The following post is brought to you by Voices, a Bharatanatyam solo by Srinidhi Raghavan, on Sunday, February 12 at Dixon Place in New York City. For tickets, $25 adults and $20 for students, click here.
Descending from a line of trained classical dancers, Srinidhi Raghavan harnessed a passion for the Bharatanatyam dance form at a young age–she was only five-years-old when she began–under the instruction of two talented gurus, her mother, and aunt. With an affinity for classical art forms naturally swimming through her veins, it is no surprise that Raghavan has become a celebrated Bharatanatyam performer herself.
Her Bharatanatyam show, “Voices,” choreographed in partnership with her mother, Usha Raghavan, premiered in London last year and was received with resounding positivity. Now, New York City has the great fortune of bearing witness to Raghavan’s artistic mastery.
Brown Girl recently spoke to Raghavan about her passions, Bharatanatyam, “Voices” and her plans for the future.
1. Tell us a little about yourself and your background. How did you become involved with Bharatanatyam dancing?
Srinidhi: “My family has been rooted in the classical Indian arts for generations. My grandmothers were both trained in Carnatic music. While they themselves were sadly discouraged from performing professionally after they were married, my maternal grandmother focused on training her three daughters. That is how my mother, Usha Raghavan, and my aunt, Malathy Thothadri, first started learning Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam— art forms they fell in love with. In 1972, after years of rigorous training and performing, they started their own performing arts institute – Kalasagara in Chennai, which, to this date, has taught thousands of students in India and from across the globe. This was the foundation for my own passion.
I grew up immersed in dance and music. It surrounded me every day from morning to night as I watched my mother, as well as aunt and cousins, teach and perform, day in and day out. We moved a lot when I was young – I lived in several parts of Europe and India. So having a strong sense of ‘home’ was tough. This is where dance came into the picture.
My earliest memories are of me staring at my mother getting ready before a show. The memories are vivid. We would be backstage in a theater in Paris or Rome. It would be right before my bedtime. I was probably two or three years old, clutching my favorite blanket and watching my mom glamorously put on the finishing touches in her costume. I would hear the pre-announcements to the show, and my mother would swoop down and give me a hug and a kiss. I would crawl into a traveling crib or mattress in the corner of the dressing room while my mother tucked me in. The sounds of the bells on her feet would be one of the last things I heard as the music wafting through the backstage curtains lulled me into sleep. Dance was therefore a constant theme in my life. It grounded me – it was familiar, comfortable, a way of life.
As I grew up, however, it became more than that. My first on-stage debut was a small piece I performed in Milan when I was five years old in a show for Teatro Tascabile di Bergamo (TTB). It was a small five-minute solo piece, but I remember the feeling as if it were yesterday. I loved being on stage. That was the start of what would be a passion in my life going forward.
I had my arangetram (which literally means “ascending the stage” in Tamil and implies a sort of milestone after years of intense training) at the age of fourteen in Chennai. At that point, I was obsessed with this art form. The more I learned, the more I wanted to learn. The more I watched other dancers perform, the more I wanted to dance. I was thoroughly inspired. In the years that followed, I continued to perform in London, Paris and other parts of Europe both in solo and group shows, as well as throughout South India, including during the eminent December festival season in Chennai in age-old sabhas, such as Karthik Fine Arts, Indian Fine Arts, and Sri Parthasarathy Swami Sabha.”
(Sabhas are prestigious cultural organizations dedicated to recognizing and promoting talent in the Indian Classical arts from across the globe).
“When I moved to the States from London to go to Columbia University, I joined their South Asian dance team, Taal, which I then led in my junior and senior years. Not only did this team form the basis for some of my closest friendships and mentorships, but I also realized what ‘pushing boundaries’ and exploring the deeper meaning of art and fusion meant. I learned how to choreograph, explore music, and dance with my heart while promoting the art to a broader audience.
