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A blind spot in our history: To Bhojpuri singer, world should know of indentured labour

Vidya Bhushan Rawat*
speak to Raj Mohan, lyricist, singer and musician in Sarnami Bhojpuri:
***
Rootlessness is a serious crisis of the current generation as most enjoy the gated life styles surrounded by ‘gazettes and ‘connectivity’ where any guest is unwelcome and you are lost in the virtual world without ever caring or even thinking of your neighbours or near dear ones. The dependency on the virtual world and race for ‘successes and ‘fame’ has made our youths look soulless who do not enjoy being ‘surprised’ and even while travelling to a peaceful region they would still want ‘connectivity’ and link to the virtual world. And these aspiring to live in the virtual world are basically those who enjoy the privileges of their ‘families; and ‘identity’.
History is a powerful tool. It may deny you identity and fill you with a deep sense of ‘pride’ in your ancestors. The history of colonial rule in India has been interpreted by ‘experts’ through different perspectives. There are different schools of ‘thoughts’ but mostly dominated by the upper caste elite whether on the left, right or centrist side of the political spectrum. Most of them fought for their space and claimed others were not doing enough to fight against colonial rule.
Many felt the history of India was synonymous with the Congress party and Gandhi while many others felt that the left radicals were left out. The Hindutva ‘historians’ are now trying to push their ‘heroes’ into our ‘freedom movement’. There is definitely a Muslim side as well as that of the Depressed classes or untouchables as defined and represented by Dr Baba Saheb Ambedkar. For many, the colonial powers looted everything while a number of others felt that British rule in India helped the marginalised to get education and focus on rule of law.
Unfortunately, one thing that got missed during the entire debate of ‘good colonial raj verses bad colonial raj’, was the issue of indentured labours which the colonial power recruited for their sugarcane plantations in various colonies in different parts of the world, from India in the aftermath of ‘official’ ‘abolition’ of slavery. Actually, indentured labour was a new form of slavery as the colonial powers still wanted cheap labour who could do the defined work without any complain against exploitation.
False promises were made for a ‘wonderful’ life to those who were exploited back home due to the prevailing oppressive caste system. Any person who has seen the horror of the caste system would vouch that any alien land was preferable to people for a dignified and honourable life. Historians and social scientists actually ignored the whole issue. Even the political class did not speak about it. For me, the first time I heard the tales of horror of this was in the folk festival ‘Lok Rang’ organised every year at a village near Fazil Nagar in district Kushinagar, located in eastern part of Uttar Pradesh.
The feeling of the lost identity was realised by me when I heard a Sarnami song “Saat Samandar paar lejaaike, gathari me baandh ke aasha” at the Lok Rang festival. At the stage was Raj Mohan whose gentle soft voice was coming straight forward from his heart and it impacted me immensely. And next day, I decided to find out what was ‘Sarnami’ and why are these ‘NRIs’ clinging to traditionalism. That time, I ignorantly did not realise the difference between ‘people of Indian origin’ and elite ‘NRIs’, a majority of who are supporting and promoting hard core Brahmanism. 
 When I saw Raj Mohan practicing on his guitar and so passionately singing Bhojpuri songs, I decided to seek his interview. I realised that he is not merely a musician or performer but also has ‘history’ on his side. I was more than curious to know how he and his community maintained the relationship with Indian culture. It was only after I heard a lot of the issue of indentured labourers that I decided to do some more research on it and my work on caste and race issue came handy to understand the issue.
Raj Mohan is the fourth-generation person of an indentured family that left India under the ‘contract’ which is termed as ‘girmitya’ for an unknown land from Kolkata. His maternal ancestors left India in 1894 from village Mangalpore of district Saran in Bihar while his paternal ancestors left India in 1908 from village Sarnagi in district Basti, Uttar Pradesh. So unlike today's NRIs, a majority of indentured workers did not know where exactly they were leaving and that was not a digital age. They were told that they will be going to the land of Shri Ram, which was perhaps a coded name for Surinam so that the people going there feel ‘comfortable’ and at home.
The work conditions were terrible and after several years people accepted their fate and tried to protect their identity through keeping their ‘cultural practices and traditions intact. Unfortunately, some of us jump on judgement very fast without understanding their issues. So we are quick to term them ‘conservatives’ or ‘superstitious’ or ‘Hindutva begot’, when people of Indian origin from Mauritius, Suriname, or other nations of Caribbeans who participated in the Lok Rang festivals, were singing their traditional songs or feeling proud to have linked to their ‘Hindu Land’. We take identity and ‘democracy’ for granted and that is why Nehru is the most critiqued person in India.
The question of identity for those who lost it or even denied their own history, become more critical. Think about families who had no link with their ancestors in India and had only one way to protect their identities through culture, bhajans and songs. Hence, many of these youngsters who have grown up there might not even know Hindi or Bhojpuri language yet sing the songs and practice some of these traditions as a mark of respect for their ancestors.
I feel the contribution of Raj Mohan is enormous. He made us believe how powerful is the cultural connection. For people like me who feel the Bhojpuri world of music has turned absolutely vulgar and unbearable, his sweet, melodious voice makes the immediate connection with the people. The songs come from his heart and show us the power of the culture. When historians failed to inform us a dark chapter of history, the cultural connection provided us a lesson of history. 
