went early to have breakfast at the restaurant primarily to listen to the Indian film songs that were played.[11] The artistic quality of the Indian film songs ensured mass popular appeal among East Indians in Trinidad. Film songs were regularly played at almost every cooking night, wedding, East Indian birthday party and every imaginable event of East Indian origin by Indian orchestras and mike men. No East Indian event of any importance took place without Indian film songs forming an integral part of the programming. At every turn, filmi songs were heard on the radio, in the Indian orchestras, at the river lime, in the rum shops, in the Indian Parang groups at Christmas time and other Indian cultural events.[12]

By the late 1950s, film songs had become such a popular pastime among East Indians and more so, among singers who imitated the playback singers of India, that local promoters organized local imitation singing competitions to popularize the songs and the movies before the release of certain films. These became very popular events in the 1960s. Some of the competitions were named after the movies they promoted such as Arzoo, Aye Milan Ki Bela (1964, When Lovers Meet), Love in Tokyo (1966), Junglee, Khandan (1965, Smiling)and Shikar (1968, Hunter).[13] There were Indian film song competitions such as Arzoo Singing Competition or the Junglee Singing Competition. In addition, there were imitation singing contests named after the playback singers for example: The Mohammed Rafi Imitation Singing Contest, Hemant Kumar Imitation Singing Contest and the Lata Mangeshkar Imitation Ladies’ Singing Contest. In the competitions, singers competed against one another imitating the songs of playback singers such as Mohammed Rafi or Lata Mangeshkar from the Indian movies. The winner of the competition was adjudicated on his or her ability to imitate the voice of the playback singer as close as possible. The winners were presented with prizes at the opening shows of the movie with full Indian orchestras in attendance playing music. The Trinidad Guardian recorded M. P. Aladdin, Director of Culture, distributing prizes for the Khandan Singing Competition at the Astor Cinema in Port of Spain. The top three winners were Hum Hindustani Indian Orchestra, Jit Seesahai Melody Makers and Cyril Raymond Family Orchestra.[14] Those movies were big hits in Trinidad and the competitions helped to make them memorable events. Some of the individual song winners of those competitions such as Aziz Khan, Lalchand ‘Rafi’ Singh and Sookdeo Jagdeo went on to make a big name for themselves.

It was a common sight in the late 1950s and the 1960s to observe Indian orchestras playing live music in cinemas as an added attraction to the exhibition of Indian movies since many cinemas had contracted Indian orchestras to provide live music as accompaniment to the screening of popular Indian movies. The Trinidad Guardian on February 12, 1965 advertised the showing of the Indian Movie Jab Pyaar Kissi Se Hota Hai (1961, When you Fall in Love)with the added attraction of the Junglee Merry Makers Indian Orchestra providing additional entertainment before the show and at half time. In most instances the orchestra played before the movie began and during halftime. John Jagroopsingh and Partap Sitahal recalled occasions when Indian movies such as Junglee, Shikar and Kohinoor were shown at the Astor in Port of Spain, Monarch in Tunapuna and Windsor in Arima and Indian orchestras were hired as added attractions for those shows. For many East Indians filmi songs seemed more important than the Indian movies themselves since the songs remained with them for a long time and provided continued enjoyment long after the movie had run its course at the cinemas. With the establishment of local “Indian” radio stations after 1993, local callers to Indian radio programmes requested Indian film songs on a regular basis and program announcers played Indian film songs for the greater part of their programming time.

Local radio stations such as 90.5 FM, 106.1 FM, 106.5 FM and 103.1 FM all played Indian film songs for more than seventy-five percent of their airtime. The radio stations balanced their airtime of Indian film songs between the oldies and the newer songs as listeners over thirty years old had a strong preference for the oldie film songs while most of the younger people preferred songs from the 1990s and later. Radio call-in programs were a big hit with the new radio stations with most callers requesting filmi songs. For instance, most callers to Farouk Baksh’s (DJ Mamoo) program Sohani Raat on 106.5 FM requested oldie Indian film songs while callers to 103.1FM requested mostly newer film songs. In addition, local television Indian cultural shows comprised mostly of Indian filmi songs. Jamal Mohammed, producer of the television show Mastana Bahar stated that the majority of contestants on his show sang a mixture of old and new Indian film songs. Most people requested oldie songs from pre-1980s by playback singers such as Mohammed Rafi, Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle, Mukesh, Hemant Kumar and Kishore Kumar while the newer songs requested were post 1980s by singers such as Kumar Sanu, Alka Yagnik and Sonu Nigam.

Playback Singers

Since its introduction, playback singing has become the lifeblood of Indian movies. Professional playback singers recorded songs, and actors and actresses lip-synced those songs during the picturisation or filming of the songs. This was done in such a professional manner that there was no noticeable dissonance between the audio and the lip- synchronization. Two of the finest playback singers were Lata Mangeshkar and Mohammed Rafi whose voices were instantly recognized everywhere by Indian filmi fans.

The institutionalization of playback singing in Indian films became a reality after 1935 and provided many opportunities for the creativity and geniuses of not only the music composers, but the lyricists, musicians, music directors and the playback singers to blossom. Many fans went to see Indian movies because of the songs and dances. The playback singers seemed to sell and sustain the movies with their songs. Many Indian movies owe their success to the playback singers and musicians since many mediocre movies such as Dil Dekhi Dekh, Silsila and Junglee with poor story lines became successful because of the extremely popular songs.

In Trinidad, Indian playback singers such as K. C. Dey, Saigal, Suraya and Shamshad Begum were very popular in the 1930s and 1940s, but in the 1950s Rafi, Mukesh, Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle, Hemant Kumar, Manna Dey and Kishore Kumar took over and dominated playback singing in the industry for the next few decades. With the coming of Indian programs on radio in Trinidad in 1947, those singers became even more popular and their songs were on the lips of all lovers of Indian movies and Indian film songs. This period, the Golden Era, (1949-1969) was completely dominated by Mohammed Rafi and Lata Mangeshkar and to some extent, Hemant Kumar, Asha Bhosle, Manna Dey and Kishore Kumar. In later years, singers such as Alka Yagnik, Kumar Sanu, Udit Narayan and Sonu Nigam made their mark in the industry and became very popular among the younger generation of the 1990s and beyond.

In most instances, the songs were known and popularized in Trinidad before the movie was released. In the 1950s and 1960s, before an Indian movie was released in Trinidad the local record shops received advanced sample copies of the songs from the movies. The record shops sent messages to the mike men to visit the record shop for a copy of a new song from a new movie. The record labels were color-coded. The blue label record was usually a sample copy while the red or orange label records were for sale. The mike men were given the blue label record and they popularized the songs throughout the country, wherever they went to play and this helped to boost the sales of the records and popularized the movie before its release in Trinidad.[15] Two of the major record shops in the early days of Indian movies in Trinidad were Razack’s Indian Records in San Juan and Balroop’s Record Shop in Arouca. The songs were generally released to the mike men between six months to one year before the movie was released on the island. When radio and television became popular the songs were then popularized through those media, but the mike men continued their work throughout the land playing their songs everywhere they went. The mike men held a special appeal to the people, especially in the rural communities and wherever they went, they always had an audience.

During local stage performances, local Indian singing entertainers tried to sound as close as possible to the original playback singer, who had recorded the original song. They were introduced to the audience as “the local Mohammed Rafi,” “the local Kishore Kumar,” “the local Lata Mangeshkar,” or “local Mukesh” whether it was a live show or a television production. Oftentimes local Indian orchestra singers were introduced as singing “an imitation of Mohammed Rafi from the movie…” or “an imitation of Lata Mangeshkar from the movie….” Every budding singer wanted to be a local Mohammed Rafi or a local Lata Mangeshkar. The filmi playback singer was his or her inspiration. Every local Indian orchestra had a local Mohammed Rafi or a local Lata Mangeshkar. Even bhajan group singers tried to imitate the songs of Rafi or Lata or Manna Dey. Some local singers even dressed to look like their singing idol. For example,  Lalchand Sundar Singh, a singer who was born and grew up in the Tunapuna area, and who had won one of the Rafi imitation singing competitions in the 1960s, took the sobriquet “Rafi” and added it to his name and dressed almost exactly as his idol Mohammed Rafi whenever he appeared on stage.[16]  Wherever he sang he was introduced as Lalchand “Rafi” Singh, the local Mohammed Rafi and he was very proud of this achievement. He was very popular in Trinidad in the 1970s and many interviewees indicated that they saw him in numerous performances both on stage and cooking nights dressed as his idol Mohammed Rafi. By the late 1990s, he had migrated to the USA with his family. Lalchand Singh started singing from an early age and Mohammed Rafi was his favourite singer. He was popular locally because his voice sounded close to that of his idol Mohammed Rafi. He met Rafi in Trinidad in 1966 when Rafi adjudged him the winner of the Mohammed Rafi Imitation Singing Competition which was held to commemorate the visit of Rafi and troupe to Trinidad in that year.[17]

When Indian movie playback singers visited Trinidad for performances here, their shows were sold out long before the event because of the impact the songs had on the local audiences. Hemant Kumar led the way in 1964 being the first Indian artiste, singer and musician to visit Trinidad and perform in public shows. In that year, there was also a Hemant Kumar Imitation Singing Competition to determine which singer could sing closest to Hemant Kumar’s voice. His pioneering shows in Trinidad that year were such a remarkable success that they opened the way for others from India to follow. Among the other top playback singers and movie stars from India who visited Trinidad over the years, the following stand out: Mohammed Rafi, Mukesh, Kishore Kumar, Manna Dey, C.H. Atma, Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle, Rahul Dev Burman, Amitabh Bachchan, Sonu Nigam, Hema Malini, Vijayanthi Mala, Suman Kalyan Pur, Mahendra Kapoor, Asha Parekh, Babla and Kanchan, Jagjit Singh and Talat Mehamood. Some of those artistes visited these shores more than once. Every show was a remarkable success. Local fans were awed by their singing idols and many were lucky indeed to personally meet them and obtain their autographs.

For some local fans just being close, attending the show, seeing them or being in the presence of their movie or singing idol was enough satisfaction. Partap Sitahal recalled that when Hema Malini visited Trinidad in the 1970s he was one of the thousands who flocked to the airport to welcome her. When her car passed near to where he was standing, she made eye contact and waved at him, and he touched the car as it passed. That gave him immense satisfaction. Just being close-up, even momentary eye contact, was ecstasy enough for him. When Mohammed Rafi came to Trinidad in the 1966 there were thousands of people at the airport to meet him and organizers of the Rafi reception program at the airport installed loudspeakers so that people who were not able to go to the shows had a chance to see and hear Mohammed Rafi at the airport. They were not disappointed as Mohammed Rafi sang two songs at the airport for his fans in Trinidad. Indian playback singers visiting Trinidad were literally treated like gods by their local fans.

Some visiting stars from the Indian movie industry were given celebrity status here and were met at the airport by government officials who welcomed them. For example, in 1970 when Vijantimala visited Trinidad she was met at the airport by the then Minister of West Indian and External Affairs, Kamaluddin Mohammed.[18] Many others made courtesy calls on government officials including the Prime Minister, Governor General or President as the situation demanded. Local fans, even those who did not go to the shows, were able to identify with their visiting singing and screen idols through numerous regular and special radio and television programs that were used to promote the visit of those stars. Radio stations carried special sponsored programs in honour of the visiting artistes and played appropriate songs recorded by them. Partap Sitahal, who had seen many of the visiting Indian artistes, echoed the sentiments of many East Indians when he opined that seeing those Indian movie stars and singers in the flesh gave him a feeling of fulfillment:

We had heard those singers, seen the stars on

                        the Silver Screen for many years and here we were now

seeing them in the flesh. To me that was a great

achievement that we were able to connect with those

stars from India who we had only known through

the movies, magazines and the radio.[19]

When radio announcers such as Moen Mohammed, Pat Mathura and Hansley Hanoomansingh from Trinidad visited India, they often included in their itinerary a visit to Bollywood. They returned with tape recordings of conversations and greetings from Indian movie stars or playback singers, which they played on their regular radio programs for local Indian movie fans. Hansley Hanoomansingh recalled playing an interview taped in India with Mukesh on his radio program Melodies of India on 610 Radio in the 1970s.

It is also noteworthy that Lata Mangeshkar was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most recorded singing artiste in the world. She was featured in the book from 1974 to 1991 for having recorded no less than twenty-five thousand solo, duet, and chorus-backed songs in several Indian languages between 1948 to 1986, but according to the 1987 edition of the book that figure went up to thirty thousand songs.[20] Mohammed Rafi disputed that figure and during his last years, he was involved in a controversy over Lata Mangeshkar’s introduction in the Guinness Book of World Records as being the most recorded singing artiste in the world. He wrote the Guinness Book of World Records on June 11, 1977 challenging the claim made in Guinness1974, that Lata Mangeshkar had in fact recorded “not less than 25,000 songs.” The matter was never investigated but after his death on July 31, 1981, the Guinness Book of World Records in its 1984 edition, listed Lata Mangeshkar as having the “most recordings” and also stated that: “Mohammad Rafi claimed to have recorded 28,000 songs in 11 Indian languages between 1944 and April 1980.” [21] Many fans of Rafi stated that he had sung over 28,000 songs. However, according to the available figures, Rafi has sung 4,516 Hindi film songs, 112 non-Hindi film songs, and 328 private (non-film) songs, a total of 4,956 songs from 1945 to 1980 while it is estimated that Lata Mangeshkar has not recorded more than six thousand songs altogether.[22] In the meantime, fans of Asha Bhosle, sister of Lata Mangeshkar, entered the fray and claimed that she had recorded more songs than Lata Mangeshkar had. Available evidence suggests that Asha Bhosle may have recorded in excess of thirteen thousand songs.[23] The Guinness Book entries for both Mohammed Rafi and Lata Mangeshkar were removed in 1991.

The entry of the movie stars and singers from India to Trinidad meant that East Indians in Trinidad were now moving the Bala Joban connection to another level where they were able to actually meet and greet in person the stars that came out of the silver screen. That was a connection that began in 1935 when the early East Indians of that time saw Bala Joban as the connection between themselves in Trinidad and the motherland -India. That connection had come full circle with the actual stars and singers from India present in Trinidad. However, it was taken to another level in recent years when local singers such as Indar Kanhai began appearing alongside visiting Indian singing and acting stars such as Kumar Sanu and who in 2008 actually did a joint recording in India with Kumar Sanu, one of India’s most accomplished playback singers today.

There are thousands of people throughout this country who love Indian film songs and went to great lengths to get reproductions of those songs which they play in their leisure time. There were many stories told with respect to the compilation and preservation of their private collections of Indian film songs of playback singers. Gayatri Mahabirsingh, for example, has a very large collection of Indian songs and movies, which took pride of place among her possessions while Ameerodeen Ali of Gasparillo has one of the largest collections of film songs this researcher has encountered among the ordinary filmi fans.[24] Some such as Sitahal enhanced their collections with purchases of Indian films and film songs when they traveled to overseas destinations such as New York and India. Many interviewees spoke about their vast collections of film songs and filmi videos and told several stories related to their collections and the many problems they encountered in acquiring an oldie film song or video. There are many East Indian film fans in Trinidad with large collections of Indian film songs or Indian movies that are among their most treasured possessions.

While there were those who collected Indian songs, most lovers of Indian film songs in this country made time to listen and enjoy the songs on the radio, gramophone or cassette player. This special time was part of their daily routine and particularly in the 1950s and 1960s, had become such an important aspect of their life, that they made sure all work was completed at home in time to listen to the Indian radio programs at the appointed time when those filmi melodies were played each day. Sandra Sookdeo related that in her family everyone gathered around the radio just before the Indian program began. The radio was switched on either by her father or grandfather, as no one else was allowed to touch the radio. Everyone sat quietly and listened to the Indian songs. At the end of the program, the radio was switched off until the next Indian program was due. No laughing or talking was permitted during the “radio Indian song time.”[25] This was a scene “repeated throughout the country in the East Indian communities” as East Indians gathered to listen to the Indian programs.[26]

With the expansion of media technology and the advent of new Indian radio stations there came the availability of Indian programs on radio on a twenty-four-seven basis. Most of the songs played on local radio programs were Indian film songs. Jagroopsingh observed that there was nothing as relaxing as sitting in his hammock and listening to his favourite program on 106.5 FM Radio hosted by DJ Mamoo (Farouk Baksh). Several other interviewees such as Waquab Emamdee and Partap Sitahal mentioned similar sentiments.

Indian Orchestras

The rise of the music and song industry in India in the 1940s, particularly the Indian orchestras, also created an impact in Trinidad as there was a tremendous rise in the popularity of Indian music here and lovers of Indian songs wanted to hear those songs at social, religious and other gatherings of East Indians. East Indian movie fans were in love with the new trends in Indian music and people started singing those songs in small groups at social and other functions.

Small musical groups sprang up everywhere and many of those eventually evolved into local Indian orchestras in Trinidad. Ramaya claimed that the first “official” Indian orchestra that was formed in Trinidad was the Naya Zamana Indian orchestra.[27] This was formed as an offshoot from the Naya Zamana variety show held in 1945 in which Fakeer Mohammed played a leading role.[28] However, according to Ralph Narine who played music in the 1930s with S. M. Aziz and his group before Naya Zamana was established, there were Indian musical groups in existence before Naya Zamana came into being but they were not considered Indian orchestras in the way in which Indian orchestras are considered today. There were groups built around individuals such as Jit Seesahai and S M Aziz, which went on to become fully-fledged Indian orchestras after 1945. However, contrary to Ramaya’s view, the 103.1 FM Hall of Fame, of which Ralph Narine is Chairman, recognized and inducted into their hall of fame, the Modern Indian Orchestra [29]as the first Indian orchestra formed in 1938 by Ahmad Khan (aka Chook Cham).[30]

As Indian film songs became popular among East Indians in Trinidad, it spawned a completely new era in local East Indian music. Indian orchestras were established throughout the country to satisfy the voracious appetite of local East Indians for Indian film songs. Whenever Indian orchestras played at cooking night or another East Indian event and performed classical songs, audience members told them clearly that they preferred to hear the “new type of music,” the film songs.[31] The film music was considered a new kind of music as it was new to the country and came with Indian movies. It was “catchy and full of rhythm and melody,” and when compared with the classical songs that were generally “long and boring” it was no wonder that most people chose the film songs over classical songs.[32]

Indian orchestras in those early days began their operations mainly with traditional Indian instruments but following the examples of Indian orchestras in India, they soon discarded the traditional instruments for western ones. Every Indian orchestra had instruments that were considered western instruments such as the synthesizer, bongo drums, guitars and other such instruments, which lent tempo and a western flavor to the evolving mix of Indian music in Trinidad. However, most had a dholak and a harmonium, but their instruments consisted mainly of western instruments. In none of those orchestras could one find a sitar, sarangi or other Indian instrument. Nevertheless, despite the lack of authentic Indian instruments in local Indian orchestras, they played Indian music to the satisfaction of local audiences as the singers did imitations of Mohammed Rafi, Lata Mangeshkar, K. C. Dey, K. L. Saigal and Mukesh or any of the top playback singers of the time.

As more singers progressively came on the scene, stage appearances became more interesting, keener, as the audience welcomed with the highest applause those singers who were the closest clones of the original singers. For example, if two young men on the same program sang Mohammed Rafi songs, the one who sounded closer to the original voice of Rafi was given the higher accolades. This influenced leaders of Indian orchestras in Trinidad to choose singers for their bands based on the closeness of their voices to that of Mohammed Rafi, Kishore Kumar, Hemant Kumar or Mukesh. If the voice sounded like Mohammed Rafi’s voice, that singer was dubbed a Rafi specialist in the orchestra and almost never sang songs by other playback singers. The most prominent members of the orchestras were those singers who did the best imitation of the playback singers of India. In later years by the 1980s, that modus operandi would change, as singers were no longer judged by their imitation voices. They were allowed more latitude without the imitation voices. However, old habits die hard and by 2009, although most local Indian orchestras had moved away from the imitation singing syndrome, there were still many Indian orchestras with singers performing imitations of playback singers from India at cooking nights.

The Trinidad Indian film song fan was an unforgiving aficionado who had gravitated to the original playback singers from India and any local singer who sang any of the songs of the singing idols from India had to sound as close as possible to the original singer. Some of the top singers who imitated Mohammed Rafi included Lalchand Rafi Singh, Sookdeo Jagdeo, Partap Moonesar and Kamal Ramcharan while some who imitated Lata Mangeshkar best, included Kamroon Ali, Chandroutie Chunilal and Polly Sookraj. This imitation of Indian filmi songs was replicated throughout the country by several singers during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s and continues today through the numerous Indian orchestras that proliferated.

