East Indian culture can be a viable vehicle for teaching the values of Indian traditions to young people in Trinidad and Tobago, says cultural activist Sham G Ali.
“I think we can do a better job of using East Indian culture to inculcate a greater appreciation for traditions in younger minds,” Ali said.
Ali, who has spent nearly three decades promoting East Indian culture on radio and television, says chutney and chutney soca acts can “take a page from traditional calypso” and create more “nation-building” material beyond the popular “partying and rum-drinking” songs for which the genre has become reputed.
“We have a lot of rich art forms to be passed on. I would love to see a lot of younger singers pick up Indian classical singing, for example. I think they can use the content to create more rich, nation-building content that would resonate deeper in society.
“Take a page out of calypso and use national-building and social commentary in their compositions instead of focusing on partying and drinking rum. I mean I enjoy a party chutney soca as much as anyone in the right settings, but there is more to be done to continue to integrate the richness of East Indian culture in every aspect of society,” Ali said.
He is one of ten honourees at this year’s Indian Arrival Day Mere Desh Awards event, which takes place on Tuesday evening at the Passage to Asia Chandelier Hall, Chaguanas.
As these twin islands prepare to celebrate the 178th anniversary of East Indians arriving on these shores, Ali says the fact that Indian culture and Trinbagonian culture cannot be mentioned without the other is proof of the contributions of Indian people to life in T&T.
“I can’t talk about the Indian society without referring to Trinidadian society. I think Indian culture has really grown leaps and bounds over the years. But like every other culture there is a good and bad side,” Ali continued.
While Ali lauds the musical contributions of deceased chutney icon Sundar Popo and ailing living legend Budram Holass, he admits there is some East Indian content he finds embarrassing.
“Being rooted in a Bollywood-formatted radio programming for the past 29 years or so, I have become very critical of how East Indian content is created and rolled out and then consumed by the general public.
“What I mean to say is we have had instances where I feel embarrassed at times when I see certain productions. You see someone singing something on the raunchy side and not something uplifting to national culture that grinds my gears,” he said.
A very visible brand
Still, Ali says there is much about East Indian culture in T&T to be proud. He recounted the numerous times visiting Indian nationals have praised “the pure adherence to tradition” of many East Indians on these islands.
“On the flip side, I feel happy when I hear people from India who come via the Indian High Commission, to do business or in some other capacity, say we celebrate Divali and Phagwa in such a wholesome manner. They feel they not missing home because we celebrate everything with so much vigour,” he revealed.
Ali is determined to walk the talk by doing his part to promote East Indian culture in palatable and wholesome manner. Together with his wife Tara he started Market Moguls Ltd, a multimedia advertising company dedicated towards the promotion of local culture.
Market Moguls was instrumental in the media promotion of the Miss India Worldwide pageant last year, as well as internally helping delegates with communication coaching through the competition.
“We were responsible for the communications training of the 24 delegates ranging from 13 to all the way in their 40s. It was an interesting and rewarding experience being able to assist them to be stage ready communications wise,” Ali said.
The marked increased interest in the Miss India Worldwide brand is proof his team handled their public image the right way, he beamed.
“We took an East Indian pageant brand that was already existing from a very quiet brand to a very visible brand, to the point now we are hearing other entities are interested in the brand. I feel especially happy because we helped create a classy and strong East Indian-based brand that brought other things to the fore, not just beauty and fashion.
“I was very adamant we used it as a platform to talk about the environment. So, we had the EMA (Environmental Management Authority’s) I Care guys come in to support the pageant. We were happy to also get (Indian yogi) Sadhguru’s Save Soil involved. We have created a trend that, hopefully, we can push forward on and that’s what pageantry should be about,” he said.
While the 178-year journey of East Indian peoples in T&T has been marked with many triumphs, Ali says there is a lot that can still be learnt from Mother India.
“We have a large Desi population here willing and available to inculcate basic teachings. The driving force of Indian culture in Trinidad is the music, so let’s start there. Our local Indian artistes should not be against being retooled and upping their musical skills and pronunciations by tapping into the knowledge of these experts who come here.
“We have the opportunity to learn and ensure we at least singing the right things. If you take a Bollywood half the job is done for you, so put some effort into creating something that make sense. Make it nation-building and something of substance,” Ali concluded.