Indo-Trinidadian fusions: ‘chutney’ pop music and its Bhojpuri roots

Worldwide, the Indian diaspora is larger than any other. Successive waves of outward migration have been scattering the sonic cultures of the Subcontinent around the globe for centuries, spawning countless offshoots and localised fusions: in Kenya, the Indian taarab genre sets Swahili lyrics to twisting melodies drawn from classic Bollywood hits, and, going the other way, East African rhythms turn up in the Siddi folk music of Gujarat and Hyderabad – a legacy of the ancient migration of Bantu tribes to Western India via modern-day Pakistan.

Subcontinental culture has also been present in in the Caribbean (the ‘West Indies’) for centuries, carried to the volcanic islands from the 19th century onwards via colonial trade routes and global military shufflings. Over a million indentured Indian labourers were shipped abroad by the British Empire to work on sugar plantations between 1834 and 1916, in an attempt to overcome the financial inconveniences of the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act.

Migration: voyage of the jahajis

Known to many as girmityas (a corruption of the word ‘agreement’, in reference to their indenture documents), they preferred to call themselves jahajis (after their collective, multi-week experience of arriving on a jahaj: ship). Mostly from the Hindu Bhojpuri regions, many were bullied, press-ganged, or outright tricked into boarding the ships, with the British employing arkatiyas (Indian middlemen) to recruit for them. Although even when the word got out, local economic alternatives could be slim against a backdrop of regular famines, induced largely by the British zeal to replace essential food crops with more profitable opium farms.

The jahajis were transported across the Empire, reaching far-flung lands in vast numbers. Indo-Fijian historian Brij V. Lal estimates that over 400,000 went to Mauritius, 200,000 to British Guiana (South America), 150,000 to Natal (South Africa), 60,000 to Fiji, 30,000 to Jamaica, and 25,000 to the tiny island of Reunion. Notably, around 140,000 ended up in Trinidad, arriving from 1845 onwards and mixing with labourers and traders from around the world.

The island quickly became a fertile location for rich cultural interchange. Before long, Indian intermarriage with Chinese and European immigrants was common, leading to a plethora of cultural and creative fusions, as workers of diverse global origin found solace, argument, and distraction in the shared rhythms of their strange island routines. Today, Indo-Caribbean culture manifests in many unmistakable forms…

Chutney: Indo-Trinidadian pop fusions

Writing in The Hindu, Malini Nair lists off the incredible variety of Indian (particularly Bhojpuri) musical forms that made it to Trinidad: including “thumri [Hindu romantic songs], chaiti [chants for Lord Rama], kajri [Bhojpuri folk tunes], sohar [childbirth songs], biraha [Ahir cowherding melodies], biyah geet [celebratory songs], barahmasa [season-cycle poems]…There is even mention of a certain kind of dhrupad [ancient classical singing], and thillana [rhythmic snake melody]…”

Naturally, these forms morphed and blended into their own variants, each adapted to suit the particularities of local community life. One such offshoot is the curious modern-era subgenre of ‘chutney’ song: so named for the ‘spice’ of its sound as well as its historic Subcontinental links. In Nair’s words, Indian melodies “went from homes, to weddings, to radio, records, and finally the stage…Chutney music is fast, saucy, danceable, a happy mix of Bhojpuri and Creole influences. You can hear elements of calypso, soca and reggae; the sounds of the dholak and harmonium mixing with the steelpan and the guitar…”.

Though the genre’s roots are traceable to the earliest waves of Indian arrivals, almost two centuries ago, chutney music itself did not establish itself in its own distinctive right until the 1970s and 80s. Sundar Popo (1934-2000), a Trinidad-born Hindu who trained under vocalist Ustad James Ramsawak, is considered by many to be the style’s principle progenitor, via his long string of local smash-hits – notably including Nana & Nani and Scorpion Gyul.

In more recent years, further migrations have taken Indo-Trinidadian sounds around the world. Musicologist Tina Karina Ramnarine notes that live chutney shows can be found in “London, New York, and Toronto…and there are some musicians in India who perform Chutney, having incorporated Caribbean popular forms into their repertoires” (check out Babla & Kanchan for an illustrative example of the latter).

To me, these latter-day dispersions represent a pleasing kind of circularity (or, I guess, triangularity): chutney has now found a home in both India and Britain, meaning it has looped back to the land of its origins, and the base of the Imperialists who first transplanted its early seeds to the Caribbean. 

Perspectives: Indian women in Trinidad

In her 1985 paper Freedom Denied: Indian Women and Indentureship, Trinidadian academic Rhoda Reddock reminds us to consider the oft-hidden gendered dimensions of the Indo-Caribbean experience: “One of the long-held myths about Indian women immigrants in Trinidad and Tobago is that they migrated with their families under the power, authority and control of their male relatives and were docile and tractable.”

“These views ignore the historical documentation on the ‘Indian Women Problem’ which confronted the Colonial Office as far back as 1845 [the very first year of their arrival]…the hierarchical social structure of the Brahminic-Sanskritic tradition brought about a conflation of interests between migrant Indian men and the colonial capital. Indian women in the colonies did not easily or willingly submit to these designs…”.


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