Amidst a rural Connecticut town in the height of autumn splendor, ancient Hindu traditions are quietly celebrated at home. Nearly 3,000 miles south, fireworks envelop Guyana’s warm sky. Clay lamps and colorful decorations line every corner. Family and friends visit temples, attend parades, and parties for days. In both locations, there is a hope of newness in the air. It’s Diwali, the auspicious festival of lights that beckons the triumph of goodness over ignorance and evil. Women representing the goddess Lakshmi (the ultimate embodiment of female power) are revered as a source of light in their homes and, by extension, society. While this seems ideal, we can’t forget the deeply rooted gender inequalities that exist in stark contrast to the holiday.
Back in Connecticut, I lay in bed meekly reciting a Lakshmi mantra. Dazedly, my mind wanders to the personal significance of the holiday’s symbolic meaning. Growing up, I was enamored with the celebration of a female deity. My family’s teachings exemplified women as manifestations of strength and perseverance despite the sacrifices and injustices that frequently marred the experience of womanhood. Immediately, I remember my grandmother Indranie — a woman who encompasses this pioneering vigor, facilitating the togetherness that still binds our family after years of adversity and geographical distance. She was a modern portrayal of extraordinary female endurance, teaching us cultural traditions while pushing us past our circumstances. Desperately, I yearned to be like her and the goddess, revolutionaries who knew their self-worth, adored their identity, and actively worked to modernize it.
After emigrating from Guyana in the 1980s, my mother’s family settled in a red brick house across the Long Island Sound, next to the well-known Indo-Caribbean community of Queens, NY. Before Hurricane Sandy ravaged the area, my grandparents sat on two parallel living room white sofas that were the center of family activities. I’ll never forget when my father and I sat with them to watch the news. From his sofa, my grandfather slightly reprimanded my grandmother, “What do you even know about economics?” Lying opposite, she responded swiftly.
“Do not ever tell me what I do and do not know.”
Our jaws dropped. Barely 4’11,” I never forgot the authority in her tone and the power behind her steely blue-gray eyes. Years later on that same white sofa, I asked her opinion on gay marriage. At the time, it was illegal in America and I braced myself for an answer I anticipated disliking. She turned to me and smiled, surprising me with her answer. In her soft Guyanese accent, she said,
“They are all God’s pickney, why does it matter?”
These two memories are forever imprinted in my mind. My grandmother showcased that change in traditional mindset is possible regardless of your culture or age. She taught me that even in small instances, a woman has the ability to stand up for herself. It wasn’t some brash display of rebellion, but rather examples of how a woman should use her knowledge and experience to articulate her beliefs. There, I saw her as an unequivocally confident and assertive woman.
Born in the seaside village of Essequibo to a traditional Brahmin pandit brought from India by the British, my grandmother illustrated strong leadership qualities from an early age. She dreamt of going to school instead of marriage. Denied the opportunity to become a teacher due to restrictive gender roles in education and employment, she was married at the age of 13 to my pandit grandfather and luckily fell in love. She led a home of 12 children, many, who went on to become successful leaders.
In Essequibo, my grandmother was the first woman to drive a car and cut her hair short. She would admonish husbands publicly beating their wives by picking up a cutlass to threaten them and ushered their battered wives into her home for safety. She broke up forced marriages disregarding societal repercussions from fellow villagers or her own elevated social status. At the peak of racial tensions between Afro and Indo-Caribbeans in Guyana, she had political revolutionaries over for chicken curry and engaged in discussions regarding the creation of a new and more equitable society.
When my grandmother came to America, she advocated for her daughters and granddaughters to wear pants, focus on education, and marry a person who accepted them as they were. For years, she slept on the floor and offered the bed and couches to family members so they would be rested for work and school. At one point, there were 40 members living together, yet she made sure everyone had a portion of the little food that was available. There were moments when she even covered for my female cousins and allowed them to go meet boys unbeknownst to their parents!
And yet, my grandmother fully embraced her heritage, accepting that her morals innately stemmed from our rich Indian history. She was a stout believer in karma and prayed daily. She advocated for marriage, encouraged close-knit family units, and spoke out against her ideas of indecent behavior irrespective of gender.
