By Aminta Kilawan Narine, Esq.
Chowtal – it’s one of the most interactive and joyous types of music you’ll ever witness. Chowtal is signature Indo-Caribbean, often a blend of male and female voices sitting in a competitive circle, unafraid to shout out to the heavens in a celebratory spirit. When I was a kid, watching my temple’s chowtal gole always induced uncontrollable laughter within me. It takes a special kind of person to sing this type of music.
The word “chowtal,” which likely originated in the mid-to-late 1800s among indentured workers in India, is actually the name of a “taal” or meter in Indian classical music. It is a type of folk song hailing from North India’s Bhojpuri area. Chowtal is sung in the weeks leading up to Holi, or as most Indo-Caribbeans refer to it, Phagwah, after the Bhojpuri month of Phagun. While most chowtals sing the praises of gods and goddesses like Ram and Hanuman, Shiva and Parvati, or Radha and Krishna, not all are steeped in Hinduism. Some chowtals celebrate prominent leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Jawarhalal Nehru. Others are playful call and answers between yearning lovers looking for fun on the festival of colors.
Professor Peter Manuel of John Jay College of Criminal Justice calls chowtal “one of the most dynamic traditions of East Indian culture in the Caribbean and Fiji, and in their secondary Bhojpuri diaspora sites in the USA and elsewhere.” In the preface of a booklet of English-translated chowtals compiled by the late chowtal and dholak master Ramnarine (Rudy) Sasenarine, Manuel indicated that although chowtal has declined in India, it remains alive in Caribbean and Fijian traditions. Chowtal, he says, “should not be seen as weak, degraded and insignificant derivatives of a richer Indian tradition.”
Many times, Indo-Caribbeans are perceived as the stepchildren of India. Yet, while much of Bollywood modernizes and becomes more and more similar to Hollywood, Indo-Caribbean culture fights to stay alive and true to itself, even after migrations spanning generations across multiple borders. Chowtal. Taan. Bhaitak Gana. All of these musical forms have managed to remain popular. Indo-Caribbeans in the West Indies and North America have quite miraculously retained many of their traditions and culture, despite being twice removed from the motherland. Even with significant loss of their mother tongue, in major part due to colonial pressures to assimilate, chowtal competitions exist to this day. A prideful sight at the Shri Trimurti Bhavan’s Phagwah celebration on March 3rd was the Queens Hindu Mandir’s chowtal gole, comprised solely of youth and led by a confident young female, belting out the rhythmic patterns from memory. Seeing millennials retain their ancestral roots paints a promising picture of a future that continues to pay homage to old custom.
On Thursday evening, New York City Hall welcomed Indo-Caribbeans into its historic doors. “Chowtaal in City Hall” was hosted by Council Member Eric Ulrich, who represents District 32, which includes Ozone Park and South Ozone Park and Council Member Peter Koo of District 20, which includes Bayside, College Point, and Flushing. The name of the event was a catchy rhyme, and it was also indicative of the specific importance of Indo-Caribbeans to New York City. After all, chowtal is squarely emblematic of Indo-Caribbean custom. While a handful in the crowd were South Asian, the large majority were Indo-Caribbean. “You belong here because you are such an important part of the fabric of our City,” said Council Member Ulrich.
Pandit Ram Hardowar of Shri Surya Narayan Mandir and Pt. Dipak delivered opening prayers. Pandit Ram indicated said, “Let the fire of Prahalad’s love and devotion for the Lord burn away all our differences and build bridges, and not walls, in this City.” “Khele Masane Me Holi,” was rendered by Pratima Doobay, accompanied by Roger Sookraj and Ravi Charran. The United Madrassi Association, led by Vijah Ramjattan, and other devotees of Maha Kali/Shaktism sang a traditional madrassi song. Tara Seetaran sang the popular “Rang Dal Ke Mohanwa.” Chowtals were sung by the Shri Trimurti Bhavan and the Sangeet Samaj chowtal goles. In true solidarity, these two groups came together in one circle to perform.
Urvashie Kissoon demonstrated the classical expertise in Kathak garnered from her guru Pt. Satyanarayana Charka with a dance that had many iPhones poised in the air. The Taranng Dance Troup, led by Zaman Amin, Alia and the Devi Dolls, The Shiv Kala Dance Academy, and Omadevi Somai performed colorful and upbeat dance items. The event culminated with citations issued to members of the Federation of Hindu Mandirs and the Arya Spiritual Center, who are currently in the process of planning Queens’ largest street festival – the 30th annual Phagwah Parade, to be held on April 14th.
As I exited City Hall, a City Council colleague who staffed Wednesday night’s event indicated that she never before had such an effortless experience organizing artists for a cultural event. I proudly noted that we are a group of people who know how to both maintain tradition and to have fun, bringing India to the Caribbean and to New York City. We nurture our culture with great love and affection to this day. To onlookers, chowtal is an example of that.