Among the many Indian orchestras to grace the land from the 1940s to the present day, the following stand out: Modern Indian Orchestra, Naya Zamana Orchestra, Jit Seesahai Melody Makers, Beena Sangeet, Karma, Triveni, Dil-E-Nadan, National Indian Orchestra, Philharmonic Indian Orchestra, Saraswati Orchestra, [33]S M Aziz, Treveni, and Caribbean Airlines New Dimension Indian Orchestra.[34] Among the top local filmi singers who were attached to Indian orchestras over the years the following names stand out: Tarran Persad, Zora Seesahai, Bhola Persad, Myodeen Ackbaralli, Rhoda Asgaralli, Myroon Mohammed, Kamal Ramcharan, King Ratiram, Dhanraj Singh, Partap Moonasar, Aziz Khan, Lalchand Rafi Singh, Partap Moonesar, Judy Mohammed, Chandar Bally, Kamroon Ali, Esther John and Polly Sookraj while some of the outstanding musicians included Narsaloo Ramaya , Bissessar Persad, (Naya Zamana Orchestra) Harry Mahabir (National Indian Orchestra), Jit Seesahai (Jit Seesahai Melody Makers), S. M. Aziz (S M Aziz Indian Orchestra), Suresh Soogrim (Beena Sangeet Indian Orchestra) and Teddy Bissambar (Indian Art Orchestra).

People went to the cooking night and other Indian public events to listen to the Indian orchestras. The Indian Orchestra was the center of attraction at cooking nights with its singers and dancers on a centrally constructed stage. The Indian orchestras were contracted for numerous occasions including socials, birthday parties, weddings, religious programs and other public and private events. In the early years of their existence, they tried to play the music from the films as close as possible to the original scores. Local audiences did not permit any deviation from the original script especially for the imitation singers and when they went “off track” (meaning that they did not sound like Rafi or other original singer) they were quickly given the “you can’t

sing” message even though the singer sang very well, with good timing and intonation. Once he did not sound like the original singer, the audience did not regard him as a “good” singer.[35] With time, the situation gradually changed and as demands by audiences became fewer, new groups of singers sprang up singing Indian film songs with Indian orchestras, not many of them imitating the earlier filmi playback singing stars from India. However, even to the present day, it is still noticeable that the singer who succeeded in achieving the greatest applause from the audience was the singer who imitated the original singer best.

It was interesting to note that even though most East Indians from the 1950s onwards did not understand Hindi or could not speak the language, they loved to listen to Indian songs and paid handsomely to attend both local stage shows and those by visiting artistes from India. In addition, they requested their favourite Indian songs on radio programs but few of them understood the meaning of the song they requested. Some of them “knew a few words in Hindi but not enough to understand a song” while others recalled the song in the movie and its context, barely remembering the translations other than the chorus but “whatever little they knew was enough to allow full and complete enjoyment of the song.” [36]

While local fans could not understand Hindi many nonetheless made an effort to acquaint themselves with translations of some of the songs that they really loved. Radio announcers too, such as Pat Mathura and Hansley Hanoomansingh, regularly gave translations of some of the songs that they played on their radio programs. This researcher recalled Hansley Hanoomansingh introducing a song on local radio with these words:

I have loved you a hundred years ago

I love you today and I will love you

A hundred years more.

Song: Sau Saal Pehle

Mohammed Rafi and Lata Mangeshkar

from the movie Jab Pyar Kisi Se Hota Hai. (1961) [37]

Pandits also quoted from Indian movie songs at Ramayan and Bhagwat yagnas to get across their Kathas or messages. For example, one of Pandit Bhownath Maraj’s favourite quotations was from the song Kitna Badal Gaya Insaan by Pradeep from the movie Nastik:

  … since the world was created

       nothing has changed

       the moon still shines

       the sun still rises every day,

       nothing has changed

       only man has changed.[38]

In this way, local audiences were made aware of the lyrics of many Hindi movie songs that were played on radio and elsewhere, and people could be found using those quotations in many places including speeches at weddings or parties. Non-East Indians at those functions were thereby acquainted with Indian film songs and some of the popular filmi melodies were used in calypsoes and played by some steel band orchestras.

In later years as younger musicians and bandleaders came on the scene there were attempts at remixing and re-presenting music from Indian films with a Caribbean or Trinidadian flavor much to the delight of some of the younger fans. In many cases, they took some of the oldies and remade them with modern rhythms much to the dismay of some of the purists who loved the oldies the way that they existed in the original format.

Filmi Influences in Chutney Music in Trinidad

The phenomenal growth of East Indian movies in Trinidad, complemented by the local Indian orchestra’s performance of filmi songs, continued unabated throughout the country up to the 1970s when singers began using filmi melodies as the basis for local compositions. This gradually evolved into a type of local compositions, which came to be called “chutney songs.” In the early days of chutney singing in Trinidad, singers used the filmi melodies superimposing on them their own lyrics, in both Hindi and English.

The chutney songs had their origin among East Indian women in Trinidad who sang what was initially referred to as “breakaway songs” (fast-paced songs) on special occasions. Occasions when breakaway songs were performed included Chathi and Barahi (the sixth day and twelfth day after the birth of a child); Hardi or Matkoor night (two nights before the Hindu wedding) and the laawa ceremony (which took place on the night before the Hindu wedding). Men were not allowed in those singing sessions and if by chance, a man entered those areas he was branded as effeminate. The women danced and sang in merriment for hours at those sessions, some playing the roles of men, others playing the roles of women often with very lewd, vulgar, and suggestive motions. Some songs contained outright vulgar themes that had as their subject matter the dulhin’s parents or the dulha’s parents. This was permissible among the women folk because only women participated in those events.

In later years, this was to change and much of what went on behind closed doors came out into the open with the emergence, in the 1970s, of a young and talented singer, Sundar Popo, who took many of those songs and for the first time popularized them using a mix of local and filmi rhythms.[39] As this new type of singing caught on and the chutney songs, for the first time, became part of the public domain, there was also a change in the gender of the singers as men began singing most of the chutney songs in public. Those songs were hitherto sung mainly by women but that is not to say that some women did not come out in the open and also sang some of the songs. Female singers such as Drupati Ramgoonai and Ramrajie Prabhoo began to make a name for themselves but male singers such as Sundar Popo, Ricky Jai, Yousef Khan and Rooplal Girdharie controlled the chutney domain. As the popularity of chutney singing grew, there were those among the East Indians who argued that some of the chutney songs that had come into the public domain were a desecration of the East Indian woman. For example, Sundar Popo’s song- Dulaha Ke Maiya Cheenar (the dulaha’s mother is a whorish woman) which cast aspersions on the dulaha’s mother, was a song that was forbidden in their homes by many knowledgeable East Indian mothers. It was argued that such songs were not fit for public consumption.

Nevertheless, chutney singing grew in leaps and bounds and by the 1980s, there was an explosion of chutney singing fetes and chutney competitions throughout the country. Many of the chutney songs were based on filmi melodies from the Indian film industry and in many cases, the lyrics were in English. Chutney soon came to be associated with singing, dancing, feting and a rum atmosphere and this spawned a new type of chutney song now referred to as “Rum” songs. These songs used filmi melodies as the basis for English lyrics and contained catchy local rhythms. While these songs appealed to many people and were at the top of the performance list in cooking nights and chutney fetes and received much airtime not only on the Indian formatted radio stations but other local radio stations, they were condemned by some East Indian leaders as degrading to Indian culture and not representative of any aspect of Indian culture.

Surujrattan Rambachan, Jamal Mohammed and R. K. Persad were very outspoken and held negative views about chutney rum songs. They argued that the lyrics of those songs were destructive of Indian value systems and were not in keeping with good living and high morals. Rambachan questioned the message transmitted to the younger generation through the “rum” chutney songs. He contended that the message was a negative one while Jamal Mohammed added that although his family was responsible for the early promotion of chutney songs in Trinidad, he maintained that chutney had lost its way and could not be representative of any aspect of Indian culture.

A typical example of the lyrics of these rum songs is one by Adesh Samaroo Rum till I die…“rum kill mih mudder (mother), Rum kill mih fadder (father), Rum go kill mih whole family”-which was sung to the melody of “Akela Hoon Mai” (I am Alone) from the film Baat Ek Raat Ki (1962, Night of Wonder). There are dozens of “rum” songs by artistes such as Hunter, Ravi B and Rikki Jai with similar lyrics all in English that are regularly played on radio and seen on local television and YouTube. It is the glorification of rum and the “Rum” messages that are conveyed in those chutney songs that Rambachan and others question. However, some people are of the view that most patrons who attend chutney shows and listen to these chutney songs were not necessarily influenced by the Rum messages but were more concerned with the music, the tempo, and the rhythm of the songs. They point to Sundar Popo’s “Nanny and Nanna” song, which became one of the most popular chutney songs ever released in this country. The lyrics of the song were nonsensical but entertaining. Others point to the fact that very few people understand Hindi and many of the early chutney songs were in Hindi and they enjoyed them yet did not understand their meaning. However, with the advent of English lyrics in chutney songs, those chutney songs seemed to pose a problem in terms of the “rum” messages conveyed. Nevertheless, people loved those chutney songs with English lyrics because they now had wide cross-cultural appeal for East Indians and the wider society. Kamal Mohammed, a pioneer in local Indian culture, strongly disapproved of some of what passes as Indian culture today in Trinidad. He commented that, “It was scandalous and shameful to see our sisters and daughters performing lewd dances in the presence of their elders and calling it culture” in the name of chutney singing. [40]                                                                                                                                                                             

Rishi Singh leader of the Maya Indian Orchestra, 28 years old and Vijay Jhagroo from Penal, a young 20-year-old entertainer who makes his living from singing with Indian orchestras, both spoke about those “rum” chutney songs performed during their orchestras’ presentations. They argued that it was what the audience wanted. They contended that many times an artiste may not like a particular chutney song, but he sang it nevertheless to please his audience. They further added that pleasing the audience was what the business of entertainment was all about. Jhagroo, however, added that in his case he sang chutney songs because it was a way of making a living.[41]

Modern chutney was a wholesale imitation of filmi songs where singers presented what the public demanded. Once there was a market for those songs, there would always be singers willing to produce them. Under those circumstances therefore, one should not blame the artistes for the songs that they sing because most of the major chutney singers earn a livelihood by singing those songs. It is true that a society demands from its artiste what it wants and the artist responds in like fashion so that the evolution of the chutney genre of music is a reflection of the society itself because the product is determined by two factors (1) the value systems of both the artistes and the society and (2) the functionality of the product.

The content of chutney singing in Trinidad was influenced by the value systems of the people and the artistes combined. Part of this stemmed from what they saw in the Indian movies and their own lifestyles. While it is true that many singers gravitated to the chutney because of the money involved, some kept their distance from the chutney genre of songs.