Pujas, spices, and bhajans often filled our home, and she consistently spoke of the importance of rites and preserving values. My grandmother never once felt the need to adopt a new identity or change to fit in. Similarly, she never wanted her family to feel they needed to change our Indo-Caribbean identity in order to increase their self-worth or assimilate. She knew our story provided us with a rich background that should not be erased.
During the course of her lifetime, my grandmother embraced the balance of tradition and progressivism. She understood the difficulty of being a woman living between two contrasting ideologies. Indo-Caribbean women today are evolving and reforming cultural practices that simultaneously allow growth beyond our traditional roles and preservation of our cultural identity. While her story is different than mine, my grandmother ingrained in me that I should never be ashamed to embrace both tradition and modernity.
Both my grandmother and her white sofa are gone now, her ashes taken by the ocean. I work hard for the life I want in her remembrance. Attached to my Guyanese culture, but not afraid to vehemently speak out against archaic notions, I find a balance. Her wisdom and my childhood memories of our family have fundamentally shaped me into the proud first-generation Guyanese woman I am today. As we are surrounded by pain and uncertainty amidst our country’s recent events, I draw comfort and strength from my grandmother’s instilled values and most importantly from those conversations on the white sofa.
From singing and acting to drawing immaculate figurines, Saheli Khan, 11, has made her debut in the North American Broadway tour as young Anna in Disney’s musical “Frozen.” As a first-generation Indo Caribbean, with roots in India and Pakistan, she continues to pave the way for young people with similar backgrounds.
Khan has always enjoyed entertaining those around her and she continues to have the motivation to pursue her passions. In school, she always sought to lead her class in songs and she was encouraged by her parents and teachers to enroll in music and acting classes, even at a young age. These ventures fueled her passions even more.
Continue reading to learn more about her journey!
What do you like about acting the most?
I like to portray different characters. Specifically, I like playing characters who have strong personalities and those who portray a sense of bravery, especially during problematic occurrences.
As a first generation Indo Caribbean actress, how do you feel about your journey as a young Disney princess? Do you feel that you are paving the way for other Caribbean and South Asians who want to pursue similar paths?
Diversity has always been important to me, but in today’s society, I feel that most people would like to be accepted and encouraged. As a Disney Princess, I am simply helping to broaden the field for all young people to see that skin color should not matter.
What do you like about your character, Anna? Is there anything that you may dislike?
Young Anna is a ball of sunshine! She is happy, funny, and a delight to be around. Despite having a troubled childhood, she grows up to be just as joyous, but she is also courageous as she goes on a journey to find her sister. I love everything about young Anna and she truly embodies who I am as a person.
Who is your inspiration and why?
My parents are my inspiration. My mom is beautiful, loving, and she works hard without ever giving up. No matter the task, she finds a solution and keeps on going with a smile on her face. She always tells me, “Whenever you feel overwhelmed, remember whose daughter you are and straighten your crown.” And my dad is my best friend. He’s insanely funny, caring and knows all the best places to eat! My parents are exactly how I want to be when I grow up.
If you had a magic wand, what show would you do next?
I would love to be Annie on Broadway or play the lead in a series or movie.
What is the one last thing that you do before you step out on stage and the curtain goes up?
There are many things I do before I step on stage. I do fun and silly things quietly with my “Frozen” sister, Mackenzie Mercer, and play with my Anna pigtails for good luck.
What are your other passions?
I love to sing, act, and spend time with my younger cousin, Ayla. I also love to draw and color since it makes me feel relaxed. I was told I have a great ability to draw and make figurines ever since I was a child. And I love exploring new cities and eating at great restaurants with my family.
What advice do you have for young people who are just starting their careers, specifically within the field of musical theater?
To have a positive mindset, practice diligently, and enjoy every moment within the journey. I have learned that there may be some occurrences that may not take place the way that you want them to, but there’s always an opportunity to learn from them.
Aside from your career, how do you balance your schoolwork and acting?
I attend school virtually, which is essential when I am on tour. Each day I have scheduled school hours that allow me to focus and complete all school assignments. Once that is done, I have most of the day to work on extracurricular activities, go on outings, and hang out with my friends. Though performing takes a large chunk out of my day, it helps that I enjoy it, so it doesn’t feel like work.
