(East) Indian Art and Caribbean Aesthetics


By Dr Kumar Mahabir

The following is a synopsis of a paper I presented recently at the Caribbean Festival of Arts (CARIFESTA). It was presented at UWI’s Department of Creative and Festival Arts in Trinidad and Tobago. The paper is entitled “(East) Indian Art and Caribbean Aesthetics.”

Aesthetics refers to the appreciation of beauty or good taste in art that are appealing or attractive. Caribbean aesthetics has been shaped by the region’s checkered history of colonization, migration and settlement which have produced constantly changing visual sensibilities. (East) Indians, who first arrived in the Caribbean as indentured labourers in 1838 to replace emancipated African slaves, have contributed to the region’s aesthetics through the maintenance, adaptation and recreation of their cultural traditions.

The paper attempted to illustrate the Indo contribution to Trinidadian aesthetics through the creation of visual arts. By studying the works of Indo-Trinidadian artists such as Amit Rameshwar Singh, Aneesha Karim, Kervina Persad, Marisa Ramdeen, Shalini Seereeram, Shivana Lalla, Parmanan Singh, Kavita Gunness and Nardia Rambocas, the paper demonstrated how these artists have tried to counter and complement non-Indian aesthetics by making visible what is often invisible in mainstream cultural spaces.

Bacchanal Aesthetics

Indo-Caribbean aesthetics draws from the ethos of the New World and advances it beyond the Afro-European construct, defined by literary critic Funso Aiyejina (2009) as “bacchanal aesthetics.” At a basic level, bacchanal aesthetics “is the artistic practice that appropriates and radicalises the underground cultural practices fashioned by ordinary New World Africans to deal with the realities of enslavement, colonisation, deracination and exploitation.”

Without saying so explicitly, another literary critic has defined the dynamics of “bacchanal aesthetics” as” “mulatto aesthetics with reference to the poems and plays of Nobel Prize laureate, Derek Walcott, who is racially-mixed (Oloruntoba-Oju, 2006: 1). He argues that in the context of the “heterogeneity,” “complexity,” multi-facetedness and flexibility of Caribbean culture, artists must make a conscious choice to create and appreciate a new Caribbean aesthetics. In his essay, Oloruntoba-Oju “questions Walcott’s apparent repudiation of a full black aesthetics and the implication of this for a comprehensive definition of Caribbean aesthetics.”

The discourse on Caribbean aesthetics, therefore, has to be re-examined and revised to include the works of Indo-Caribbean visual artists. Caribbean aesthetics must include Hindu and Islamic motifs; their festivals, ceremonies and rituals; narrative modes and sensuality. It must also comprise Oriental forms of media such as mehendi and rangoli as well as ethnic subjects such as mandirs and mosques, belna and chowke, sankhs [conch shells], weddings, dancers and lotuses.

In her landmark book, Imaging the Caribbean: Culture and Visual Translation (2009), UWI Professor Patricia Mohammed asks and answers a critical question: “Why has the Indian aesthetic sensibility remained largely outside the realm of what is constituted as Caribbean-ness still today? One reason has to do of course with the demographic and geographic concentration of the southern Caribbean. The other is related to a different sensibility in terms of colour, composition, detail, form, perspective and imagination from that perceived as either ‘Western’ or ‘African’. The third has to do with the negative values attached to what constitutes Indian-ness, unfortunately internalised by many East Indians themselves (p. 281).”

A Red Solo and Roti

Mohammed adds that the popular sensibility of Indians up to the 1950s in Trinidad was their supposed love for garish colours, particularly “coolie pink and green.” My informal survey has shown that the dominant Indian colours were in fact the primary colours of red, yellow and blue for Hindus, and green for Muslims. There was also the iconic tasty Trinidadian treat of “a red Solo and roti” [bottled beverage with Indian flat bread]. These basic colours are used and seen even today in their powdered and liquid forms during Phagwa, the Hindu Festival of Colour, as well as in the jhandi flags in front of houses.

The visual pieces selected illustrated Indo-Caribbean aesthetics that are meant (1) “to redress imbalances of power” and biases in the art society as well as to claim a space and place in Caribbean sensibility, following the ideas of d’Aguiar (2007, para 25); (2) to demonstrate an attempt to “claim a voice for history, a geography and a people which has been dominated … [and] to reclaim and restore/alter/native cultural traditions … (Donnel and Welsh, 1996: 4); (3) to develop and establish a new aspect of Caribbean aesthetics as well as to repudiate the dominance and monopoly of established, accepted, official forms of sensibility (Oloruntoba-Oju, 2006); (4) to interrogate and transform the popular notion and nature of Caribbean beauty and taste as they relate to the fine arts; and (5) to counter and complement non-Indian aesthetics by making visible marginal or invisible works in mainstream cultural spaces.


Dr Mahabir is an anthropologist who has published 11 books.

The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the THE WEST INDIAN.