From its inception, chutney songs used filmi melodies, and this has continued to the present time. In terms of Indian identity, however, the chutney songs and the whole chutney phenomenon spinoff gave a large sector of the local Indian population a temporal identity- something to call their own, yet something that they could share with the rest of the country and the world at large, something many saw on par with calypso. As the years passed, this chutney phenomenon, in different incarnations, began to gradually spread its influence in the national arena and found a niche in the National Carnival Productions. By 1996, “the National Carnival Chutney Soca Monarch Competition” began to infiltrate the national space with private sponsorship, later to have prizes sponsored by the government.

In 2011, the first prize sponsorship for this competition rose from $200,000 to $2, 000,000 due to government sponsorship.[42] It is important to note here that the words National and Carnival were now part of the chutney phenomenon. This is noteworthy because very often East Indians were not made to feel that they were part of the national image of the country despite the fact that many organizations, mainly religious ones or semi-religious ones, took the title “National” as part of their name. For example, the National Phagwa Council, National Ramleela Council, National Council of Indian Culture, National Classical Singing Competition, National Hindu Youth Organization to name a few. After the 1970s, however, East Indians seemed to have moved closer to the mainstream of national life in Trinidad through economic and educational developments and to some extent entertainment. In addition, there were national debates being carried on in the national newspapers and many writers of East Indian descent such as Sat Maharaj, Mahabir Maharaj, Nanan Bhagwandeen, Ramdeo Sampat Mehta, Harry Partap and others regularly expressed their views in the national media on topics of East Indian interest and national issues. In sum therefore the 1970s and 1980s and to a great extent, the 90s saw a rise in East Indian national identity expressions in Trinidad, which culminated, among other things, into the chutney phenomenon and the establishment of Indian formatted radio stations.

The popularity of chutney was due in part to the influence of the husband-and-wife team, Babla and Kanchan who, having visited Trinidad, took many of Sundar Popo’s songs and remade them using filmi melodies from the Bollywood musical circuit. This created quite a stir both locally and internationally and helped to take Sundar Popo and Trinidad chutney to the international level. This had a rebound effect in that Trinidadians were now traveling to foreign lands performing in several chutney shows returning home proud of the fact that Trinidad’s chutney was known in countries such as Suriname, Guyana, Jamaica, United States of America, England, Holland, Canada and India. The fact that foreigners began to recognize and appreciate Trinidad’s chutney songs encouraged many local East Indians to appreciate the chutney phenomenon. Chutney singing became internationally identified with Trinidad and more specifically with Trinidad East Indians. Today the chutney phenomenon continues unabated and the three top winners of the 2009 and 2010 editions of the National Carnival Chutney Soca Monarch Competition won with songs, the melodies of which were taken from the Bollywood film world. The first-place winner in 2009, Kenneth Salick who won with “Radica Why You Leave and Gone” was sung to the tune of “Ek Masoom sa Chehera” from the movie Zinda Dil while third-place went to Lalchan ‘Hunter’ Babwah who sang “Jep Sting Naina” to the tune of “Jab Se Tere Naina” from the movie Saawariya.

The influence of Bollywood music on local chutney was undeniable. Local chutney has taken these tunes from the Bollywood music circuit, embellished them and created their own new songs that received not only national recognition but international recognition as well. For example, within two months of Sailck winning the National Carnival Chutney Soca Monarch Competition he had already visited several foreign countries with local Indian orchestras on tour appearing as a guest artiste singing his chutney songs particularly the “filmi” Radica song that won him the first prize in that competition. Other local chutney singers regularly visit foreign lands including USA, Canada, Holland, Guyana and Suriname for performances.

Moreover, chutney has expanded to encompass a wide range of musical genres such as Chutney Parang, Political Chutney, Soca Chutney, Tassa Chutney, Classical Chutney and Film Song Chutney. In the May 28, 2009 National Chutney Awards put on by the National Chutney Foundation of Trinidad and Tobago at Gaston Court, Chaguanas, several awards were distributed including best “Chutney Film Song.” In addition to the above categories mentioned for which awards were also given at the ceremony, other awards were handed out for “Best Chutney Dancer” “Best Chutney Promoter,” “Most Performed Chutney Artiste Internationally,” “Most Exported Chutney Song,” “Best Chutney Gospel,” “Best Chutney Lyrics,” “Most Promising Chutney Artiste,” “Most Popular Chinese Trinidadian Performing Chutney Artiste,” “Most Popular Afro-Trinidadian Performing Chutney Artiste,” “Most Popular Traditional Chutney Crew,” “Most Popular Caucasian Trinidadian Performing Chutney,” “Best Chutney Soca Song,” and “The Ras Shorty I Award” to name a few of the forty-five awards that were handed out on that night. These awards point to the fact that chutney has expanded beyond the local East Indian community and has embraced other local communities in addition to its international acceptance.

Unlike calypso, chutney was practiced throughout the year and according to Dr. Vijay Ramlal Rai “our artistes practice the art form throughout the year both in Trinidad and Tobago and internationally…” and added that chutney is now being sung in many languages including French, Spanish and Japanese.[43]

Indian films have had and continue to have a tremendous impact on chutney singing in Trinidad and for many people chutney has emerged as an identity symbol for the East Indians in Trinidad.

The Non-Indian Response to Indian Movies in Trinidad

…even if the music and words are somewhat strange to the ears attuned to modern screen jargon, and eyes accustomed to Hollywood chorus girls, this should in no way keep us from getting acquainted with what other people are doing in other parts of the world.[44]

Attempts were made as early as 1935 to woo the non-Indian Trinidad audience for Indian movies as the above excerpt from a special story carried about Bala Joban in the Trinidad Guardian on December 4, 1935 suggested. The story described the movie as “a distinct novelty, as well as a change in the ordinary film diet” that people were accustomed to on the island, in an effort to persuade non-East Indians to attend the showing of Bala Joban. However, despite the public advertisements and the trailers at the cinemas the response from the non-East Indian community to Bala Joban was not encouraging.[45] Newspaper reports of the timesuggested that in any event all the early shows of Bala Joban were sold out as East Indians flocked to the cinema in numbers never seen before. Even if non-East Indians desired to see Bala Joban, they would not have been able to get into the cinema especially since there was a lot of “pushing and shoving” to get into the cinema.[46]

Dipchand Maharaj, who had seen Bala Joban in 1935, indicated that in the years that followed there was no change in the trend that began with Bala Joban as mostly people of East Indian descent went to see Indian movies. However, he admitted that a few non-East Indians, mainly Afro-Trinidadians, went to see Indian movies but this was due mainly because of friends who were of East Indian descent. In the villages, the people lived in unity and it was not uncommon for a few Afro-Trinidadians to join their East Indian friends to see an Indian movie.[47] Both Ramesh Boodoo, who owned and operated a cinema in Sangre Grande where there was a large mixed population, and Kowlessar Maharaj who operated a cinema in Waterloo, contended that from their observations very few non-East Indians visited the cinema during the time when Indian movies were shown. They surmised that the few who went were because of mixed marriages where the person of non-East Indian origin accompanied an East Indian partner to the cinema.

Ferdie Fereira, an eighty-three-year-old political activist and someone who worked in several areas of Trinidad agreed that Afro-Trinidadians did not attend Indian movies in any significant way. He maintained that it was generally seen as an “Indian thing” in a language that they did not understand and articulated that when Indian movies came to Trinidad in 1935, they were in Hindi and as such would not have attracted non-Indians. He further pointed out that with low wages at the time it was difficult to comprehend why anyone would pay to see a movie in a language he or she did not understand, especially when there were other choices at cinemas. Fereira agreed that the view that Indian movies were for “Indian people” has continued to this day among the majority of Afro-Trinidadians even though the later Indian movies were subtitled in English. He posited that even when Indian movies were shown on the lone television station in the 1970s and early 1980s most Afro-Trinidadians switched off their television sets and found other things to occupy themselves. He ventured that although Indian movies were available on local and cable television today it was unlikely that many Afro-Trinidadians would access them since there were several other viewer choices available. In addition, as a political activist who was closely associated with the People’s National Movement (PNM) since its foundation in 1956, he contended that despite the political rhetoric and the view by some East Indians that Eric Williams was anti-Indian and the PNM was seen as an Afro-Trinidadian party, the PNM Government never did anything that negatively impacted on the importation, distribution or screening of Indian movies in Trinidad. He argued that it was under the PNM Government in the 1970s that Mastana Bahar and Indian movies were introduced on TTT in Trinidad. [48]

Indian movies never became a hit with the non-East Indian population in Trinidad and the trend has continued to the present time mainly because of the language barrier. Even in Tobago, where the majority of the population was Afro-Trinidadian, Indian movies have not been popular there over the years. Efforts were made by International Traders Limited in the late 1940s to screen Indian movies at the Rex Cinema in Tobago, but it did not catch on and as a result, no further interest was taken by local film distributors in screening Indian movies in Tobago. This researcher spoke to many people in Scarborough and other parts of Tobago but none of them recalled seeing an Indian movie advertised in Tobago within the last few decades. However, they did indicate that from time to time Indian orchestras from Trinidad visited the island and played at functions such as Indian weddings and Indian Arrival Day celebrations. Jankie, who refused to give her full name, suggested that because of the small East Indian population in Tobago it was difficult to profitably screen Indian movies there or to organize Indian variety stage shows, particularly those involving foreign Indian artistes. She further pointed out that East Indians living in Tobago were at a disadvantage since they were forced to visit Trinidad to attend “Indian cinema” or variety shows featuring international Indian artistes such as Amitabh Bachchan. “This was costly,” she reiterated, “since it involved tickets to the country, local accommodation and tickets to the shows.”[49]

Most Afro Tobagonians interviewed in Tobago indicated that they had never seen an Indian movie but a few of the older ones said that they had seen a few Indian movies in the late 1970s or early 1980s when they were shown on TTT. However, despite the fact that Indian movies are easily available on cable or on DVD, very few Afro-Trinidadians or Afro Tobagonians chose to look at an Indian movie. Jankie pointed out that because Indian movie DVDs were not available on the island whenever she visited Trinidad, she bought Indian film DVDs at the video outlets in Chaguanas and Penal where her relatives lived.

