May 05, 2013 News
I grew up with a photograph of the Mahatma in our hallway; he was our ‘grandfather’ and hero.”
By Rabindra Rooplall
Cyril Shah and Indranie Shah, now deceased, were part of a cultural dynasty that started when both paternal and maternal ancestors stepped onto the shores of Guyana over a century ago.
The Shahs followed in the footsteps of the family’s musical, literary, and performing arts traditions. Wife and mother, Bhanmattee Shah, brought the influences of her maternal ancestors who hailed from Allahabad in India. Her ancestors organized centuries-old folk theatre performances of Ramlilas and Puran Mals, and sang the forerunners to taan music in Bel Air during the late 19th and early 20th century.
Shah’s ancestors were part of the Tadjah festivals on the Essequibo Coast and performed religious dance programmes in different parts of Essequibo.
Bhanmattee’s maternal uncle, Mamoo (Uncle) Dindial, brought his sitars, tablas, and harmonium to Bel Air then to Kitty Railway Line, taught music and Sanskrit, and healed those who had faith in his ‘Jarrehs.’ It was through his line that the Puran Mals and Ramlilas were performed, recalled Bhanmattee.
“I was called the ranger because I rode horses and went everywhere, learning everything. I used to climb up to the high window in Charlie’s rice factory in Bel Air where the men held Puran Mals. I used to peep the men dancing in their fancy costumes until I got caught.”
Bhanmattee could remember crying when they would not allow her to perform in the Puran Mals because she was female.
She was one of the first of her line to break tradition and dance publicly, as only male members of the family were allowed to perform at that time.
“That didn’t keep me back, though, I eventually learnt to dance like them and soon was dancing at wedding houses, but mostly at Matticore which we called Dig Dutty,” Bhanmattee gleefully reflected.
The family’s foundation for costume making may have been laid when as a child, Bhanmattee enjoyed watching Mamoo Dindial select materials and create his spectacular costumes for characters who performed in the Puran Mals and Ramlilas held in Bel Air.
She later built on this early learning, becoming an expert in costume design and creation.
Bhanmattee’s penchant for travelling the world may have started with her mother’s own adventures. Bhanmattee’s mother (nicknamed ‘Jack’), organized women’s groups of singers and toured Trinidad and Suriname.
“My mother took groups of women in small airplanes to take part in Hindu celebrations like the ‘Jag’ in Trinidad and Suriname. My mother herself played the dholak drums and sang the traditional songs. She was the lead singer, the drummer and the organizer,” said Bhanmattee who also recalled that her mother celebrated “Mahatma Gandhi’s successes” with street parades down Lamaha Street, Kitty, to the Kitty Seawall and up Vlissengen Road then Lamaha Street, Newtown to the Maha Sabha.
She especially remembers marching to the tassa drums with her mother and other women for India’s Independence.
“I remember my mother as the leader of all those women marching through the streets for India’s Independence. I grew up with a photograph of the Mahatma in our hallway; he was our ‘grandfather’ and hero.” Declaring that she was the rebel in the family, Bhanmattee explained how she stopped her marriage to the boy her family had pledged her as a child. As a young woman appalled that they wanted to “marry her off,” she jumped on her brother’s horse and rode bareback in front of his family’s house several times until the boy’s mother decided against the wedding.
“The boy’s mother said that her son can’t have two men in the family! So that was the end of that, thank God!” exclaimed Bhanmattee.
TRACING HER ROOTS BACK TO INDIA
After long research, spanning over 15 years of numerous trips to India and involving extensive assistance, Bhanmattee traced her maternal ancestral roots to the village Jamkhuri of Soraon Tehsil in Allahabad, India.
“I used my mother’s birth certificate, the ship’s records at the Georgetown Post Office (GPO), and the Guyana archives to research from where my grandmother Latchmini came. I failed on my first trip to India because of the wrong spelling of the village on the records in Guyana and my limited Hindi. After several trips to India, I was able to search the archives in Calcutta, through the Asianic Society, with the help of the head person, Suvas Bhose, who was impressed with photographs of Nrityageet.” Bhose finally agreed to facilitate her quest as the archives did not want to allow her access without a letter from the President of Guyana.
With access, Bhanmattee was able to enlist the help of anthropologist/librarian, Chinmay Chatterjie, who searched the records and discovered the misspelt village name.
“The spelling was wrong because instead of an “h” it had a “b” and I only discovered this when the anthropologist, Chatterjie, examined several maps and thousands of village names in Allahabad before discovering the mistake. Language was a major problem as I couldn’t understand the Hindi they spoke and they couldn’t understand the English I spoke!”
Bhanmattee then had to get the assistance of the District Magistrate who assigned her an interpreter/guide.
“After lots of resistance, Mohan Swarup, the District Magistrate eventually decided to help. He had me hire an ‘arkali’ to take me to find Jamkhuri. I eventually found the village that the ship’s records showed, but only two rivers met there – the Ganges and the Jamuna. My mother had said that her mother and two children, Radhia and Mohabir, came from Allahabad, the place where three rivers met.”
Bhanmattee later learnt that the third river was the underground or imaginary river called Sarswati.
“There was a police station as soon as you entered the village; everything was the same as my grandmother had said. There was a circle around which the houses were set, and there was a rice field and a cane field just behind the houses with women working in both fields. I was amazed at the similarities between my mother’s family and the people in the village of Jamkhuri. The women did the farming just like in my family.” However, no one could remember Bhanmattee’s grandmother who had actually married into the Madari family in the village.
“My grandmother Latchmini herself had childhood memories of living in a village close to the Sangam, where millions of people came to worship at the point where the three rivers met,” recalled Bhanmattee who added that the villagers told her that many people had left Jamkhuri to go to Calcutta looking for work during hard times. Some returned after awhile only to leave again.
