Indian Arrival Day, which is celebrated on May 30 every year, commemorates the arrival of the first Indian indentured labourers from India to Trinidad, in 1845, on the ship Fatel Razack. Indian immigration to Trinidad ended in 1917 with the arrival of the last two ships, the SS Ganges and SS Mutlah. During the period, 1845-1917, over 150,000 Indians were transported to the island. When the Fatel Razack sailed into the Gulf of Paria in 1845, it brought not only a new labour force but also a new culture, as the Indians brought with them their religion, food, dress, language, plants, dance, music and, of course, the instruments to create and complement their renditions.
The journey was long and arduous and when they arrived the living conditions were deplorable; they were subjected to physical abuse, poor diet and a hostile un-trusting society. Nevertheless, these adverse conditions allowed them to form a unique bond and structure within their community that enabled them to survive, pro-gress and prosper. One key aspect of this bond was the music and instruments of their motherland. The musical instruments of ancient India were both varied and mystical in number and in the sounds that they produced. India is the inheritor of one of the most ancient and evolved music systems in the world.
In the Natya Shastra, complied by Bharat Muni dated 200 BC-200 AD, the musical instruments of India have been divided into four main categories on the basis of how sound is produced. Firstly, there is the tata vadya or chordophones or stringed instruments such as the sitar and vina. Then there is the sushira vadya or aerophones or wind instruments such as the bansuri (flute) and harmonium. Thirdly, there is the avanaddha vadya or membranophones or percussion instruments such as the tabla and dholak. Lastly, there is the ghana vadya or idiophones or solid instruments that do not require tuning such as the manjeera and jhal. We in Trinidad are in turn the inheritors of these musical systems and instruments from India. Music, therefore, was and still is a fundamental part of the Indian way of life.
Our ancestors brought their musical instruments with them when they migrated to Trinidad and most of these instruments were both unknown and unheard of in the Caribbean region. Some of the more popular instruments that came included the tassa, tabla, dholak, manjeera, bansuri, sitar and harmonium. Music was a constant companion for our ancestors. Music heightened the joy of their happy moments and lessened the burden of heaviness that came with the sad times. Life on the estate was severe with nine hours of work in the field for 25 cents a day, six days a week. Thus, at the end of the week they would assemble for an eve-ning of singing and dancing. In the gentle lull of the late evening, one would hear the soothing sounds of the dholak, harmonium and dhantal as they wafted through the village.
It is interesting to note the origin of the dhantal. The dhantal is a long steel rod that was adapted from the axle used to connect the yokes of the bullocks that transported the cane-filled carts on the estates. The metal horseshoe used on the estate's horses and mules was used to strike the dhantal. The dhantal is closely related to the early indentured-worker instrument called the "dandatal," which was a wooden stick and had a rectangular shaped striker. The word "dana" means stick and "taal" means rhythm. In this way, indentured labourers created the dhantal as a new instrument for providing rhythm. Thus, the innovation of our ancestors to adapt to their environment and circumstances can be seen in the dhantal. The tassa, which is made from the trunk of the mango tree and covered with goatskin, is another popular instrument. At weddings and at Ramleela celebrations, the sounds of the tassa and the jhal resonate throughout the village adding rhythm and tempo to the joyous occasion.
At religious ceremonies such as Ramayan and Satsanghs the flute or bansuri and harmonium are two instruments used to create the mystical and spiritual vibrations required for such occasions. The bansuri is revered as Lord Krishna's divine instrument, and is often associated with "Krishna's Leela." The word bansuri originates in the Sanskrit bans (bamboo) and swar (musical note). The bansuri is made from a single hollow shaft of bamboo with six or seven finger holes. In the early days of indentureship, the bansuri was sometimes made from cane stalks as well. Even following the death of a person, depending on what part of India you came, singing and music would give comfort to relatives and friends. As such, when our ancestors came to Trinidad 166 years ago, music and the instruments provided mental, emotional and psychological sustenance in the time of oppression and depression.
Satnarayan Maharaj is the
secretary general of the
Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha