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Audience touched by Sundar Popo story

Published: 
Saturday, June 14, 2014
Sundar Popo played by Shabir Mohammed, right, beats the table and sings as he drinks with his friends during the play Sundar by Iere Theatre Productions Ltd at Sapa on May 30. PHOTO: RISHI RAGOONATH

The last three decades of the life of Sundar Popo as encapsulated by story teller Victor Edwards, was touching for many in the audience at the gala opening of the play Sundar on Indian Arrival Day. The poignant story of Sundar’s love for two women, his struggle to make his mark on the music scene with an untested style and his battle with the bottle (rum) which eventually caused his death in 2000, evoked all kinds of emotion from the audience. Judging from the response, artistic director and playwright Victor Edwards would have fulfilled his quest to create art from the life of an icon and started a conversation about the influence that chutney music would have had on the cultural landscape of not only T&T, but the wider region. 

 

The impact would not have been lost on Attorney General Anand Ramlogan, who would have seen the production and Housing minister Dr Roodal Moonilal. Both expressed an interest in having their respective ministries sponsor a number of repeat shows depicting the dramatic saga of Popo’s life. Kenny Phillip of KMP Studios, who filmed the three-hour long Iere Theatre Productions Ltd play, which was held at the Sundarlal Popo Bahora Auditorium, named after the legend at the Southern Academy for the Performing Arts (Sapa), is also exploring opportunities with an international distributor to distribute the DVDs in countries where Sundar would have performed. In the compelling account of the period 1970 to 2000, story teller Edwards explored Popo’s rise to local and international fame, with his evergreen Nani and Nana hit, which seemed at first outrageous to his rum drinking peers—Choonilal, Moonia, Noor and Ramdeo—as women previously claimed domination of this brand of chutney. 

 

Using simple language to speak to the ordinary citizens, Edwards conveyed the pride this “Coolie boy” from Barrackpore felt, when he was invited by a university in the great America, to lecture about the chutney genre. This was one of the more moving scenes in the play, when an ailing Popo, played by Shabir Mohammed, who blew away audiences with his powerful voice, reluctantly leave for the airport in spite of a sorrowful plea, in song, from his second wife Suraji. Suraji portrayed by Reanna Edwards, a music teacher at Naparima Girls’ High School, begged him to forego the journey out of fear that she will never see him alive again. In life, Popo made the journey to York University to share for the last time, in his own words, the powerful chutney story. He died shortly after his return. The show, set against the backdrop of a Hindu wedding, could have easily been dubbed Sundar The Musical, as two live bands ably aided by singers Kimberly Jones, Joseph Lopez and Omare Asson performed songs to coincide with social, political and cultural events  interwoven in the story line. 

 

Situations like the Black Power uprising, the sugar workers march, the wedding of Sundar and Suraji, the pelting of Chutney/Soca exponent Sonny Mann when he dared to legally challenge his exclusion from the Soca Monarch competition and paid the price of ridicule when he was given the opportunity. The similarity of the lead actor and his voice to that of the real Sundar was not lost on the audience. The singers shared the stage with local celebrities Black Stalin, who surprised the audience when he came from within the auditorium performing his classic Tribute to Sundar which won him the Calypso Monarch competition in 1995, Rikki Jai, a benefactor of the chutney genre and Drupatee Ramgoonai who was originally one of Popo’s back up singers. 
For Edwards, it was his first full length play in 19 years and the response has given him the impetus to continue to create this kind of heritage and cultural theatre.