Navin Rampersad, who owned and operated one of the popular video rental stores in Sangre Grande, opined that in his twenty-five years of operation very few non-East Indians rented Indian movies from the store. He claimed that the few who rented Indian movies did so mainly because of mixed marriage relationships but there were very few non-East Indians who rented Indian films. Mahadaye Ramnanan, who owned and operated a video rental store in the Curepe area shared similar views to that of Rampersad indicating that very few of her non-East Indian customers rented Indian movies. Other video rental operators also expressed similar views and shared the consensus that not many non-East Indians rented Indian movies from the video rental stores. Gabriel, who was encountered at a video outlet in Curepe that rented Indian movies, indicated that the three Indian movies he rented that day were for his wife who was East Indian. He stated that he initially looked at Indian movies because of his wife but soon found them to be full of “lessons in life” and had come to like them a great deal.[50]

Bartholomew Philip, a resident of Sangre Grande, stated that he was a great fan of Indian movies and boasted that he had seen over 500 Indian movies in his lifetime. He indicated that the weekly Indian movie was something that he looked forward to at the local cinema in Sangre Grande and added that he always learnt something new from Indian movies. He rented Indian movies on a weekly basis from various video rental clubs in his area. Unfortunately, Phillip was faced with numerous unsavory episodes of taunt and abuse from fellow Afro-Trinidadians in Sangre Grande who thought that he should not be involved in Indian culture. He was stoned, cursed and even got into fistfights with his Afro-Trinidadian brothers because of his love for Indian movies but despite the trials and tribulations that he faced, Indian movies continued to be the choice of viewing for him both at home and the cinema.[51] Phillip was not alone in the treatment meted out to him by some of his Afro-Trinidadian brothers as Raymond Cameo, was also subjected to similar taunts and abuses.[52] Because of the abuse that he faced on the outside, Bartholomew was forced to install a minihome theatre system to view Indian movies. He counted himself as a member of the Maya Indian Orchestra and The Sangeet Saage Orchestra of Sangre Grande and indicated that he was well accepted by Indian audiences at cooking nights.

While non-Indians such as Bartholomew and Cameo loved Indian music and songs and did much to propagate them, there were those who thought that Indian music and songs did not belong to Trinidad and should not be publicized especially on the radio stations. There was a view that Indian songs did not belong on local radio or television except during sponsored programs. Kamaludeen Mohammed agreed that there were people who held that view and indicated that in his early days at Radio Trinidad there were views expressed that Indian songs did not belong on national radio but since the program was sponsored and brought in revenue and listeners, it was allowed to continue. He personally sold advertisements for his programmes. The other Indian programme announcer at the radio station at the time, Surujpat Mathura, also sold advertisements for his Indian programmes in order to keep them on the air. There was an understanding with the station management that if they could not find advertisers for their programmes, those programmes would be discontinued.

Gideon Hanoomansingh who worked as a broadcaster with 610 Radio in the 1960s and 1970s, one of the two local radio stations in Trinidad at the time, argued that there was a view expressed by many of the non-East Indian broadcasters at the station that Indian songs (read here as Indian film songs) did not belong on the radio “air time” during normal programming except when such songs were sponsored. He cited an incident at the station to elaborate on his point.

One morning while he was filling in for Ashton Chambers on the Early Morning Show between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m., he took the opportunity to play three Indian film songs during that time. Later when the show was over the audio librarian, commenting on the fact that Indian songs were played during the normal airtime, was heard to remark “there was roti on the antenna this morning” to which Hanoomansingh inquired whether the librarian had taken offence to the “roti on the antenna.” Hanoomansingh further pointed out that another broadcaster who later took over the Early Morning Show and produced it for several years bluntly refused to play any Indian songs on his programs, even when the management of the station advised him to do so. The matter was only resolved when a sponsor was found to pay for an Indian (film) song to be aired during the program and the broadcaster was forced to comply. Additionally, with respect to non-East Indians going to the cinema to see Indian movies, Hanoomansingh indicated that he had known a few Afro-Trinidadians who regularly went to view Indian movies and found them very family oriented and sentimental. He articulated the view that from his experiences at the Indian movie showings at the cinemas, not many people of non-East Indian descent attended those showings.

Concerning whites and French Creoles attending the screening of Indian movies both Boodoo and Maharaj stated that it was a rare occasion to see whites at an Indian movie except if they were on holiday in Trinidad and were staying with an Indian family who took them to the cinema. Allison Hamel Smith, a psychologist from Port of Spain, indicated that in her opinion very few French Creoles or whites went to see Indian movies except for those that dealt with contemporary issues such as women’s rights and HIV/AIDS. She cited as an example the Indian movie Phir Melenge (2004) (Until We Meet Again) which dealt with HIV/AIDS issues and which was well publicized in Trinidad. That film was adopted by UNAIDS and the Trinidad AIDS foundation as one of their premiere offerings in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Another “Indian” movie that she viewed was Water (2005)[53] which dealt with women’s issues.[54] While it was true that many non-Indians did not view Indian movies, they nevertheless enjoyed Indian film dances, and some were actual exponents of the art.

Owen Ali was one of the early Afro-Trinidadian dancers who made a name for himself as a dancer and performed with the likes of Champa Devi for the Naya Zamana Orchestra. Another Afro-Trinidadian who rose to the top in the field of Indian film dances was Raymond Cameo who often performed at Indian variety shows, cooking nights, Divali programs, Mastana Bahar, TTT’s Indian Variety and Indian Arrival Day celebrations. Cameo was very knowledgeable in the field of Indian songs and movies and could indicate at a moment’s notice the movie from which a particular song originated. He loved to dance and performed with many international artistes who visited Trinidad including Amitabh Bachchan in 1981. Although Cameo saw many Indian movies, he did not copy all his dance movements from them but invented (choreographed) most of his dance steps for the Indian film songs which he used in his performances. He was a self-taught local Afro-Trinidadian filmi dancer, but many Afro-Trinidadians often taunted him for his involvement in Indian culture. In the 1980s, Raymond Cameo was often seen on the streets of Port of Spain and Curepe, with his cassette player in hand loudly playing Indian film songs much to the disapproval of some Afro-Trinidadians. Cameo was a regular feature at many Indian cultural events including several charity shows both local and international.[55]

Another non-East Indian dancer who rose to prominence in the 1970s was Debra Dabreau who performed under the sobriquet of Chan Chan Mala. She appeared on Mastana Bahar and several Indian variety shows on TTT and performed throughout the country at weddings, cooking nights, Divali programs and other Indian cultural events. Partap Sitahal who had seen her perform at Divali celebrations that he had organized in his village during the 1970s referred to her as a “real crowd pleaser.” She was definitely “one of the best female local Indian film dancers of her

time.” [56] Among some of her contemporaries were Baby Sandra, Devika Ragoobarsingh, Radica Laukaran and Sharon Telesford all of whom appeared on television programs such as Mastana Bahar and Indian Variety.

By the 1990s Indian film dancing in Trinidad had moved away from individual dances to group dancing and according to Jassodra Kistow, manager of the Cunaripo Cultural Dancers, many non-East Indians joined Indian dance groups throughout the country and that trend has continued to the present time. Kistow contended that from her experience the non-East Indian students danced just as well as East Indian students. She pointed out that, for example, at the Cunaripo Cultural Dancers Group, almost one-fourth of the students were Afro-Trinidadians.[57]

A cursory glance at many of the other established Indian dance groups in Trinidad, including Michael Salickram’s Shiv Shakti Dancers, revealed that many Afro-Trinidadian girls formed part of the dance repertoire of those groups. In addition, many of the Indian dance groups that participated in the Prime Minister’s Annual Best Village Dance Competition contained non-East Indian dancers, mainly Afro-Trinidadians. In terms of the songs, music and dances, more Afro-Trinidadians were involved in Indian filmi dancing than any other area of Indian culture in Trinidad.

In the arena of local performances by Indian orchestras in the 1950s and beyond, very few East Indians were trained to play instruments such as the guitar, the saxophone or the synthesizer. For that reason, many Indian orchestras employed someone to play those instruments in the orchestras.[58] In most cases, those persons were non-East Indians, mostly Afro-Trinidadians. Rishi Singh, leader of the Maya Indian Orchestra of Sangre Grande opined that not much had changed since then as many Indian orchestras, including Maya Indian Orchestra, still employed persons of non-East Indian descent to play some of the instruments in the Indian orchestras. Bartholomew Phillip, who at various times, was a member of the Indian Art Orchestra and Maya Indian Orchestra also stated that many of the headline Indian orchestras in Trinidad such as Karma, Dil-E-Nadan, Triveni and Melobugs also contained non-East Indian musicians and singers in their lineup. In addition, Singh stated that many Indian orchestras, in an effort to keep up with the times, had also added steel pan and rap artistes. Those persons were often non-East Indians.

In terms of non-East Indian singers who made the national spotlight, early singers such as Roy Cooper and Sonny Matthews regularly gave singing performances at weddings, cooking nights and Ramayan yagnas in the 1960s and 1970s. Moreover, although they were more popularly known as local classical singers, they also sang film songs. They took some of the film songs and remade them as local Indian classical songs.[59] Cyrus Bailey, an Afro-Trinidadian from Mayaro was another very popular singer of Indian film songs, particularly songs by Mohammed Rafi. He was a regular fixture at cooking nights in the Eastern Counties during the late 1960s and 1970s.[60] Another Afro-Trinidadian singer, Edward Pitt of Las Lomas, over the last few decades had created a name for himself as a singer of Indian film songs doing many imitations of Kishore Kumar. Both Bailey and Pitt were regular features in the Mastana Bahar and Indian Variety shows on TTT and sang with various Indian orchestras throughout the country at Divali and other functions.[61] Sitahal and Jagroopsingh recalled seeing Pitt perform as a guest singer with Indian orchestras such as the Beena Sangeet Orchestra and the Naya Zamana Indian Orchestra at Divali celebrations and cooking nights in Brazil village and surrounding areas such as Las Lomas, Caroni and Carapo. Some of the other prominent Afro-Trinidadian Indian film song singers included Johnson Blackwell and Moses Charles

While there were not many non-East Indian singers of Indian film songs who made the national spotlight, Indian orchestras always provided opportunities for non-East Indians to participate in Indian orchestras without any racial discrimination in the orchestras. Opportunities were regularly given to young non-East Indian singers in the Indian orchestras to highlight their talents at the village level particularly at cooking nights where they sang as guest artistes. On various occasions when the band played in rural areas, opportunities were given to local singers from the villages to perform with the orchestra on stage. In some instances, guest artistes were Afro-Trinidadians[62] and in one case, Singh recalled a person of Chinese ancestry singing an Indian film song with the orchestra.