When I graduated, I teamed up with another dancer who I became close friends with through Taal – Sahasra Sambamoorthi (co-President, Navatman, Inc.). We choreographed, produced, and performed in Her Story, which then went on tour in ten cities in the US, the UK, and India between 2008 and 2009. This is when I realized the passion I had for creating original work – fleshing out a theme that was close to our hearts (in this case, the theme was the concept of ‘unconditional love’ and how that transcended generations), researching lyrics from ancient Indian texts, working with musicians on setting the score, choreographing as the music evolved, and making the art ‘accessible’ to a more modern audience while maintaining its traditional roots.
At this point, I would say that Bharatanatyam is fully a part of me and who I am. The art inspires me and helps me see the beauty in the world. It both provides me with perspective and helps create a vision for how I want to lead my life.”
2. For our readers who may not be aware, what distinguishes Bharatanatyam from other classical dance forms?
Srinidhi: “While there are several distinguishing features of Bharatanatyam, I would say that the two main ones are (1) how this dance form combines theater and expression with ‘pure dance’ and (2) how this art form is rooted in ancient and spiritual texts, and yet so relevant to us in this modern age.
With respect to my first point, it is important to note that ‘Bharatanatyam’ is a compound of two words – ‘Bharata’ and ‘Natyam.’ ‘Bharata’ stands for ‘Bhava,’ ‘Raga,’ and ‘Talam.’ ‘Bhava’ implies expression, ‘Raga’ means melody, and ‘Talam’ means rhythm. The word ‘Natyam’ means dance in Sanskrit. The harmonious combination these three elements of dance is what I love about Bharatanatyam. In this dance form, you see intricate rhythmic foot-work, intense (yet graceful) body movements and expressive storytelling all come together. It also allows me to reinterpret works that are centuries old, which brings me to my second point.
The foundations for Bharatanatyam can be found in the ancient Indian scripture on performing arts – the Natya Shastra, which is about 2,000 years old. For centuries this art was performed by Devadasis (temple dancers) within temples. It was then banned by the British during Colonial rule in the early 1900s. The dance was revived in the 20th century after Indian independence and the traditions were reintroduced outside temples. The art form has not only had a long and tumultuous history, but it is also codified very specifically. There is a lexicon that defines every possible pose, footwork, movement, look, and hand gesture. There are clearly defined parameters for how the art can be presented. And yet, there is so much scope for improvisation and interpretation. The more I dance, and the more I observe other dancers, the more I realize how much one can innovate. How the idea of such a prescriptive – almost scientific – code can allow for so much modernization amazes me. And that is what I love about this art.”
3. Dance related or otherwise, who are some of your inspirations or idols?
Srinidhi: “First, I would have to mention my mother and my aunt again. They are not just my gurus, but also trailblazers. I am inspired every time I think about how my mother has pushed boundaries and grown this art in Europe over the decades (her students span not just the UK but also Italy, France, Switzerland and parts of Eastern Europe and the U.S.) and how much my aunt has done for Bharatanatyam and Carnatic music since the 70s. I am lucky to have been born into this family.
But I would also say that I find inspiration in art everywhere. We just visited the beautiful city of Tanjore in South India and I was floored at the beauty of the thousand-year-old Brihadeeswara temple. That was inspiring. That said, I was also inspired by the Grand Canyon, as old as the earth itself. I was inspired by a song I heard at a small concert while on vacation in South India, but I am equally inspired at a jazz show in the Village in NYC. Whenever I see the work of nature or when I see someone else’s inspiration unfold in front of my own eyes, it pushes me to do my best work.”
4. Tell us about “Voices.” How was the idea for the show conceived?
Srinidhi: “‘Voices’ is an original production that I created under my mother’s artistic guidance.
In early 2016, I was talking to my mother about a pivotal moment in my life and how I made an important personal decision. I mentioned an “inner voice” – something like a conscience, but more so a constant whisper that gently nudged me into doing something that I later came to be immensely happy about. And that is what led to us talking about the notion of ‘Voices.’
The voices are everywhere. Sometimes, they are whispers and sometimes they are deafening cries. I was also most curious about the inner voice—the one that no one else can hear. The voice that cautions us, tries to protect us, but often misguides us, too. I wanted to explore stories where characters we often grew up hearing about from the Ramayana or Mahabharata heard these voices and how they reacted. The show explores these moments and what happened to our protagonists when they made a life-changing decision.