This information coincided with the official records that indicated that Latchmini had been to Suriname with her husband Madari, then had returned to Allahabad, only to leave India soon after in 1894 aboard the Avon. When Latchmini landed she was 27 years old. Bhanmattee could recall her grandmother mentioning that she had left Madari and one son in Suriname. At the end of her contract, she had returned to India with two of her children; Radhia, one year old, and Mahabi, eight years old.
“What happened was that while in India, the children wanted to eat chicken and the family realized that they had become meat eaters in Suriname. Madari’s family did not like this and treated them badly. Latchmini couldn’t take the ill-treatment and got away in the night, walking down the train line heading for the train to Calcutta and back to Suriname to her husband, Madari, and their eldest child.” But this was not to be, as the ship stopped in British Guiana and it was a long time before she discovered that she was not in Suriname and she would not ever find Madari and their eldest child again.
The village of Jamkhuri, with less than 3,000 residents when she visited during the 1980s and 1990s, held a special fascination for Bhanmattee.
“I returned to that village several times, taking the gifts I promised.” However, Bhanmattee did not stop there, she traced the roots of Latchmini’s second husband, Narine, who came from Etah in the State of Utter Pradesh, and even found the family of Cyril Shah’s grandfather. She made a great impact on Shah’s family still in India, so much so that the family invited her to their daughter’s wedding in Bombay in 2008 when she took her daughter Kamala to meet the family.
Shah’s family in India not only had a travel agency but a printery.
“Maybe that’s why Cyril had his own Arcade printery in Guyana. He had several printing presses. One he bought specifically to print the Thunder newspaper at the request of Burnham and the Jagans. I could remember sneaking out the editorial in my bosom past the police at the printery and riding my bicycle past the British soldiers to Janet Jagan to sign off when the Jagans were under house arrest.”
Bhanmattee’s union with Cyril Shah furthered the dynasty in the arts that both ancestors started. Cyril Shah was a writer, a graphic artist, a printer and a show business promoter. He recalled the first Broadway star he brought to Guyana, Lawrence Winters.
“I promoted his performance at the Astor Cinema in early ‘40s to raise funds for the Law Association under the auspices of Chief Justice Stoby, and Colonial Secretary Heape. Assisting with this production was Post Master General P.C. Cox.”
Cyril even got involved in writing and delivering the news at Astor cinema. It was Cyril Shah who delivered the news of the end of World War II in the Astor Cinema in May 1945.
“The War is over!” Those were the unexpected, but evidently relieving words blurted out over the loud speakers to a full house during a movie show at the Astor Cinema, as young Cyril Shaw gave the news to the cinema’s patrons as it happened.
Cyril loved all art forms and was diverse in his choices of artistes to promote and support. Bhanmattee was by Cyril’s side as he started the first Miss India pageant in aid of the science laboratory for the Indian Trust College, the first Diwali shows, and the League of Coloured peoples’ fairs.
She was there when he brought Indian Nargis Irani, Bhaskar Dance Company, Mahendra Kapoor, and boxer Daris Singh, among others.
Bhanmattee was also by Cyril’s side as he toured Guyana with Lord Canary, King Fighter, and the Mighty Sparrow, establishing a show business career that spanned over 70 years.
Together, Bhanmattee and Cyril went to Trinidad, the rest of the Caribbean and through Europe. Bhanmattee learnt all the ground rules for organizing international shows, and was the leader in the formation of the Nadira and Indranie Shah Dance Troupe and the promotion of the early Nrityageet shows.
Cyril’s youngest son, Rajendra, who spent his school holidays at Sparrow’s Hideaway, another brainchild of Shah, even became the manager of a heavy metal music band, and danced on Nrityageet productions with members of his band.
COMMEMORATING INDIAN ARRIVAL OVER THE YEARS
Over the years, as the youngest of the Shah’s clan commemorated Indian Immigration/Arrival with the programme Nrityageet, Bhanmattee repeatedly returned to India, toured the famous sites, and shopped in the markets of Delhi, Bombay, and Rajasthan where she purchased Indian fabrics, artifacts, and costume accessories, and learnt from the masters how to sew authentic Indian costumes depending on the type of dance and the geographic origins of the dance styles and folklore.
Bhanmattee designed and sewed the costumes for Nrityageet for 33 years, winning several awards of excellence from the Theatre Arts Association of Guyana.
The Nrityageet shows developed from pure Indian classical and folk performances as taught, choreographed, and performed by Nadira and Indranie Shah and their dance troupe, into a diverse legacy of Guyanese receiving the National Award – Medal of Service – for “Sustained and Outstanding Contribution to the Cultural Mosaic of Guyana” and another for “Long and Sustained Dance Productions of Excellence” from the Guyana Cultural Association of New York.
“I fought a major battle to demand the respect for Indian dance and dancers in Guyana. I am proud of all the hundreds of dancers whom I have taught, who have gone on to form their own groups in different parts of the world, or stopped dancing but still support the arts. I am proud of Nrityageet which continues to celebrate Indian Immigration/Arrival after 34 years,” declared Nadira Shah-Berry, who had been rigorously rehearsing current dancers of the Nadira and Indranie Shah Dance Troupe for 2013’s performance last evening.
Researched, promoted, and directed by Bhanmattee’s eldest daughter, Dr. Seeta Shah Roath, this annual dance theatre production is performed at the National Cultural Centre and reflects influences of Bhanmattee’s and Shah’s ancestors. Yet weaved within this truly national presentation are aspects of Guyana’s cultural diversity – a true legacy to those who came to Guyana from India over a century ago and a mirror of today’s realities of sharing in creative expressions.
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