Concerning Indian film songs on steel pan and calypso, generally calypso and steel pan in Trinidad were considered African or Creole culture and any incursion into Indian events programming was seen as part of an attempt to creolize East Indians. For that reason, East Indians had historically avoided mixing calypso and steel pan with Indian culture. However, that did not prevent some calypsonians from using East Indian cultural material in their calypsoes. The Trinidad calypsonians’ flirtation with Indian culture can be traced back to some of the early calypsoes such as Atilla’s Dookhani (1939) and Bryner’s My Doolahin (1963). However, some calypsonians such as Ras Shorty (Garfield Blackman) were influenced by Indian filmi songs in their compositions. He used the film song Ham Hai to Chand Aur Tare (I am Like the Moon and Stars) from the movie Main Nashe Main Hoon (1959, I am Intoxicated) in his calypso Indian Singers (1960s). In addition Chalkdust (Hollis Liverpool), in a classic calypso about Ram Kirpalani, a very successful Indian entrepreneur in Trinidad, used several Indian film song choruses in that calypso and in another calypso about Mastana Bahar he used the chorus of the Indian film song Jo Wada Kiya Wo (The Promise you Made) from Taj Mahal.

In a reverse twist of fate, Indian playback singer Kishore Kumar took one of Ras Shorty’s local compositions Om Shanti (1974) a non-filmi related song and remade it into a super hit filmi song in the movie Karz (1980).To the uninitiated, the heavy Indian influences in Ras Shorty’s original Shanti Om make it sound as if it was a remix of Kishore Kumar’s playback song Om Shanti Om.

In the case of the steel bands, there were no serious attempts to play Indian songs on the steel pan because most of the steel bands were comprised of members who were of African descent and to whom Indian songs were unknown and held no appeal. In any event, steel bands generally came alive for Carnival and were quiet for the rest of the year so their repertoire of music consisted mainly of calypsoes, which were sung especially for Carnival. Most East Indians avoided Carnival because they saw Carnival as African based. They thought that calypso and steel pan were connected with Carnival and that association with Carnival created a connection in their minds that calypso and steel pan were “an African thing” and so they largely avoided it. It was only within recent times, however, that a few steel bands have included in their repertoire, Indian film songs. These were generally bands with East Indians in their membership. Two such steel bands were the Samaroo Jets and T&TEC Nada Sangama Steel Orchestra.

The Samaroo Jets was one of the earliest steel bands to play Indian film songs on steel. They went on to produce a CD entitled From the Silver Screen that featured songs such as Chaudavin Kaa Chaand (1960, Chaudavin Kaa Chaand);O Mere Sonaa (1966, Teesri Manzil, Third Floor); Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai) and Suhani Raat (1949, Dularie,).

The T&TEC Nada Sangama Steel Orchestra of Tunapuna regularly gave performances of Indian film songs to very appreciative audiences throughout the country. For example, on the night of Wednesday 4 August 2010 at a reception for the launch of the 8th WAVES International Conference (World Ayurveda Conference) at the Divali Nagar (NCIC) the T&TEC Nada Sangama Steel Orchestra played fifteen film songs. Among the songs played on steel that night was the immortal Sohanie Raat (Beautiful Night) from Dularie (Beloved) for which the band received the loudest applause.

In addition, several individuals, both Afro-Trinidadians and East Indians, have appeared on local competitive television shows such as Mastana Bahar (Happy Spring) and Chote Champs (Young Champs) playing the steel pan in solo items. Within the last few years, one of the products of the Mastana Bahar program, Shivana Ragoonanan, has emerged as one of the foremost young East Indians playing what was considered a non-Indian instrument at many religious and nonreligious East Indian functions, including Divali, Indian Arrival Day and weddings. This researcher recalled an incident involving Shivana Ragoonanan playing the steel pan at the finals of the Maha Sabha’s Baal Vikaas Festival a few years ago when she represented St. Helena Hindu School. While the school was still on stage performing its bhajan, which was a filmi bhajan, with accompaniment by Shivana on the steel pan, a senior pandit of the Maha Sabha who held executive positions on both the Pandits’ Parishad (organization) and the Maha Sabha, very loudly, vehemently objected to the presence of the steel pan at the Baal Vikaas Finals and at the Maha Sabha’s compound. He expressed the view, that the steel pan “had no place in a Hindu religious setting such as the Baal Vikaas and more so at a Maha Sabha function.” This incident demonstrated the antipathy that many East Indians held for the steel pan but over the last ten years, the T&TEC Nada Sangama Steel Orchestra has been a regular feature at religious services at the Dattatreya Yoga Center at Waterloo in Trinidad where they play to very appreciative worshippers.[63]

Other Influences on Indian Identity in Trinidad

In addition to the areas already mentioned, other significant aspects of Indian identity in Trinidad were also influenced by Indian movies. Some of these included Indian food, Indian plants, education, politics and economics.

East Indian Foods in Trinidad

East Indian foods came to Trinidad with the Indian indentured immigrants. Many foods such as roti (Indian bread), dhal (legumes), chokhas (smashed vegetables) and talkaries (curried vegetables) which were commonly eaten by East Indians in 1935 when Indian movies arrived, are still popular today.

Many Indian foods in Trinidad have evolved into local Indian street foods and can be purchased in many parts of the country today.  Some of these include katchorie, poulourie, saheena, aloo pie, doubles, baigani, and Indian sweets such as jelabi, kurma, barfi and prasad (religious offering) which are all very popular Indian foods in Trinidad.[64]

The struggle to retain an Indian identity through foods was an exceedingly difficult and torturous one for East Indians in Trinidad. They were taunted by non-East Indians with slurs such as “dhal-belly Indian,” “bhajie Indian” (without strength), and demeaning jingles like “coolie coolie come for roti all the roti done.” East Indian foods were at the bottom of the cuisine ladder in the country and were the source of ridicule for many East Indians. From the 1930s up to the late 1950s, in schools and offices, East Indians hid during the lunchtime in order to eat their “Indian lunches” for fear of ridicule from other schoolchildren or members of staff. By the 1960s, much of that had changed and many Afro- Trinidadians who had developed a taste for East Indian foods bartered their lunches with East Indians. By the 1970s East Indian foods had become immensely popular among non-East Indians since such foods were regularly served at Indian weddings, festivals, pujas and bhandaras at which non-East Indians were invited. For example, East Indians regularly invited non-East Indian friends and coworkers to their Divali celebrations at home. On those occasions, the foods were served on “sohari leaves” and eaten with hands.[65] As the popularity of Indian foods grew many enterprising East Indians, with shop and parlours, found that they could earn extra dollars from the sale of East Indian foods, particularly snack foods such as katchorie, aloo pies, doubles, roti and sahena. By the 1990s, Indian street foods were a common sight with numerous persons, both East Indians and non-East Indians, hawking Indian delicacies at street corners. It was a common sight to see the peoples of all races patronizing roti stalls, double stalls, and Indian delicacy stalls. In addition, some enterprising individuals went one step further and established local East Indian restaurants such as Hosein’s Roti Shop, Patraj Roti Shop, Apsara Restaurant and Wings Restaurant at which these Indian foods are available. Indian street foods are easily available in places such as St. James, Curepe, Arima, Sangre Grande and Debe.

Roti is a national dish in Trinidad and there are shops throughout the country selling roti with different curry fillings or talkaries.[66]  While the name remained intact, the Trinidad roti such as sada roti, dosti roti, dhalpuri roti and paratha roti developed its own unique styles of preparation and serving in the Caribbean. The chicken roti or potato roti sold as street foods are unique to Trinidad, Guyana, Suriname and Jamaica and has spread to other diaspora areas such as New York and Canada. Like classical singing, roti in Trinidad underwent several changes but retained the Indian name. For most East Indians the appearance of roti in Indian movies was a validation of the preservation of this aspect of East Indian cultural cuisine in Trinidad.

Many Indian foods such as roti and doubles have become woven into the national fabric of Trinidad life and very few people see them as Indian identity symbols. In today’s society non-East Indians purchasing a roti or doubles do not see it as eating Indian food and tourists are routinely taken by people of all races to sample Trinidad street foods at Curepe, Debe or St. James.

While Indian foods in Trinidad continue to be an Indian identity symbol for East Indians, Indian movies have not had any significant influence on the local evolution of these foods in the country. However, Indian movies have provided validating influences when locally known Indian dishes such as roti, talkarie or chokha appeared in Indian movies. As pointed out above, in many instances the names have remained the same while the style of preparation between India and Trinidad differed widely.

East Indian Plants as Symbols of Identity

Indian indentured immigrants brought the seeds of many Indian plants with them to Trinidad in their jahaji bundles and these plants can be found in various parts of the country today. Some of these included religious plants such as tulsie (Ocimum tenuiflorum), ashoka (Saraca indica), bael (Aegle marmelos), dhatur (Datura stramonium) and paan (Piper betle), medicinal herbs like neem (Azadiracta indica), flowering plants such as lotus (Nelumbo nucifera) and edibles such as mango (Mangifera indica) and carailee (Momordica charantia).[67] When plants such as tulsie, lotus, rice and mango were seen in Indian movies East Indians in Trinidad identified with those plants since they were also part of the local landscape. The tulsie plant was seen in movies such as Main Tulsie Tere Angan Ki (1978, I am the Sacred Tulsie Plant of Your Residence) and East Indians used the appearance of such plants in Indian movies as validation of its preservation in Trinidad as part of their Indian cultural heritage. Such validation however did not influence changes in the use of such religious plants in Trinidad. For example, the mango was seen in Indian movies such as Milan and Saccha Jutha (1970, Truthful Liar) and East Indians drew connections between the local mango and its Indian counterpart. Whereas it was portrayed in Indian movies only as a fruit, in Trinidad Hindus had appropriated religious significance to the plant as its leaves were used in puja and the mango wood was burned in sacred offerings (hawan). Furthermore, mango wood was used in making the Harris,[68] a sacred item used in Hindu weddings. In addition, the fruits are used in making curried mango talkarie. East Indian plants were seen as important identity symbols for East Indians up to the 1960s, but after that period, many “Indian plants” such as mango, chataigne, melons, cucumber, pommegranate and sapodilla[69] became part of the national and Caribbean landscape to such an extent that few people thought of them as Indian identity symbols.

Trinidadians generally enjoy eating the mango fruit and no one ever thinks of it today as an Indian plant. In a similar manner the banyan tree, which is holy to the Hindus, is seldom thought of as Indian. A case in point is the prominent banyan tree in the National Botanical Gardens which is seen by thousands each day, with very few recognizing it as an Indian plant.

