Editorial - Volume 4 Numbers 1 & 2    March 2008

Memory and Experience: 170 years On

Following Emancipation in 1834 across the British West Indies and a period of Apprenticeship to 1838, Indian indentured workers were recruited, during the next four decades, as a controllable labour force for the sugar plantations with the largest numbers introduced into Guiana and Trinidad. The cultural assimilation of the Indian into the creole reality that greeted him did not materialize as the psychic and spiritual dimensions of identity persisted. India was a force in his consciousness, however modified by distance and time. Succeeding generations of Indians in the Caribbean have forged an identity based on the ancestral cultural matrix, an old identity made new by displacement: a paradoxical state of change and continuity.

This moment of our history, the 170th year since Indians have lived and toiled on these lands, seems a good time to examine the dynamics of Indian Caribbean existence through their artistic expressions evidenced in several cultural forms.

This commemorative issue of The Arts Journal comes on the back of Volume 3 Numbers 1 & 2 (March 2007) which is devoted to new perspectives on the Abolition of the Trade in Captive Africans and the dismantling of an infamous colonial institution on its 200th anniversary. Volume 3 was greeted as an important addition to the historiography on Caribbean people of African ancestry.

Volume 4 Numbers 1 & 2 offers fresh critical perspectives on writers and artists who reinterpret the Indentureship experience, the transition of a people trapped between two worlds while trying to make sense of the new Caribbean space and their place in it, among them, artists whose works are little known and generally unacknowledged.

Brinsley Samaroo's instructive essay on Seepersad Naipaul (1906-1953) opens the collection of papers with an examination of the seminal influence of this writer upon imaginative prose writing in the Caribbean, the foremost heir to which was his son Vidyadhar (b. 1935). In A Writer's People, Sir V.S. Naipaul says of Gurudeva and other Indian Tales (1943): “My father's stories peopled that countryside for me and gave me a very real kind of knowledge” (p. 43). Samaroo examines the life and work of Seepersad Naipaul in three sections: (i) Style (ii) as Social Advocate through his Journalisms (iii) as Novelist and Poet, and argues that the writer “interpreted a landscape which had previously been indiscernible to the Western ways of seeing which predominated in the society.”

Through eight inter-related “slides” entitled “Indian Episodes for Arrival Day”, each one illustrating a particular aspect of Indian Caribbean experience, Professor Kenneth Ramchand traces facets of Indian immigrant experience and the process of transformation. Covering a period of one hundred and fifty years, the episodes are arranged to form a tableau of people of Indian origin in the process of re-making themselves and contributing to the making of Trinidad and Tobago.

An illuminating interview of London-based writer Janice Lowe Shinebourne by Anne-Marie Lee-Loy underlines some of the tensions out of which art is made and highlights two dominant factors that add to the complexity of Indian Caribbean existence and human relationships: race and class. Shinebourne's reflection of such tensions is best articulated in her second novel, The Last English Plantation.  Professor Clem Seecharan, in “Amnesia and Myth: Framing the Past” suggests that for the vast majority of Indians in the Caribbean, India remains, in the words of V.S. Naipaul, “an area of darkness” – the general absence of a sense of history among them. Seecharan contends: “fact and fantasy are interwoven in Indo-Caribbean memory . . . Such vague notions of the past that I did collect, had their roots in the Ramayana, the great classic of Hinduism . . .” He argues that Indians prefer to construct a different kind of India that consists of heroic images and great epic images of exile (for instance, Lord Rama in exile in the Danak forest) and triumphal return. It is the closest most Hindus come to a sense of their past. On the plantations and in the villages of Guyana, Suriname and Trinidad, the Ram Lila, the dramatization of the Ramayana, is central to the reproduction of popular Hindu culture in which myth, or what Seecharan calls “fantasy”, is at the core of the seminal construction of Indo-Caribbean identity. Seecharan's argument that “amnesia and fantasy are imperatives in the re-moulding of a new persona in the new land” should open the way for further discussion.
This notion of the lack of a sense of a continuous history, or of a strong sense of self or of possibilities of a common future for Caribbean post-colonial societies has been explored in a lecture by Bhoendradatt Tewarie entitled “V.S. Naipaul as Critical Thinker”, delivered to a recent conference to honour Naipaul and reproduced here. Tewarie argues that Naipaul, in his first four novels, had already stressed that “such communities, consisting as they did of transplanted peoples, would find it difficult to create a society that coheres or build the capacity required to make genuine development and lasting achievement possible”. Considering the critical state of Caribbean societies almost fifty years after Independence, one is persuaded to read Tewarie's article seriously.

