By Dr. Vishnu Bisram
The Indo-Caribbean community mourns the passing of Pandit (Dharmacharya) Oumadatt, formerly of Guyana, who passed away last Saturday and cremated on Tuesday. He was 95.
Pandit Oumadatt was a disciple of the great Gandhi-ji. His death is a loss to the community as he is among the last of the older generation of giants. He will be missed but never forgotten by those who were fortunate enough to have known him.
At the wake, glowing tributes were paid to him for his varied work on behalf of the Indo-Caribbean community where he has been grounded. Many sang bhajans in tribute.
It is widely acknowledged that Oumadatt blazed a trail for Hinduism in America. He did remarkable work in the city for Hindus. Speakers reflected and celebrated his extraordinary life at nightly wakes for him and at his funeral on Tuesday.
Oumadatt-ji was a remarkable person who devoted his entire life in America to peacefully promoting Hinduism and Indian culture and advocating for peace. He lived a very fruitful and productive life. And he received many accolades for his work. The large attendance at his wake and funeral are testimony to his popularity and the respect he commanded.
Oumadatt-ji was a caring and beloved family man. He was warm, kind, and forgiving. And he had a great sense of humor. And he was the kind of person who found time for anyone who sought his advice. He was willing and open in interacting with others. He never held bad blood for anyone including those who may have had run-ins with him. He inspired many including his sons to become pandits. He dedicated his life to upholding and uplifting Hindu Dharma. He also tutored many students in Hindi. He was also a Purohit teacher to many and he contributed to the education and training of many practising pandits. He was involved in many religious activities, including the annual Phagwah and Diwali celebration parades. He also held countless Ramayana discourses to which the public was invited. And he served as a family counsellor for people of all faiths and ethnic groups.
Pt. Oumadat was a pioneer of the Indo-Caribbean Hindu presence in America. He started the first mandir in America and was well known for his chowtaal singing having recorded several albums including bhajan mala.
Pt. Oumadat came to the US in 1969 as a Hindu missionary living in mid-Manhattan among other Indo-Caribbeans for a decade before settling in Jamaica in 1980. It was the earliest community established by Indo-Caribbeans in the city with its low cost rentals and convenient location.
Pt. Oumdatt is widely acknowledged as a pioneer of Hinduism in America. He was also viewed as an Indo-Caribbean pioneer of sorts – founding the first Caribbean Hindu temple (that may also have been the first Hindu temple in the USA). Around that period of time, mandirs were make shifts altars in apartments before moving into basements of apartment buildings or private homes. Later, temples were established in private houses or business buildings converted into temples. Much later, during the 1980s, new temples (buildings) were constructed from scratch. The first Hindu temple (with traditional architecture) was constructed in Flushing in early in 1980s by nationals from India. This was followed by new temple construction among Guyanese and Trinis in the mid-1980s in Richmond Hill, Elmhurst, Jamaica, and the Bronx.
Pt. Oumadat and other Guyanese pandits started the first Hindu services in a makeshift mandir at an apartment in Cleo (Calo) apartment building on 56th Street and 8th Ave in Manhattan. It was called Mahatma Gandhi Satsangh Society (MGSS). Pandits Shastri, Gunnar, Walter Misir, and Johnny Dewa, all Guyanese, were also part of the group. Services were attended by Indo-Caribbeans and nationals from India. Nationals from India had their own make shift temple as well but Indo-Caribbeans did not feel comfortable attending those services. Indian nationals were not aware of the cultural background (strong religious upbringing and familiarity with Hinduism) of Indo-Caribbeans, and were not seen as very welcoming to Indo-Caribbeans who started their own services. Members contributed fees that helped to pay the rental cost of an apartment to house the temple. Members also hosted services at their own private apartments. Facing difficulties at Cleo, the MGSS relocated services to a rental apartment at Hotel Martinique on 32nd Street in 1971.
