The Harmonium Music Blog is entirely dedicated to promoting the music of South Asians; those who live between Afghanistan and Bangladesh and between the high Himalayas and the warm seas of the Indian Ocean. The Blog is also very interested in the music made by musicians of South Asian origin who live outside the subcontinent.
In the Fiji Islands of the South Pacific there is a large population of subcontinentals who must almost certainly qualify for the title of ‘Farthest Flung’ Indians in the world. Whenever I visit Fiji, as I did recently, my interest is pricked to find out more about how the community came about, lives and thinks.
The first bunch of Indians arrived in Fiji in 1879 on a ship sailing from the French Reunion Islands where the Indians had served for some time as indentured laborers. English cane planters had approached the government of India since the early 1870s for permission to import coolies but had been informed this would not be possible unless and until Fiji became a British colony. As soon as this imperial event took place, Indians from all up and down the eastern coast of India began being recruited as girmityas (indentured workers). Calcutta, Madras and even Karachi and Bombay became embarkation ports for Indians of many castes and faiths, headed for a new life across the ‘black waters’.
Life in Fiji was not happy. It was hell, in fact. Conditions were extremely tough and wages just above subsistence. Suicide rates were high. When the indenture period was complete, the British gave the Indians the right to return home on the condition they paid their own passage. Most were unable to put the fare together and so never returned. Others took the opportunity to set up small businesses or work their own plots. Some married with indigenous islanders. Between 1879 and 1916 over 60,000 Indians were transported to the islands and today they number nearly 400,000 or nearly 40% of Fiji’s population.
Much of the Fijian economy is controlled or managed by Indians, including recent immigrants from Gujarat and Punjab, while the indigenous population jealously guards its control of the political system. Since 1987 when the first of two major military coups ousted what were perceived to be a ‘pro-Indian’ governments, many Indo-Fijians have emigrated to North America, New Zealand and Australia.
Though the Indian community comes from many parts of India, few have retained fluency in their original tongues. While most Indians speak English the community’s unifying language is Fiji-Hindi. Most Indo-Fijians have never been to the land of their father’s and if my conversations with taxi drivers and colleagues are anything to go by, most are only vaguely interested. Some have suggested they are possessed by a deep unconscious anger against their homeland for having in some way abandoned them. Other scholars have pointed out that as the generations pile up, a diaspora’s links to the ancestral lands grow weaker. They may inhabit a cultural space that has strong and numerous attributes of their original ‘home’—language, food, social relations—but they remain firmly rooted in their ‘new world’.
Indo-Fijian culture in certain respects seems to me, an infrequent and distant observer, to be frozen in time. Fiji-Hindi and the way in which it is spoken, strikes me as a rather simplified version of the language you hear in India. I hear the same accents and rhythms of Bhojpuri speakers from Eastern UP or Garhwali speakers from the northern hills of India as they try to speak shudh (pure) Hindi. And considering that a significant percentage of Indo-Fijians originated in non-Hindi speaking parts of India this is not surprising.
And the music we share tonight, some lokgeet (folk songs), has a rawness that seems to be completely unaware of the development of modern ways of singing and playing. It is not at all difficult to imagine these songs, sung with great gusto by one ‘Jet’ Shri Krishna, being sung exactly the same way in the mid-19th century. That the name of the album is subtitled, ‘Modern Modern Samadhi’ seems to indicate a deliberate sense of ironic humour on Shri Krishna’s part. Check out the position of his hand and the slight smile on his face.
Unlike the Indian diaspora in the Caribbean that has given the world the completely unique chutney music, Indo-Fijians seem to relish taking comfort in the security of the familiarity of the traditions of their grandfathers. They used to say that the Anglo-Indians of India were more English then the English themselves. And in this lively homespun music from the little Fiji islands, you can hear a gritty folk sensibility that is rarely heard even in India.
01 Sumiro Devi Maiya Aap Ka
02 Mitti Khodan Chale Shakiya
03 Hardi Lagi Hai Aaj
04 Lawa bhuja Bahiniya Re
05 Raja Dasrat Lekar Barat
06 Raja Janak ki Pyari
07 Jalso Bada Nek Lage
08 Maiya ke Godiya
09 Modern Modern Samdhi
10 Samidhi Tor Bahini
11 Samidhi Aave Kahe (feat. Rakesh Chand Bobby)