I always felt that why people leave India still cling to caste but for the people of Indian origin, the ‘Girmitiya families’, their pains and sorrows, their living together broke the walls of the hierarchical system. While they might have developed their own methods of customs for marriages or child naming ceremonies or funeral practices but all this not through creating walls among themselves. They knew that their pains and sorrows are the same, hence big walls of the caste hierarchy collapsed.
Raj Mohan’s maternal ancestors belonged to the Kurmi community while his paternal ancestors belonged to Chamar community. They never suffer from any issues. Of course, family issues do come but they grew up in a much better and far superior egalitarian environment than they could have in their villages in India where caste matters the most. Raj Mohan says, “Caste system has not existed for at least 50 years at us. But there’s still discrimination between the the Hindus of Sanatan Dharma and Arya Samaaj. And some Brahman families still feel that they belong to the upper cast. You will find the backwardness over here to some extent. But very less."
He terms the history of indentured labourers as the dark chapter of history. “Contract work was certainly a new form of slavery. Taking by the British. After the abolition of slavery, Europeans needed cheap labor to do the work of the former slaves. Moreover, they needed farmers who had knowledge of sugar cane farming. For Dutch contract labor you cannot really speak of a new form of slavery but rather of a disguised form of it. An important difference between the Netherlands and the other European contract labor was that most workers, about 80% left for Suriname on their own free will.”
Raj Mohan was born in Surinam but they migrated to the Netherlands in 1974. His mother had a deep influence on his life as she worked hard to raise her family. “ I discovered at the age of 16 that we had no pop songs (ballads) and songs such as geet and ghazal in our Sarnami-Bhojpuri language. During my vocal training in Indian music in Amsterdam I started to develop songs such as geet and ghazals, pop songs and other modern styles. He learnt music from his in Amsterdam with his guru Ustad Jamaluddin Bhartiya.
He started writing songs and poems in Sarnami from the year 2003 though his first album was released in 1998, ‘Kaale baadal’ (geet and ghazals), second was in 2005 ‘Kanktr├íki’ (Sarnami-Bhojpuri). Other albums are: ‘Krishan Murari mere’ (with Shri Anup Jalota, bhajans), ‘Daayra’ (pop album), ‘Dui mutthi’ (4 songs in Sarnami-Bhojpuri about our Girmitiya history.
His first performance was in 1985 in Rotterdam (The Netherlands). His song ' Saat Samandar paar lejaaike, gathari me baandh ke aasha' brings tears in the eyes of the listeners. It is a phenomenal song, gives us the background of his ancestors and how they went to Suriname. He gives the background of it: “This song is indeed my own song. I wrote it in 2002. The idea came with the other songs which I wanted to write/create in my mother tongue. I missed (and still miss) ballads (modern songs) with themes about our culture and history. Themes like: our history, love songs, bidaai songs and so on… Now I have all these songs and I get respect and admiration from all over the world. Not only from the Bhojpuri speaking audience but all from Hindi speakers and non-Indians like the Dutch in The Netherlands and the blacks (Creole) from Suriname.”
Raj Mohan is aware of the issue of vulgarity in the Bhojpuri songs and he is hopeful that people will ultimately like good songs. He says, “ The pressure is not created by the market; the market is created by business people who don't care about art and culture but who are only focused on making money quickly and as much as possible. They are therefore able to cross all borders. Off course this happens also in our community but not on such a large scale. I never felt that pressure of creating vulgar songs. Therefore, I love my culture too much. Besides that, I always wanted to make a difference with my art and I wanted to give beautiful Bhojpuri songs to the world."
His first visit to India was in 1986 to study music at his teacher’s place in Bombay. “It was overwhelming. It was as if for the first time (I was then 24 years old) in came to my ‘own’ country, with my 'own’ people. I was born in a multicultural country where I always have been treated as a migrant. It counts also for The Netherlands where I have lived for 45 years now. It is in India only where I don't have that feeling. I found my ancestors through a digital database which is online. I have been in the states of UP and Bihar, the areas of my ancestors but not yet to the specific villages. I intend to do that soon. I have no hope of finding family, but you never know”.
He would continue to support folk cultural festivals such as Lok Rang as it is providing platforms to numerous people who might not have been trained as classical singers. He would continue to focus on the pains and sorrows of Girmitiyas. He says, “ Our story has not yet been fully heard. I also appeal to the Indian local and central government to contribute to this. I will always keep telling our story. I was appointed Adjunct Professor at Mahatma Gandhi Central University Bihar (Motihari) in December 2019. I see it as my task to pay as much attention as possible to Girmitiya art, culture, history and developments”.
He is also of the opinion that colonial powers which used indentured labour from 19th to early 20th centuries should apologize. “Certainly, the British and the French were cruel but the Dutch indentured laborers also faced cruelty. Even though at that time most Girmitiyas/ Kantrakis of Suriname voluntarily left India in search of a better life yet the system was inhumane and the Dutch have behaved inhumanely’, says Raj Mohan.
Finally, Raj Mohan “wishes that the awareness about our shared history will increase among Indians all over the world and amongst the British, Dutch and the French. Actually, the whole world should know about this blind spot in our history.”
He will continue to strengthen Sarnami Bhojpuri culture through his poetry, songs and music.
---
*Human rights defender. Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/vbrawat, twitter: @freetohumanity

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