We then researched Sanskrit lyrics and their word by word meaning from Valmiki Ramayana as well as the Mahabharata, spoke to Sanskrit research scholars to double check the meaning and then worked with musicians to set the score for the two main pieces on Dasaratha and Kunti.”
5. Aside from the rehearsal of choreography and other visual semantics, what other preparation was undertaken with respect to executing your concept/vision for the show?
Srinidhi: “The whole show was a cross-continental effort. I was in New York City, and the musicians as well as my mother – the artistic director of the show – were based in London. Logistics were immensely difficult, especially as creative work needs time to flourish. I found that I had to establish a rigorous schedule. I woke up at 5:30 a.m. for daily weekday practices at 6 a.m.. I practiced until 7:30 a.m. before rushing to work. Late night logistics sessions (marketing, brochure write-ups, lighting and costume decisions) which often extended past midnight were physically exhausting but emotionally exhilarating nonetheless since I loved what I was working on.
I would also say that researching and scripting a show in a language like Sanskrit is extremely difficult. To be accurate in my understanding and interpretation and then explore the artistic boundaries of the stories meant immersing myself in the music and then improvising and trying new choreographies every day.
Lastly, since I was performing in London with live musicians, the music kept evolving. In Bharatanatyam, the dancer plays off the musicians and vice versa on stage. There is a lot of improvisation, though the dancer and musicians do not explicitly communicate with one another on stage. For us to pull this off sitting an ocean apart during the months leading up to the show, it required constant communication and the use of technology (thank you to Whatsapp, Skype and Google chat!) to make this happen seamlessly.”
6. What has public reception of “Voices” been like thus far?
Srinidhi: “I am humbled to say that the reception has been great so far! The review in Narthaki is probably the most comprehensive one that captures some of the effusive feedback I got from a sold out audience.”
7. After New York, where will you be taking the show next?
Srinidhi: “After my show on February 12th, 2017, at Dixon Place in New York City, my goal would be to perform across the United States. I also hope to perform in India this year.”
8. What has been the most memorable “Voices” moment on tour thus far?
Srinidhi: “For me, every time I have my first full orchestra rehearsal before a show, I am moved. The music has all come together, and the choreography feels ‘complete’ (it’s never really complete as there’s always room to modify and evolve). It’s an emotional moment, and that’s the first time I lose myself in the music and the emotion of it all.
I remember the first full orchestra rehearsal I had in London two days before my show. This was right after I flew in from New York City. I was so jetlagged, but I could feel the music carry me through the next four hours of rehearsal. It was so wonderful.”
9. How would you like to see Bharatanatyam evolve, either with respect to performance or perception, if at all?
Srinidhi: “I would like to see the perception of Bharatanatyam evolve in the United States. I grew up in Europe where I saw Indian dance take more of a mainstream position in the arts field over the decades. In the United States, I feel like people are still getting to know the art in pockets, and it is finally becoming more popular. I would love for this trend to continue as folks learn more about the art and the rigor, precision, and innovative thinking behind each production.”
10. Do you have any other projects in the pipeline?
Srinidhi: “Yes – I am currently working on a video series with Navatman, Inc. We are in the process of conceptualizing, choreographing and producing work that speaks to socially relevant issues in the United States. Stay tuned, as we will bring that to you very soon!
Separately, I am working on several other solo productions, which I hope to premiere in the United States later in 2017.”
“Voices,” premieres in New York on Saturday, February 12 at Dixon Place. The show is clearly the culmination of generations of talent from a family that has shared the beauty of the dancing art committedly throughout the world. We can’t wait to share our experience attending the show next month. Hope to see all of our New York readers there! Get your tickets here. See below for a full biography on the abundantly talented Srinidhi Raghavan.
Srinidhi Raghavan started learning Bharatanatyam at the tender age of five from her mother and guru, Usha Raghavan, and from guru Malathy Thothadri.
Since her arangetram in Chennai in 1998, her experiences with dance have spanned several cultures and countries, including those of the United Kingdom, Switzerland, France, Italy, Liechtenstein, Barbados, Canada, the United States and of course India, during the prestigious December festival in Chennai. Such exposure has in turn added an eclectic element to her delivery which, when combined with her traditional style, results in a unique reflection of elegance and experience.
Throughout her four years at Columbia University in New York, Srinidhi pursued her interest in dance by participating in and leading the South Asian dance troupe at Columbia, Taal. As president of Taal, Srinidhi successfully led an intercollegiate dance showcase and fundraiser in New York involving universities from across the United States.
In 2008, Srinidhi, along with Sahasra Sambamoorthi, Co-President of Navatman, Inc., choreographed and presented a dance duet, ‘Her Story,’ on the theme of a woman’s unconditional love at the prestigious Peter Norton Symphony Space: Leonard Nimoy Thalia Theater in Manhattan. Not only did the world premiere in Manhattan sell out two weeks prior to opening, but the duo then embarked on a global tour and performed in nine cities in 2009 – Newark, Baltimore, Washington D.C, Boston, Chicago, Ottawa, Manchester, London, and Chennai.
Srinidhi continues to perform in New York and London in several solo and group shows, often presenting works that are her own choreography. Her most recent work titled ‘Voices’ premiered in London in September 2016 to a packed audience at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in West Kensington. This thematic Bharatanatyam solo is an original work that explores the impact of society on an individual’s decision-making process by highlighting stories from ancient Hindu texts. ‘Voices’ will premiere in New York on Feb.12, 2017 at Dixon Place.
January 16, 2023January 16, 2023 6min readBy Sejal Sehmi
I was a mere 14-year old on the fateful night of 22 April 1993. The night that witnessed black teenager Stephen Lawrence brutally murdered in a racially motivated attack as he waited for a bus. The night that cemented my fear, that the colour of my skin does matter. The same night that confirmed my indifference as a British Asian in the United Kingdom — were we really united? Fast forward to May 25 2020, the murder of African-American George Floyd by a white policeman was the turning point for British Asian author and my lovely friend, Shweta Aggarwal to finally break her silence and narrate her story of colourism, in her new book, “The Black Rose.”
Aggarwal’s gripping memoir emits so many emotions; that of an awakening, a voice that has been suppressed for years, filled with anger, mistrust and guilt. But most importantly, “The Black Rose” successfully disrupts the narrative that consistently allows society to box someone as indifferent based on a visibility factor. For Shweta, this factor was the colour of her skin. The injustices she consistently endured via some family members and fellow South Asian peers throughout her life, was as a result of her skin tone failing to qualify as ‘acceptable’, or as she often quotes in her book, not ranking high enough on the ‘fairometer.’ Whether she was in India, Japan or London, the scale was never too far behind.
Within the first chapter, she recalls as a child in India, the distinct lack of subtlety displayed by certain family members through direct taunts of her duskier appearance in comparison to her parents. She realised that she wasn’t in complete isolation from this prejudice, as her maternal aunt and uncle were also harshly nicknamed on the basis of their skin colour — Kaali (black) and Savla (wheatish). Aggarwal was left mortified by what many South Asians sadly still continue to casually exercise. Echoing similar incidents within my social proximity, it’s infuriating witnessing the recipients of such remarks surrender to laughing at themselves too.
Except it isn’t funny. Born into a culture where conversations on religion, caste and hierarchy in India are still so prominent, the comparison of Aggarwal’s skin colour being as dark as that of the domestic help (often from poorer families), prematurely planted seeds in her mind that she simply didn’t belong with her family, especially when she was sent to boarding school. Her lack of self-worth coupled with these taunts, gave her a whole new vocabulary for the letter B, that grew in parallel with the ongoing prejudice and anxiety. B for blackie, beggar’s child, bedwetter! Not funny, but derogatory. Post her book launch that Brown Girl Magazine attended, she tells me,
I personally feel we are way behind when it comes to understanding the importance of mental health. Name-calling was normalised and if you objected, you were ridiculed further with remarks such as ‘So sensitive! Can’t you take a joke?’ Body and colour shaming can lead to a feeling of inadequacy in the victim, which can further lead to depression and much worse mental illnesses.
