Monday 13th March, 2006


Phagwa in T&T...

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A cloud of gulal envelopes revellers at the Kendra Celebrations.

By Adrian Boodan

Phagwa, or Holi celebrations, get underway this week when the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha, the largest local Hindu body, burns an effigy of Holika on March 14 at three locations: the Parvati Hindu Girls’ College, Debe, the Tunapuna Hindu School and in Vega de Oropouche.

Sat Maharaj, secretary general of the Maha Sabha, said Phagwa 2006 will be one of the biggest ever as the centuries-old festival that has its roots in India has been gaining much momentum locally.

Maharaj said that on March 18, President George Maxwell Richards was expected to attend children’s Phagwa celebrations at the Tunapuna Hindu School, while the national Phagwa celebrations would take place on March 19.

He said that last year there were more than 500 appearances by chowtaal groups across the island, and this year, 21 stages were being prepared across Trinidad for some heavy chowtaal singing.

Chowtaal singing will be at its best, Maharaj said, since many of the participants had been practising at their temples, schools and at home to show off their talents on the big day.

A man and woman smear each other with gulal. Photos: Adrian Boodan

Maharaj said the recent upsurge in Indian culture did not happen overnight and was no accident. He said the Maha Sabha introduced its Baal Vikaas singing competition in its school system more than two decades ago and this set the stage for many young artistes to get some level of formal training.

Many of today’s local Indian singing artistes have benefited in some way from the programme, he said. He said even Government schools have taken advantage of the Maha Sabha’s thrust towards the development of Indian culture.

One such school is the Palmiste Government Primary school, which raised funds to purchase Indian instruments that the Maha Sabha was selling at an extremely low price in 2004.

For those unfamiliar with the festival of Phagwa, the celebrations began in T&T with the arrival of the first indentured Indians in 1845.

The origins of the festival lie in the Hindu scripture the Vishnu Purana, which tells the tale of the evil king Hiranyakashipu who wanted to destroy his son Prahlad because Prahlad did not want to worship Hiranyakashipu.

The king then plotted with his sister Holika to destroy Prahlad by fire. Holika had a magic scarf that would protect her from the flames. When she lured Prahlad into the flames, however, the young man managed to come out alive and covered with the scarf, and Holika was burnt instead.

Prahlad then took the ashes and started playing with them. This event signified the rise of good over evil.

Maharaj said celebrations could not take place before the burning of the effigy.

He said that abir, the coloured liquid that is synonymous with the festival, cannot be sprinkled before the effigy was set alight.

Wherever the Diaspora settled, Phagwa, like Divali, has followed. In Guyana, Phagwa is a national holiday. It is also celebrated in the Hindu Kingdom of Nepal, in Suriname, in the United States, Canada, Mauritius and Fiji.

The music of Phagwa

What are celebrations without music? The indentured brought with them in their jahaji bundles several percussion instruments that include the dholak drums, the kartaal, jhal and majeera. These instruments are still used today to accompany the chowtaal bands across the island and none of them run on electrical power. When combined with the voices of the singers, however, the music is loud enough to fill a savannah.

The songs are religious in nature and dedicated to Hindu deities as Lord Shiva, Lord Krishna and Lord Rama. Chowtaal songs are fast paced and energetic. In recent times some Bollywood songs have entered into the Phagwa arena, the most popular being Rang Barse, sung by Indian acting and singing legend Amitabh Bachan, prominent in a Phagwa scene in the movie Laawaris.

A different twist to the music was added by the Ravi Ji-led organisation the Hindu Prachar Kendra. This Hindu body, based at Longdenville in Central Trinidad, introduced Pichakaree singing to the stage.

Pichakaree gets its name from the pichakaree gun, the device used to squirt abir on revellers. Pichakaree has been gaining momentum in the past decade as a vehicle for the Hindu-Trinidadian voice to address social and political issues. This new genre of singing also explores festive songs and there is a category for the theme the Kendra chooses for its celebrations.

Most of the language used in Pichakaree singing is usually performed in the English of T&T’s local dialect and is sprinkled with Hindi and Bhoujpuri words. This appeals to the contemporary generation and somehow gets the point across faster in social commentary songs.

The Kendra Pichakaree singing competition that takes place on the day of the festivities at the Divali Nagar site attracts many competitors and this year Mohip Poonwassie the 2005 champ will be facing a serious challenge for the top spot.

The key ingredient

The key element in Phagwa is abir. Children of the 1960s and 70s, who witnessed a revival of Phagwa because of the drive of the Maha Sabha, will remember red as the significant colour being used in celebrations. However, since Phagwa is a spring festival, more colours were gradually introduced to local celebrations, such as bright blues, greens, shades of yellow and even black.

Abir is sold as crystals containing a vegetable dye. The crystals are immersed in hot water to dissolve them and the mixture is then cooled before being poured into devices for spraying.

Ingenious T&T minds have developed a pichakaree pump using PVC pipes that can blast a spray of abir as far as ten metres. Others may use a squeeze bottle or a soft drink bottle with hole drilled in the cap to spray the coloured liquid.

Abir is supposed to wash off clothing. There are those, however, who add the secretions of the banana plant or the juice from a ripe cashew to the mixture to create a permanent stain on fabric.

Another recent addition to T&T’s celebration is the use of gulal or coloured powder. Gulal is popular in India, especially in the Punjabi city of Chandigarh. Gulal represents the ashes of Holika and is usually smeared on revellers. Gulal has an almost fluorescent colour and in most instances acts to provide a powdery mask to the masses celebrating.

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