COOLIE WOMAN

Of play and longing: “Holi Songs of Demerara”

krishna and gopis

Krishna celebrating Holi with the gopis, 19th century watercolor by Hulas Lal, The British Library.

Today is Holi, the springtime festival known in the Caribbean as Phagwah (after the Bhojpuri month of “Phagun”). I thought I’d take the opportunity to highlight a rare text: the only known literary work by an indentured servant in the Anglophone Caribbean. I found a frayed red copy, written in the Devanagari script and largely in the archaic dialect of 16th-century saint poets from the heartland of Ayodhya, in the Hindi pamphlets collection at the British Library. Published in 1916, Damra Phag Bahar – or, Phagwah Songs of Demerara – is a chapbook of rhymed verses intended to be sung during Holi. Its author was the indentured man Lal Bihari Sharma, a Brahmin from a village in the Bihari district of Chapra in northeast India, bound as a “coolie” to Plantation Golden Fleece in British Guiana.

The songs provide a glimpse into the indentured man’s material and psychological suffering as a plantation laborer. They also retell well-known stories from Hindu mythology. But the verses borrow more than their language from 16th-century saint-poets. They entirely inhabit the sensibility of bhakti poets in the Vaishnavite tradition (more on that in a moment). For him, as for them, love – specifically, desire whetted by distance – is the primary preoccupation.

In songs that are romantic, even erotic in their imagery, Sharma captures the insomniac torture of separation. In the voice of a woman, he offers the lament: “Without the beloved, my heart knows no peace./ I feel my youth in its full strength./ Phagun is a rapturous month; I do not like it without my beloved./ The breeze assails me like iron.” The theme must have been achingly familiar to men and women severed from loved ones by indenture, but Sharma was writing in a genre well-established in India. For centuries, ballads about separated lovers – known as viraha – have been a bhakti staple, an allegory for man’s intense longing for god.

But the theme is, of course, also a theme of Phagwah, the story of Krishna’s play – his riot of color and mischief – with milkmaidens known as gopis. In ancient forests where peacocks strutted, he cavorted, multiplying himself in order to dance and play with each of them. Chief among the gopis was Radha, the consort worshipped as a deity in her own right, but the god had multiple lovers, each of them someone else’s wife. The faithful read the gopis’ ecstatic and erotic love for Krishna as an allegory for the soul’s longing for God, a pining sweet with the anguish of the unattainable. 

In the sixteenth century, the Bengali saint Chaitanya inspired a branch of Hinduism that departed drastically from those dominant at the time. It contended that the soul would be released from the endless cycle of birth and death through a gopi-like devotion to the divine, rather than dutiful conduct or knowledge in Sanskrit of the religious texts. This doctrine created much broader spiritual access. It also made Brahmins less important as middlemen to the gods. Chaitanya believed that birth and bloodlines should not determine caste; instead, devotion should. The sect he developed is known as Vaishnavism, after the god Vishnu, who is its centre of worship and who, Hindus believe, took human form as the carousing lord Krishna. By the time of indenture, Vaishnavism was the predominant form of Hinduism in the areas where most coolies were recruited, especially among the peasants who were its main recruits, and it is the main form of Hinduism in the Caribbean today.

Sharma was a religious man. He dedicates his songbook to Parmanandji, a missionary from the reformist Arya Samaj Movement, who arrived from India in 1911 and who preached just a few miles from Sharma’s plantation. Yet, Damra Phag Bahar expresses a crisis of faith, precipitated by the injustice the indentured encountered on the plantations. More on that in Coolie Woman. In the meantime, let’s remember what Phagwah meant in the folk traditions most alive to those who left India indentured. It was about play, and it was about longing, two aspects of devotion, two aspects of the elusive divine.

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