During the 1984 Hindu Sikh riots in India, where over 3000 Sikhs lost their lives, Aggarwal recollects the frightening moment when she and her classmates fled into hiding to escape the violence during a school trip. As a means to save all the students from harm, the Sikh boys were forced to remove their turbans and long hair — their visible identities stripped to keep them alive. Yet, ironically, even in this horrifying situation, Aggarwal felt least at risk, attributing this self-assurance to her darker appearance.
The crux of her self-loathe was the love-hate relationship she formed with skin whitening creams. The birth of Fair and Lovely, India’s most renown brand (now known as Glow and Lovely following a backlash) was notorious for selling the damaging message that fairer skin equated to a happier and fulfilling life. For it was fairer skin women that would qualify for marriage — clearly their only sole purpose!
Tactfully using famous fair-skinned Bollywood actresses in television ads and posters, their so-called perfection would scream out to vulnerable young girls. (Men were targeted much later on, but the importance seemed less). Akin to the wretched beach body posters plastered on every corner in January — because apparently bikinis only look good on a certain body type — the damaging message remains the same. Social acceptance comes at a cost, and that cost is to look a certain way.
It’s an extension of the dated methods imposed on women from the womb, where mothers are lectured on drinking milk with saffron to ensure the baby is fair, traditional matrimonial sites asking women to specify skin colour, and women being told to stay out of the sun. These socially ingrained views are eventually developed into modern day methods in the form of cleverly marketed consumables. Aggarwal admits,
Most people only use the cream on their face just as I did. At that time, I didn’t even think about the rest of the body. I felt that if the face becomes fairer, that will be enough for acceptance. My mum noticed the difference for sure and I was lighter by the time I met my husband, Amit. I must admit the addiction is a combination of three factors: the justification in your own head, the strong marketing message that ONLY fair is beautiful, and the ‘compliments’ from those around you.
I admired Shweta’s honesty on admitting what essentially was a dangerous obsession that she remained faithful to throughout her teenage and adult life. A ritual that, whilst prompted gradual results in her appearance, was never going to eliminate the insecurities she felt within herself. Moments of joy with her husband and children on holidays abroad, would be broken up by the need to ‘fix’ any damage the sun may have inflicted i.e. reverse her tan. The booming tanning industry in U.K., her now home, and admiration of her ‘sun-kissed’ look by Brits initially surprised Aggarwal — as if her colour had now gained acceptance.
But who are we seeking acceptance from? A society that is still deep rooted in patriarchy forcing women even now to adhere to dated rites of passage that holds no relevance? Or a society that seeks to point out one’s indifference because of how they look — their skin, their religious attire, their weight? Or a society that passes judgement on a woman’s self-worth, and continues to abuse that same woman behind closed doors under the eyes of Goddess Kali? Aggarwarl goes on to explain,
The more damaging perceptions of colourism, are that ‘fair is rich’, ‘fair is successful’ and ‘fair is better educated’. Essentially, ‘fair is supreme’ in every sense. And if that’s the case, where does that leave dark-skinned people? In Ukraine, for example black and brown people were discriminated against and not given a fair chance to save their lives. Is it fair to be denied a basic human right — survival — based on your colour?
I personally was curious to know from my family what the definition of prejudice in the Hindi vocabulary is and how it is/was applied to in India. “Pakshappat” (taking sides) or “poorva dhaarna”, were the closest pure Hindi definitions known to my cousin, yet rarely used. However, my dad stated that “hum bedh bhau nahin hai” was the common term used to state amongst family and friends when someone was not biased and believed in equality. Somehow, colourism never really came under that category. A sentiment echoed by some of my Chinese and black friends . Even in parts of China and Africa, the belief that darker skin is perceived as inferior, is accredited to stereotyping certain groups of people as manual labourers working under the sun, and therefore of a lower class or caste. Does Shweta believe we can change this attitude?