What types of roles do you see yourself playing?
I love to play humorous characters such as young Anna from “Frozen.” I truly enjoyed this role as it captures who I truly am.
Khan’s debut marks the start of a budding career. With her array of talents and future goals, we are bound to see more of the young actress in the future and more representation of Indo Caribbeans in mainstream media. If you would like to purchase tickets for Disney’s “Frozen,” click here.
Wedding season is in full swing as the world resets from the coronavirus pandemic that halted mass events for years. Indo Caribbean weddings have rich diversity due to their varying religious and regional intricacies, but are generally large celebrations that require planning, coordination and preparation. Growing up, I was both excited and stunned at the busyness associated with streamlining a multi-day wedding celebration.
The vibrant diaspora of first-generation young adults and their families may look to vendors who can understand the nuances of Indo Caribbean weddings. Below are five Indo Caribbean vendors you need to know about this wedding season!
A self-taught mehndi artist for more than 16 years, Anil Deonarine was fascinated by the delicate, deeply stained details that adorned the hands of Indian actresses and classical dancers. His passion for art inspired him to watch YouTube tutorials and meticulously freestyle designs on his sister’s hands.
Soon after, he began practicing mehndi on himself and perfected his signature designs that drew inspiration from traditional Rajasthani textiles and Arabic floral patterns. Deonarine is also known for his speed, and can craft a flowing, freestyle design in 3-5 minutes without much pre-planning that is symbolic and personalized to the individual.
As a member of the Indo Caribbean, Latino and LGBTQ communities, mehndi was a therapeutic means of growth for Deonarine at the intersection of his identities. With his mother’s aid, he began introducing mehndi to those that celebrate Quinceneras, Noche Buena (Christmas Eve Dinners) and Three Kings’ Day. Within the greater South Asian community, Deonarine frequently applied mehndi on family and friends for weddings/events and participated in cultural events such as holidays.
He initially faced some negative reactions from members of the South Asian community as a male artist, such as being chastised that mehndi is only for women, called slurs and told to stick to traditionally manly activities. However, Deonarine instead focused on bettering his skills, advocating and supporting other male artists, and soon built a loyal and excited clientele that fully supported and accepted him. It is his dream to design mehndi at a queer wedding to further defy stereotypes and champion mehndi’s inclusivity for all, irrespective of race, sexual orientation, religion or gender.
Offering soy candles and natural soaps, Diana Sookram’s products have been used as bridal shower and wedding favors and gifts in bridesmaid, bachelorette and groomsmen boxes.
Sookram began creating natural products in 2016 after her daughter developed respiratory issues from store-bought candles. She fell in love with the creation process and soon began taking small-batch orders from family, friends and co-workers. Now, she is expanding her business through summer networking socials and prepping for mass orders during wedding season by stocking up on top-selling supplies such as small candle jars, lids and soap packaging.
Sookram’s products can be color and scent customized to match the theme of any occasion. Popular scents during wedding season include beach linen, honeysuckle jasmine, lavender and chamomile and honeysuckle rose. Whether a couple envisions a beachy, garden or opulent wedding, Sookram is able to create complementary colors and scents.
She admits the hard work that goes into promoting a small business and jumps at the opportunity, particularly within the Indo Caribbean community, to network and collaborate.
Fresh flowers are a staple in weddings and plentiful throughout the Caribbean. In some Indo Caribbean weddings, couples exchange garlands of fresh flowers, called malas, to signify their consent and joy in choosing one another as partners. This fundamental ritual dates back to ancient times and is deeply symbolic, as malas also adorn the statues of gods and goddesses in Indo Caribbean temples.
Since the age of seven, Mallika Balgobin sat alongside aunties and uncles in temple and watched them handcraft malas. She was inspired to learn the techniques and in 2018, established her business, Vibrant Garlands, to make and sell malas for special occasions.
Balgobin finds the preservation and teaching of traditional craft vital to her Indo Caribbean heritage, as she is able to make malas for some of the community’s biggest events such as weddings, religious ceremonies, holidays and funerals.
Her recent 2023 trip to South India aided her in learning new techniques and she was encouraged by how the tiniest, simplest flower is arranged to symbolize auspiciousness and beauty. For weddings, Balgobin loves stringing white carnations, red roses, baby’s breath and pink lilies to evoke feelings of unity and love. Balgobin works with couples to customize fresh flowers. She provides fresh flowers or suggests couples buy the flowers of choice prior to customization.
The pulsating and electrifying rhythms of live tassa are a grand component of Indo Caribbean weddings. Since 2017, G Star Tassa Group has brought unique beats and energetic vibes to Indo Caribbean special occasions. While derived from Indian traditional drumming, tassa is a distinct musical experience particular to the Caribbean. It is generally associated with the splendor of wedding festivities due to the excited ambiance it produces. When arriving at a wedding where tassa is performing, the music is loud and center, indicating that a celebration is taking place.
Watching, listening and dancing to tassa is a multisensory experience that heightens the audience.
For the members of G Star, playing tassa is a means of, “expressing culture, rather than representing it. When we play, we like to believe we are invoking emotions from every person who can hear it. Our culture embodies happiness, togetherness and love, all of which can be found in the sweet sound of Tassa.”
Photography and videography offer couples some of the strongest mementos to relive their special day. Nicholas Mangal at DvS Photography brings high energy and professionalism to capture the right angles, looks and moments of a wedding. Located in both New York and Florida, Mangal prides himself as one of the only individuals in the Indo Caribbean community who shoots and edits both photography and videography in specially curated, all-inclusive packages for couples. With an emphasis on portraits, he personally caters to each couple and involves them after the shoot in the editing and final stages of his products.
Mangal understands the complexity that can accompany an Indo Caribbean wedding, but believes that this, “forces me to think outside of the box and create new perspectives, ensuring that I try different styles.”
He loves to document the aesthetics of Indo Caribbean weddings, from the rich embroideries of the outfits to colorful decor.
Ultimately, he aims to highlight the timeline of wedding rituals by capturing people in motion and interacting with the crowd to create lifelong memories that the couple can cherish forever. For Mangal, photography/cinematography is a deeply subjective form of art that can be used to capture the unique beauty and experience of Indo Caribbean weddings.
These vendors bring an important cultural and niche aspect to the Indo Caribbean wedding industry. Their products and brands are tailored to the community. As a 2023 bride, I am excited to see the diversity of vendors available to help guide and support those getting ready to begin their new journey of married life.
To inquire about services, please visit the vendors’ social media pages.
In an age where algorithms dictate viewership, Nancy Jay uses her love of dance to propel herself onto TikTok’s “for you” pages. Jay is an Indo Guyanese, Bronx native who began dancing at the age of three. As an influencer and content creator, she amassed a social media following of more than 500,000. Versed in many styles of dancing including Caribbean, Bollywood, urban and Latin, Jay can be spotted in soca music videos such as Linky First’s “Rock and Come in” and “Jeune Femme,” Adrian Dutchin’s “Roll” and by soca king Machel Montano’s “Mami Lo Tiene.”
Many content creators are typecast into the niche but Jay has defied this norm and proclaims she is more than just a dancer.
“I dance, travel, post lifestyle and beauty content. I’m an Indo Caribbean woman who enjoys being myself and promoting my culture. I like showing viewers it is okay to be who they are and embrace what they look like, despite what they see on social media. I did not plan on being a TikToker. As I started posting videos, the love and support I received from viewers was amazing. I have never experienced anything like that before on Instagram, where I started my content journey,” Jay said.
In conversation with Jay, the following answers have been condensed for concision and clarity.
Why is it important for you to create content related to your Indo Caribbean roots?
Growing up, I never felt represented as an Indo Caribbean on television, in movies, social media or anywhere else. My goal as a content creator is to promote the Indo Caribbean culture through my content and be the representation the Indo Caribbean community needs.
Are there unspoken rules about being a content creator or an Indo Caribbean woman on the platform?
Being an Indo Caribbean woman on TikTok can be challenging when you are trying to find your identity and do not feel represented.
Jay explains her frustration with the lack of Caribbean representation and acknowledgment from platforms, as well as her goals as a content creator in this video.
Do you ever experience a block, similar to writer’s block, when it comes to creating content? How do you overcome that?
I have yet to experience a block. However, I do have days where I want to take a break and just relax instead of filming. As a content creator, it is important to take breaks and schedule days to just relax because being a full-time content creator is a 24/7 business. It can be draining and you may lose your sense of reality when you have the mindset that everything is content. I enjoy taking a day or half a day to cook, watch TV or go shopping with my partner without the worry of filming any of it.
How has your social media presence changed your daily life?
When I am in public, supporters approach me to express their love for my content and sometimes ask for a selfie. When I find people staring at me in public now, it’s most likely because they recognize me from social media and not because I look funny.
In May of 2021, I used my platform to reach out to brands and ask for their support in a project I named ‘Nancy Jay Gives Back.’ I put together care packages, using products donated by brands, and drove around the Bronx sharing them with people experiencing homelessness or those in need. Seeing the happiness on their faces upon receiving these bags was priceless. Additionally, I spread some extra joy through dance. I remember one lady telling me she’d never been to a club or party so I told her I’ve brought the party to her and we danced to her favorite genre of music right there on the street.
Jay plans on continuing this project as her social media presence has grown.
How has your family reacted to your social presence?
My family has always been supportive of my talents and the path I have chosen. My first public dance performance was at the age of 12. I performed a fusion of Bollywood and chutney music at middle school events. When I got to high school, I participated in our talent show to a fusion of Bollywood, chutney, soca and top 40. I won the talent show three or four times. I also performed for fundraisers organized by mandirs in Queens, the Bronx, weddings, sweet sixteens and other social events.
My family always came out to support me. They love seeing my content and always encourage me to film and create. My mom in particular tells everyone about my TikTok videos.
While enrolled at John Jay College, Jay founded the first West Indian student organization called “West Indies Massive.” She captained the dance team, taught dance classes and won the talent show multiple times while pursuing her Bachelor of Science degree in criminal justice with a minor in law and police studies.
Any advice for creators who may not have the support of family?
Do not let this discourage you. If content creation is something you truly want to do, stay consistent and eventually your family will support you for doing what you love. Social media is still new to some and the idea of it being someone’s career or business is new as well. I say be patient. Also, talk to them about your social media goals, as perhaps they do not understand the full picture.
What is your dream partnership and why?
My dream partnership would involve acting. I’ve always wanted to be an actress, preferably a Bollywood actress because I know I would kill those dance numbers (haha!). Also, I would love to partner with Sandals Resorts and bring that Caribbean flavor they should be promoting.
Jay has collaborated with major brands like Samsung Mobile, Norwegian Cruise Line, AC Hotels, Disney Music Group, and Dunkin which is paramount for the Indo Caribbean community.
“I am the first Indo Caribbean woman to work with Norwegian Cruise Line as a content creator. Cruise travel is a huge part of my content journey. I love cruising and creating unique experiences and content. While cruising, I connected with the crew while most people typically do not. I treat everyone with respect,” Jay said
“I started a fun series called ‘Cruise Dances with the Crew’ back in August of 2021. There’s a playlist on TikTok with all of the fun dances. Prior to my first video, I had not seen anyone dancing on cruise ships with the crew. I guess you could say I started that trend.”
Nancy intertwined this partnership with her content and further put herself on the map.
Another pivotal partnership for Jay occurred in March 2021 when Dunkin chose her as one of 10 from a nationwide competition to feature her signature drink on the local menu.
How has content creation changed in the past two years?
Within the past two years, my content and style has grown tremendously. My gear list has also grown tremendously. I’ve been a content creator full time for a little over a year now. I have had more time to focus on the presentation and editing of my content.
What else do you want your viewers to not know about you or your work?
I stay true to who I am. Supporters who I’ve met in person can attest that I am the same, in-person and online. I like to keep things relatable, fun and authentic. I am working with a lot of big brands. I try to incorporate dance in all my content to capture my passion, diversity and culture.
I started teaching Caribbean Dance Fitness classes and private dance lessons officially in 2016. Since Covid, I moved everything online. Not only have I helped many learn how to dance but I have also helped build their confidence through dance and expression.
Lastly, I love traveling and encouraging others to live their best life.
Jay is more than a dancer; she is unapologetically herself. She maximizes opportunities and is building a brand that highlights her Indo Caribbean roots – a culture often not highlighted in mainstream media.