In a stirring and lively Tribute to his father delivered at the University of Warwick Conference on (East) Indians (June, 2008), Royston Heath speaks of Roy A. K. Heath as a father and husband. The little-known and self-effacing writer who passed away in May this year, has gifted the world nine novels that speak uncompromisingly to his native Guyana – in particular, two works, One Generation and The Shadow Bride, that reveal the writer's close contact with Indians in the society and his keen interest in the dynamics of Indian immigrant experience.

The Art section of this issue opens with a Profile of Rip Persaud (1928-2006), a Guyanese artist turned attorney-at-law who, with his wife, Mavis, were members of the first “Guianese Art Group” founded in 1944, and led by water colourist/magistrate Guy Sharples (1906-1956). This group preceded the Working People's Art Class (1945-1956) founded by E.R. Burrowes. This editor was startled when she noticed the Women Stonebreakers hanging on a wall of the Persaud's family home in 2004 and this began a series of conversations with Rip and Mavis that led to the discovery of other valuable pieces of art by this all but forgotten artist, pieces that spoke to us about the social context and the artistic sensibility of a seminal period in Guyana's history. We make the case that such artists and their works need to be written back into the “mainstream” canon and we hope, through this publication, to continue that task.

An examination of the work of Trinidadian artist, Shastri Maharaj in “History, Myth and Beyond” by Bernadette Persaud, Art Editor of The Arts Journal, is pertinent to the thrust of this issue. Maharaj's quest to understand the colonial and post-colonial landscape and his place in it inevitably led him to a quest for an ancestral cultural landscape and the discovery of an ancestral/authentic self. In his voyage of discovery, Maharaj comes to understand life and the nature of the cosmos through the prism of the religion in which he was nurtured.   Persaud goes on to initiate an historical discussion of the negativity towards the religious icons of Hindus in Guyana (and perhaps the region) and the struggle of the Indian artist to preserve his devalued cultural forms. There has, hitherto, been no serious examination of traditional icons in Guyana while the artists have remained neglected and practically unknown to the wider society. Persaud provides an accompanying photographic gallery that richly documents and critically challenges conventional notions of art. This stream of creative expression by which Indians understand and interpret reality and their spiritual identity has gone unacknowledged and even ridiculed.

Muslim Indians have remained virtually invisible in the society, their experience little known, little understood and unexamined. Two articles in this issue comprise a segment that fills the gap and breaks new ground. An historical overview of the progress of Muslims in the colony since 1838 by B.H. Khanam and R.S. Chickrie presents a more nuanced research into Muslim Indian experience in Guyana. An interview with prominent Guyanese Muslim, Ayube Hamid Khan, by this editor and Pat Dial helps to illuminate the condition of arrival and survival of the New World Muslim.   This issue pays homage to a Guyanese pioneer of imaginative prose writing, Sheik Sadeek, by reproducing a chapter of his 1957 Prize-winning novel, Song of the Sugar Canes, a novel that celebrates and, at the same time, critiques the bruising underside of peasant Indian experience. It is among three pieces of creative writing featured, one by London-based acclaimed writer, Jan Shinebourne, on the condition of exile and the other by this editor which attempts to capture the subjective experience of the migrant Muslim. A critique of the film Guiana, 1838 by Basdeo Mangru and a number of reviews of books by and about Indians cap the issue.

We hope that this collection of scholarly papers would help to further the historiography of Indians in Guyana and the Caribbean and point directions for further research into Indian experience. We hope, too, it would help to foster a better sense of cultural certainty with less mimicry and dependence on neo-colonial forms of art and culture.

Readers should feel free to enter into correspondence with the editor on any essay appearing in the Journal or other aspect of The Arts Journal or the work of The Arts Forum Inc.

We hope you find this issue useful and provocative.

Ameena Gafoor