A couple of my aunts are still reluctant to help me with my mission. One even said ‘it’s pointless fighting it’, while one said, ‘everyone has the right to define beauty for themselves and being fairer is what beauty is for some.’ The problem with this is that people then start to look down on people who aren’t. Colourism, casteism and classism divide people, creating more unrest in society. If we continue to aspire to be fairer, we’re still encouraging white skin privilege, and encouraging colonial values. The more we allow ourselves to succumb to these social constructs, the more enslaved we feel internally. Melanin is crucial for protecting our skin against the harmful radiation of the sun. Feel blessed that you have it and wear it with pride!
I wonder how we can dare to walk shoulder to shoulder with our black friends in the Black Lives Matter movement, if we refuse to face up to our own biases against colour? We seek equality in the U.K., but deny our deep-rooted prejudice, whilst a white privileged man lectures the world on the difference between racism and unconscious bias (yes Prince Harry, I’m looking at you!). “The Black Rose” has paved a way for many more voices to speak out against the damaging impact of colourism, and in my view, rightly belongs under the definition of prejudice in the collective South Asian vocabulary.
“The Black Rose” is available to purchase on Amazon.
Featured Photo Credit Kevita Junior | Left to Right: Tu hiya ka kare he, Tu kaha bate, Tu hamar ke bate
Thundering waves clawed on the body of the vessel as the sea swallowed the voices of terrified passengers. They clung to the shreds of the Eagle Speed as each hour submerged the ship deeper within the kala pani (dark waters). Steamer ships were sent for rescue, finding two children alone, clenching to the remains of the mast. The unscathed captain and crew fled in boats, leaving the lives of coolies (indentured laborers) to the fate of the dark waters. TheEagle Speed set sail on August 19th, 1865 from Calcutta to Demerara. This tragedy took the lives of over 300 hundred indentured laborers. The coolies onboard were not just casualties of the kala pani, but a larger system of British colonialism.
The crossing of these tumultuous seas wasforbidden for Hindus, as it meant the severance of reincarnation and the unraveling of caste. Yet more than 2 million Indians were taken across the kala pani. The forbidden water carried stories along its transatlantic waves, bearing witness to history lost against its tides. The restraints of caste drowned along the voyages as surnames and relations were cast across the seas. They became Singhs (lions) and Maharaj’s (great kings), Brahmins by boatinstead of birth.
These indentured workers were mainly taken from regions of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh to different corners of the globe, with some of the largest to the Caribbean. Guyana experienced around238,909 workers, Trinidad 143,939 and Suriname 34,304. With 399 Indians, the Lalla Rookh docked on June 5, 1873, at Nieuw Amsterdam in Suriname, later becoming known as the coolie depot. As workers poured out of ships and onto plantations, they experienced violence and oppression at alarming rates, especially against women.
They were nameless and barefooted with gold jhumkas and bangles adorning their bodies. As tourism increased in the Caribbean’s, photographing indentured women on postcards became part of its selling point. These women became subjects to appease the white colonizer gaze and fetishized exotic ‘Coolie belles.’ A bulk of these postcards were shot in Trinidad and sold in local shops to visiting tourists. Yet these postcards failed to translate the hierarchy of power between the photographed and those behind the camera. The white European men who carried out these photoshoots chose backdrops that masked the real conditions of sugar cane fields and living quarters. Who were these women? What were their names? The women were juxtaposed with the term ‘Coolie,’ a slur for laborer and ‘Belle,’ the French word for beautiful. They were coined as laborers of beauty, yet their eyes tell a story of fear of pain.
Tu hamár ke bate? (Who are you to me?) Tu hiyá ká kare he? (What are you doing here?) Tu kahá báte? (Where are you?) Artist Nazrina Rodjan posits these questions that rummage through the minds of many Indo Caribbean descendants. Who were my ancestors? What did they experience? Rodjan aims to explore the experiences of indentured women through her oil painting series “Kala Pani.” In this series, she reimagines the postcards of indentured women alike the depictions of European nobility. In conversation with Rodjan she mentions,
I’ve thought long and hard about whether it would be ethical to reproduce these staged images of women who might have felt scared and uncomfortable being brought into these studios to be photographed by men. I will never know their true experiences and how they might have felt knowing a stranger in the future will decide to paint them in the same positions they were put in for the original photograph.