Nevertheless, many East Indian plants such as tulsie, neem, bael, datur, paan and mango which are used in Hindu religious ceremonies, are commonly found in Hindu homes and temples and for Hindus, those plants are symbols of Hindu Indian identity. Indian movies have not significantly influenced the evolution and use of Indian plants in Trinidad.

Politics, Education and East Indian Identity in Trinidad

The vast majority of Indian indentured immigrants who came to Trinidad were illiterate in English, but they brought with them their value systems and socialization processes that helped to keep their society together. Initially East Indians were seen as birds of passage here to do a job and return to India at the end of their indentureship. Therefore, early attempts by local churches or government schools to educate them were nominal. A few Brahmins who came were educated and as East Indians began to establish their settlement societies, they gradually introduced simple schools called patshalas. In many instances, these were located in their houses of worship and were managed by Brahmin pundits who taught their charges in Hindi.

In 1868, Rev. John Morton established the Presbyterian mission in Trinidad with the primary objective of educating the East Indians in English and converting them to Christianity. By 1921, just over 50 years after Morton had launched his education program for East Indians on the island, at least 87% of the East Indian population over the age of 10 years was considered illiterate in English. The Presbyterian Church had succeeded in converting roughly 5% of the East Indian population while the Catholic Church had converted 4% and the Anglicans 2% and most of those were considered literate.[70] It is safe to assume that most of the literate English educated East Indians were converts who formed an elite middle class among the East Indians.

The high 1921 illiteracy rate of 87% among East Indians declined to 51% by 1946. At that time, East Indians formed 35% of the total population of 550,809 persons while Hindus formed 77% of the East Indian population and Muslims 20 percent. It is estimated that more than 60% of the Hindus in 1946 were still illiterate in English.[71] Numerically, Hindus were clearly the largest illiterate group in Trinidad based on the 1921 and 1946 census figures.

By the time Indian movies arrived in Trinidad in 1935, the 1931 census results indicated that there were just nine Indians in the legal profession and seven in the medical profession with 450, mostly Presbyterians, in the teaching profession. The majority of East Indians were in agricultural and other labour pursuits.[72] It is noteworthy therefore, to mention that there was a large disparity in numbers between the educated and the illiterate East Indians in Trinidad. The educated elite group of East Indians had largely adapted to the western/colonial society and had rejected many aspects of their Indian cultural heritage especially those aspects linked to Hinduism and Islam. The majority of East Indians was illiterate and rejected western and colonial society but maintained major aspects of their Indian cultural heritage. The high rate of illiteracy among East Indians however did not deter them from the enjoyment of Indian movies because no distinctive schooling was needed to view and enjoy Indian movies.

While it may be true that in the early days of indentureship most East Indians did not see the need to educate their children because of their belief that they would return to India after their indentureship ended, by the 1860s when it appeared that most East Indians on the island had opted to remain in Trinidad rather than return to India, their outlook on education had not changed significantly. They were fearful of conversion to Christianity and with it a total loss of their Indian cultural heritage. In addition, parents preferred to have their male children assist in agricultural pursuits or task work while girls were prepared for marriage with learning household duties.

East Indians, particularly Hindus, were at the bottom of the social, economic and political ladder. With time, however the picture began to change as they realized that the only way up the economic and social ladder was through education and economic well-being. While they accepted education from the schools operated by the Christian churches, the vast majority of them rejected conversion as a means of ascending the social, economic and political ladder in society.

By the 1940s, the perception of East Indians in Trinidad with respect to the importance of education had improved. The arrival of Indian movies in Trinidad heralded a turning point in East Indian rejection of education for their children sobering effect on the East Indians in terms of education. Indian movies, through their portrayal of education, social and economic opportunities, mobility and Indian reforms, influenced East Indians particularly Hindus and Muslims, in recognizing the need for education among the younger generations. Moreover, the fact that they saw many modern and western trends in Indian movies and the realization that the only way upward in the economic and social ladder was through education, may have encouraged a lessening of their opposition to things western, which they had also associated with education and the churches. [73] In addition, the struggle for independence in India may have influenced East Indian thinking on education in Trinidad as they gradually saw the need to have educated East Indians to articulate their position on various matters.

Indian movies provided for them a window into the outside western world, which they had hitherto rejected as they sought to adhere to their traditions. Western trends that they had previously rejected were now brought home to them in Indian movies. Indian movies therefore made it easier for the work of the churches, particularly the Presbyterian Church, to move ahead in the field of education. Among all the churches that worked among East Indians in Trinidad only the Presbyterian Church recognized the need to maintain the Indian identity among the East Indians while the other churches demanded complete disavowal of their Indian identity.[74]

The Presbyterian Church used Indian musical instruments such as harmonium and dholak in the church, sang hymns in Hindi and introduced a Hindi hymnbook for their congregation. It also popularized a Hindi version of the Bible, instituted a Hindi printing press, allowed the converted to keep their Indian surnames and gave Indian names such as Susmachar and Armalaya to some of their churches. [75] However, while they instituted such measures on the one hand, on the other hand, they denuded the East Indians of their dress and any semblance of Hindu cultural traits insisting on western type clothing and mannerisms. However, in spite of those demanding conditionalities, many Presbyterian Indians, whom Brinsley Samaroo calls Presbyndu, retained aspects of their traditional culture and were the leaders of the East Indian community in organizations such as the East Indian National Association and the East Indian National Congress and Hindu organizations such as the Sanatan Dharam Association.[76]

While the illiteracy rates had dropped to 51% among East Indians in 1946, that figure was still too high for comfort among the East Indian elite. By the 1950s, the educational outlook for East Indians changed dramatically with the establishment of Hindu and Muslim schools, which were built in areas of predominant Indian communities. In addition, the establishment of several government educational institutions at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels and the introduction of the Concordat in the 1960s further enhanced educational opportunities for everyone including East Indians in the country. [77] Today the literacy rate in Trinidad averages ninety-nine percent.[78]

There is no evidence that Indian movies influenced the patterns of education among East Indians in Trinidad. However, in movies after the 1950s, East Indians were able to identify with scenes in which children were sent overseas for higher education because they had already started that process in Trinidad since the 1930s and 1940s. When they saw it in Indian movies, it was a validation of the course of action already taken to educate their children and in that sense,  they were able to identify with education and progress in Indian movies.

On the other hand, in terms of their economic activities, Indian movies validated the East Indian preference for farming and agricultural pursuits as they identified with those themes presented in Indian movies. It validated their land ownership programs in addition to traditional trades such as cow herding, jewelry, money lending and pottery. While Indian movies did not influence the evolution of these aspects of East Indian life in Trinidad in any significant manner, they nonetheless provided validation avenues for East Indian identity in Trinidad.

           Politics on the other hand did not begin to play a role in the identity of East Indians in the country until the early part of the 20th century when George Fitzpatrick became the first East Indian appointed to the Legislative Council in 1912. Some years later when, after agitation by the East Indian National Association and the East Indian National Congress for greater representation at the Legislative Council level, the Rev. C.D. Lalla was appointed to the Council in 1922. In 1925 Sarran Teelucksingh was the only East Indian elected to the Legislative Council in that election while in 1928 Timothy Roodal and Teelucksingh were elected to the Council. Others who became members of the Legislative Council later included Adrian Cola Rienzi, Stephen Maharaj, Ranjit Kumar, Mitra Sinanan and Bhadase Sagan Maraj. After internal self-government was granted to Trinidad and Tobago in 1956, some of the major East Indian politicians who came on the scene included Winston Mahabir, Kamalodeen Mohammed, Simbhoonath Capildeo and Rudranath Capildeo. In the post-independence period several East Indian politicians served at the national level but among those two stand out prominently: these are Basdeo Panday and Kamla Persad Bissessar who, leading their respective parties, went on to serve as Prime Ministers of the country.

           Historically, East Indians were not seen as part of the mainstream society but steadily gained ground after 1986 when the National Alliance for Reconstruction came to power under ANR Robinson through a merger of the then United National Congress led by Basdeo Panday, the Organization for National Reconstruction and the Democratic Action Congress.  East Indian identity soared in 1995 when Basdeo Panday, leading the newly formed United National Congress party became Prime Minister. He again won the election in 2000 but lost the government through presidential decree in 2001. In 2010, Kamla Persad Bissessar became Prime Minister after leading the United National Congress to victory once again, as part of a larger partnership

          While some aspects of East Indian identity in Trinidad were often linked to political power, some interviewees believed that this identity was fleeting and with the loss of power, as happened in 2001, East Indian identity faltered. Many felt that East Indians were not identifiable by their political affiliations but by cultural and biological factors. With respect to Bollywood movies influencing East Indian political identity, there were no clear linkages established between local East Indian politicians, their modus operandi and Bollywood movies. So, while East Indian political figures did have an impact on East Indian identity in Trinidad, Bollywood movies did not have any significant impact on East Indian politics in Trinidad.


Indian film songs and music in Trinidad were of two types. There were the original recordings by playback singers from India, which were played on radio and by mike men, and by others privately in their homes. In addition, there were imitation songs performed by local artistes to the accompaniment of local Indian orchestras. Furthermore, because of the cosmopolitan nature of the society there were cross over cultural offerings and many non-East Indians found avenues to become involved in Indian Culture. The emergence of the filmi chutney songs provided a welcome opportunity for cross-cultural influences to showcase national culture in a new understanding. While many aspects of East Indian identity were influenced by jahaji foods, plants, politics, education and economic pursuits, the evolution of East Indian identity involving these factors in Trinidad were not significantly influenced by Indian movies. However, they did play a role in the evolution of that identity but the filmi cultural aspects of that identity were more visible than all the others.


[1]. Seukeran, Mr. Speaker, Sir. 8.

       [2]. The Harmonium was invented in 1842 in Paris by Alexadre Francios Debain. During the mid-19th century missionaries took the French-made hand-pumped harmonium to India where it quickly became popular. Though derived from original French designs, the harmonium underwent several changes in its development in India in distinctive ways that advanced its importance as an instrument in many genres of Indian music. Indian indentured immigrants brought it to Trinidad. There is at least one harmonium in any mandir or Hindu temple in Trinidad. In Trinidad the harmonium is generally accompanied by the tabla or dholak.

[3]. The dantaal consisted of a long steel rod, which was adapted from the prong used to connect the yokes of the bullocks that transported the cane carts on the estates. The metal horseshoe used on the estate horses and mules was used to strike the dantaal in an upright position. Satnarine Balkaransingh however contended at a public lecture at UTTs Corinth Teachers’ Campus on 27/05/10 that the dantaal was native to India and was not invented in Trinidad as claimed by some local enthusiasts. See also Indian Arrival Day  09/05/09.