Facing pressure from the Martinique Hotel management, the Hindu services moved to Clark Apartments Hotel (30th St) in 1972 and remained there for a few years before the organisation acquired a building on Pacific Street (near Warwick), where Sunday services were held. Later, the temple moved to Townsend Avenue (near Yankee Stadium) in the South Bronx. Many Guyanese lived in the South Bronx during the late 1970s and 1980s and even up till today patronizing services there. Pt. Oumadat himself moved from Manhattan to 150 Street in Jamaica, off Hillside Ave in 1980, establishing the first temple (from a car garage that was expanded and refitted) in Queens among Indo-Caribbeans. During the 1990s, Pt. Oumadatt’s MGSS moved to 196 Street, just off Jamaica Ave., in Hollis.
Pt. Oumadat is also recognized as the first to start a chowtaal singing group and organizing the first Diwali and Holi celebrations in America and Ramayana discourses. The MGSS mandir and chowtall singing and Diwali and Phagwah celebrations attracted patrons of all nationalities including those from India. It was the only means for Caribbean Indians as well as nationals from India to socialize or participate in religious activities during that time. They looked forward for the festivals and Sunday morning services. The make shift mandirs were the only means for religious services at the time.
Pt. Oumadat had a very high level of tolerance for people of other faiths. He encouraged and welcomed people of other faiths to his services and many non-Hindus flocked to the mandir. He was versed in the Koran and bible and often made comparable references to them in Hindu discourses making non-Hindus feel comfortable at Hindu services. The MGSS activities attracted many Muslims from the Caribbean. They got along well with Pt. Oumadat.
Imam Safarally and other prominent Muslims were very supportive of the group helping to organize Indian cultural shows. Because there were no mosques for them to pray or to participate in cultural activities, Muslims attended the makeshift mandir activities and cultural concerts. Hindus and Muslims supported each other. As a form of reciprocity, Hindus helped with organizing and patronizing Islamic festivals. Later in the 1980s, Muslims established masjids and organized their own religious programs.
Pt. Oumadat presided over the first Caribbean Phagwah and Diwali celebrations in America held at Calo Hotel in 1970. His celebrations attracted Hindus from varied countries from all over the city. Muslims and Christians also joined in the celebrations just like back in Guyana or Trinidad. These celebrations continued in Brooklyn, Bronx and Queens wherever the group moved — at other hotels and the basement of apartment buildings or the garage of the house where Pt. Oumadatt moved. The MGSS acquired a van that was used to shuttle members to various locations to observe Hindu festivals or conduct religious services. Members of the group also hosted satsanghs (prayer services) and dinners in their homes accompanied by chowtaal singing led by Pt. Oumadatt. As the Indo-Caribbean community grew in Queens in the mid-1980s with more migration, Holi Samellan (variety concerts of music and dance) and Diwali melas were held annually at public schools (beginning first at Hillcrest) in Jamaica and Washington Irving HS on 14th Street in Manhattan with packed audiences. Pt. Oumadatt participated in these programs and activities including one my colleagues and I organized at Washington Irving H.S.
Pt. Oumadat and the MGSS group often appeared on WLIB radio during the 1980s at Phagwah time with live chowtaal singing on Sunday mornings. They were hosted by Clyfee Madhu who had a very close relation with Oumadatt-ji.
Pt. Oumadatt was also supportive of other groups promoting Indianism. In 1988, when myself and Indian Diaspora Committee organized the 150th anniversary of Indian Arrival commemorative event at Columbia University, Pt. Oumadatt generously and warmly played host for over a week to a large group of guests (about 30) from Holland. He also generously supported social causes in Guyana with MGSS carrying out several humanitarian missions helping the poor. And he traveled to Jamaica to help train youngsters to conduct religious services and to sing as well as play chowtaal instruments. And he also helped founded the Phagwah parade in Hollis held during the 2000s.
Pt. Oumadat has left an enduring legacy that few can match. We will not forget his tireless efforts at trying to institutionalize Hinduism and to help resolve conflicts among varied mandirs.
Pt. Oumadatt will forever be remembered for the yeoman service he performed to the Indo-Caribbean community in America. Caribbean Hindus will miss his presence at religious functions (particularly at Holi time and the annual Ramayana in the Park). We are grateful for his contributions to society. His family should take comfort with the fact that he lived a full life and did a lot for society.