Rodjan’s art series started as a way to commemorate 150 years since the first indentured workers arrived in Suriname and expanded to include regions like Guyana, Trinidad and Jamaica.
Wanting to reclaim these images comes from feelings of injustice whenever I see these postcards. They were made from a dehumanizing perspective. Reclaiming these images becomes necessary knowing how the violence Indo-Caribbean women still face today is just a continuation of the violence brought onto indentured Indian women then. To me, creating this piece, symbolized the acceptance of questions remaining unanswered, stories being lost forever, and realizing that after a history full of trauma, there’s a treasure in the women that are still here to tell their stories.
The ratio of men to women arriving on these ships left little to no autonomy for women. Experiences of violence on ships and plantations were common throughout the Caribbean. Despite this, indentured women became trailblazers and pioneers in uprisings against poor working conditions.
Everything about these women seems to be a question we can never answer, but I decided to give them titles in Hindustani that are questions they might have for me as the painter who looks at them and sees both a stranger and a loved one. Tu hamár ke báte? Who are you to me?
Living in the Netherlands, Rodjan talks about her experiences tracing her ancestry and honoring this history:
Unfortunately, in the Netherlands learning about the history of Dutch colonization only meant memorizing all the different spices they brought in and listening to teachers talking proudly about the Dutch East India Company in elementary school. Tracing back my ancestors has so far only led to a picture of my parnani and a few more names in the family tree.
OnMay 5, 1838, Anat Ram stepped foot on the rich grounds of Berbice, becoming the first Indian laborer in Guyana. The Whitby and Hesperus departed from Calcutta on January 13 and arrived in Berbice first then West Demerara. Over the course of 79 years, approximately259 ships voyaged from India to Guyana. While the experiences of these ancestors may remain unknown, artists like Suchitra Mattai aims to revitalize the voices of our indentured ancestors.
Suchitra Mattai is an Indo Guyanese multi-disciplinary artist. Through her work, she uses the experience of her family’s migration and the history of indentureship to rewrite and expand our notions of history. In her piece, Life-line, a rope of saris pours out of a tilted boat, mirroring the experiences of her ancestor’s journey across the transatlantic. The saris serve as both water and a connection to two lands, India and Guyana. Mattai further explores indentureship in the piece “Coolie Woman,” depicting a woman seated with a sari, embellished with jewelry and flowers.
I wanted to reimagine the photo to give her agency. I also wanted to address the desire for people of the diaspora to connect to their homelands and ancestral pasts. The painted wallpaper drips and fades to parallel the way my memory of Guyana ebbs and flows, Mattai says.
Anchoring at the Port of Spain on April 22, 1917, the last ship to ever carry indentured Indians made its final stop. A system that bound Indians to an unknown land finally ended after 79 years.
To invoke conversation and pay homage to their memory, artist Gabrielle Francis creatively analyzes indentureship. Gabrielle Francis is an Indo Trinidadian queer interdisciplinary artist, writer and organizer from Queens, New York. In her piece “206:21 Queer Altar Mixed Media Performance,” Francis pays homage to her indentured ancestors with a focus on queer identities. The title 206:21 reflects the ratio of men to women that journeyed on the Fatel Razack, the first ship from India to Trinidad. A mirror is decorated with the colors of Trinidad’s flag along with six candles embodying the pride flag and vibrant red carnations. Written across the mirror is, “I wonder how many of you were queer?” A question that allows for openness and conversation around potential queer ancestors. Written records around indentureship were translated and produced by European men, leaving little to no room for women or queer folks. Francis’s work aims to transform and challenge Eurocentric narratives surrounding indentured history.
As descendants of indentureship, it becomes difficult to sit with questions that may never have answers. Visiting National Archives or exploringdigital databases can help connect descendants to learn about their own history. As we unravel difficult experiences of the past it’s important to ask, how do we carry the legacies of our ancestors? How do we honor their sacrifices?
As they were stripped of their identities and reduced to passenger numbers, they fostered new relations—jahaji bhai and jahaji bhain (ship brother and sister). From shipmates to family, to present-day melodies of chutney music to the stew of pepper pot on Christmas morning, these bonds of community have evolved and are seen across the diaspora today.