[4]. Manuel, Peter. East Indian Music in the West Indies: Tān-singing, Chutney, and the Making of Indo-Caribbean Culture. 53.

[5]. Ramaya.

[6]. Prakash Persad

[7]. Ramaya.

[8]. Dipchand Maharaj.

[9]. Sitahal.

[10]. Gosine.

[11]. Ramaya.

[12]. Indian Parang referred to groups of East Indians who went from house to house at Christmas-time in a similar manner in which parang groups did during the Christmas season. The difference with the Indian Parang groups was that they sang Indian film songs instead of parang songs in Spanish.

[13]. Filmindia.1965.Ed. D.N. Vidyarthi. n.d.

[14]. Trinidad Guardian17/02/67.

[15]. Ramdeowar.

[16]. See Fig.3 at Appendix VIII.

[17]. This competition and Mohammed Rafi’s visit to Trinidad was publicized in Filmedia magazine  #11.1966.

[18]. Mohammed, Shamoon. Mastana Bahar. B.A. thesis 1975.UWI.

[19]. Partap Sitahal. 20/08/08.

[20]. Russell, Alan. 1987 Guinness Book of World Records. Toronto: Bantam, 1987. Print.

[21]. McWhirter, Norris.. Guinness Book of World Records, 1982. New York: Sterling Pub., 1981. Print.

[22]. Bharatan, Raju (2006-08-23). “How fair were they to Mohammed Rafi? 6”. Retrieved 2010-10-28.

[23]. Gopalaswamy, Preetham. Lata Mangeshkar and Guinness Record? http:// members. /lata/ art6.html Retrieved 2010-10-31.

[24]. Interview with Ameerodeen Ali.19/04/10.

[25]. Sandra Sookdeo.

[26]. Kenneth Lalla.

[27]. This claim of Naya Zamana being the first Indian Orchestra in Trinidad was repeated in the Naya Zamana Orchestra’s special 50th anniversary souvenir publication magazine in 1994, which records the formation of the band as 1944. However, this is doubtful since the Naya Zamana shows were held in 1945-1946 and posters of that show indicate a performance at the Central Theatre in February 1946. .According to Ramaya, Naya Zamana Orchestra came into existence after the Naya Zamana shows were completed.

[28]. Ramaya.

[29]. Modern Indian Orchestra. The Modern Indian Orchestra was formed in 1938 by Ahmad Khan (Chook Cham) who was also its leader. In 1940, Chook Cham joined up with S.M. Aziz giving several stage performances mainly in the South. He continued to function with his band for some years in the 1940’s. 103.1 FM Hall of Fame.  accessed 20/11/09 2009.

[30]. Interview with Yaseen Rahaman. CEO 103.1 FM Radio.06/11/09

        [31]. Patasar

[32]. Narine.

[33]. Saraswati Orchestra (circa 1940’s – 1950’s).

The members of the Saraswati Orchestra were some of the pioneers of Indian culture in Trinidad. This Orchestra was one of only a few local Indian Orchestras in existence at that time. Led by Joseph Ramdeo, they performed at weddings and other functions in Trinidad. Their music was also played on the Radio frequently. The Orchestra was based in Diego Martin, which is where most of the members were from. They were in existence for about 10 years. Even though most of the members are deceased now, the memory of this Orchestra lives on through the minds of the people of Trinidad. accessed 20/11/09.

[34]. Some of the other top Indian Orchestras included Amar Sangeet, Anand Sangeet, Beena Sarangi, Central Oriental, Choti Sangeet Saage, Dil Bahar, Dil Ki Awaaz, Trishul, Western Oriental, Yarahna, Xzitaaz, Junglee Merry Makers, Mela Nau Jawaan, Naya Akash, Naya Andaz, Naya Basant, Naya Hindustani, Naya Tarana, Oriental Sounds, Sangeet Stars, Sapphire, Sitara Hind, Solo Sangeet, Soor  Sangeet, Starlite, Tasveer, Gayatones, Geetanjali, Gulshan Bahar, Indian Art[ Now Indi Art],Jeevan Sangeet, Khazana, Log Boys, Mala Sangeet, Manoranjan, Melobugs, Melody Makers, Maya, Trin’d’pop and  Melody Stars.

[35]. Patasar.

[36]. Patasar.

[37]. 1970s. Melodies of India. This was confirmed by Hansly Hanoomansingh at an Interview on 24/11/10

[38]. Nastik.

        [39]. Sundar Popo was born Sunilal Popo Bahora, on 4 November 1943, at Monkey Town, Barrackpore, Trinidad and Tobago, and died on 2 May 2000. His parents were musicians; his mother was a singer and his father was an accomplished tassa drummer. At the age of 15, he began singing bhajans at temples and weddings in his hometown of Monkey Town. Bahora worked as a watchman at a Barrackpore factory, and trained under Ustad James Ramsawak. In 1969 at a Matkoor in Princes Town, he met Moean Mohammed, a radio host and promoter. After listening to “Nani and Nana,” a song with lyrics in both Hindi and English, describing the affairs of an Indian grandmother and grandfather, Mohammed got maestro Harry Mahabir to record the song at Television House, accompanied by the BWIA National Indian Orchestra. The song revolutionized East Indian music in Trinidad & Tobago. After the success of Nani and Nana, Bahora devoted more of his time to his singing career. He followed “Nani and Nana” with an album combining Trinidadian folk songs with traditional Hindu material. In total, he recorded more than fifteen albums. He is best known for his songs Nanny and Nanna and Scorpion Gyul, which spoke about love, death, and happiness. His other hits include “Oh My Lover,” “Don’t Fall in Love”, and “Oh Lover You Leave Me and Gone.” His songs were recorded several times by the Indian duo Babla & Kanchan, who had a major success with a version of his “Phulowarie Bin Chutney,” bringing him to a wider international audience, and leading to tours of Europe and the United States.

He won the local song contest many times at the Indian Cultural Pageant but he never won Mastana Bahar’s first prize, although he appeared in the finals on several occasions. As a pioneer of the chutney genre, Sundar Popo enriched the musical landscape. He touched the hearts and souls of music lovers around the world. Popo won many awards during his career, and in 1995, Black Stalin won the Trinidad & Tobago Calypso Monarch title with his “Tribute to Sundar Popo.” For his contribution to music and culture, he was awarded the Humming Bird Medal (silver) in 1993. SOURCE: Ashram Maharaj, researcher.

        [40]. Interview with Jai Parsaram

        [41]. Interview with Vijay Jhagroo, 20yrs.Penal Rock Road. 09/08/08

        [42]. In 2011, government also sponsored $2 million in prizes for the National Soca Monarch Competition, National Cultural Competition and the National Steel band Competition.

        [43]. 2009 National Chutney Awards. Brochure. May 28 2009   . Gaston Court, Chaguanas.

[44]. Trinidad Guardian, December 4, Bala Joban Coverage.

[45]. Deoraj Harrikissoon.

[46]. T.G. 08/12/1935. 8.

[47]. Dipchand Maharaj.

[48]. Interview with Ferdie Fereira 25/07/10.

[49]. Jankie X. Tobago.23/09/09.

[50]. Spot interview with Gabriel X. Curepe. 21/11/09.

[51]. Interview with Bartholomew Phillip.19/03/10.

[52]. Personal Experience. Raymond Cameo was an Afro-Trinidadian dancer of Indian Film songs.

       [53]. Actually, Water is a Canadian movie written, directed and produced by Deepa Mehta, in which the dialogue is translated into Hindi with the assistance of Anurag Kashyap. The film forms the third part of Mehta’s Elements trilogy, which was preceded by Fire (1996) and Earth (1998). 

[54]. Telephone Interview with Allison Hamel Smith 21/08/10.

[55]. Ashram B. Maharaj.

[56]. Sitahal.

[57]. Jassodra Kistow.

[58]. Narine.

[59]. Ashram B. Maharaj.

[60]. Waquab Emamdee

[61]. Sitahal

[62]. Khemraj Singh.

[63]. Personal Experience.

[64]. See Glossary for explanations about these foods.

[65]. Sohari plant. Biological name Calathea lutea is a native plant found in low-lying areas and riverbanks in Trinidad. East Indians use its large, waxy banana-like leaves at weddings, religious ceremonies and other events as disposable plates.

        [66] Those roti shops are owned by both East Indians and non-East Indians alike. For Example the popular Hotte Shoppe in St. James is owned by a French Creole and sells delicious rotis prepared by people of African descent and is patronized by persons of all races.

[67]. Some of the other plants brought by East Indians to Trinidad included:

  • religious plants such as sandal (Santalum album), suparie (Areca catechu), Khus khus (Chrysopogon zizanioides), peepal (Ficus religiosa) and banyan( Ficus benghalensis)
  • medicinal herbs such Tumeric (Curcuma longa);
  • edibles such as sahijan (Moringa oliefera), lauki (Lagenaria Siceraria), Chataigne (Artocarpus communis),sapodilla (Manilkara zapota) , bodie (Vigna sesquipedalis), seim (Lablab purpureus), sesame (Sesamum indicum), and rice (Oryza sativa);
  • flowering plants such as gaindah (Tagetes patula).

For a fuller explanation on some of the foods, plants and other Indian inputs into Trinidad brought by the Jahajis (Indian indentured immigrants)see Brinsley Samaroo: Excerpts of an address at the Annual Awards Ceremony of the Chaguanas Borough Corporation, Center Pointe Mall, November 25,2005. Newsday Newspaper.Section B. 18, 26/02/2011.

[68]. A piece of mango wood, about four inches wide and fifteen inches long, with five or seven chiseled steps carved into it and buried in the yard during a Hindu wedding.

[69]. Samaroo, Newsday26/02.2011.

[70]. Census of Trinidad and Tobago 1923;18,34.

[71]. Census of the Colony of Trinidad, 1946.

[72]. Census of Trinidad and Tobago 1931 (1933), Appendix B.

[73]. Ramnath. Follow-up telephone interview.15/07/08.

[74]. For example, the Catholic Church demanded a complete change of name when East Indians were baptized.

[75]. For more on the Presbyterian influence on Education among East Indians in Trinidad see: E.B. Rosabelle Seesaran, From Caste to Class, 2002.

[76]. See Brinsley Samaroo’s “From Hindu to Presbyndu: The Acculturation of the Indian in the Caribbean” in Kumar Mahabir’s Indian Diaspora in the Caribbean. Serials Publications.2009.

[77]. The Concordat was an agreement between the state and denominational boards that governed the operations of denominational schools.

[78]. Demographics Literacy. IA.