Rajkumari Singh’s Vision of Art and Politics
Rajkumari Singh’s literary and political careers display the tensions facing Indo-Guyanese women writers who deploy their creativity toward establishing a more inclusive national landscape. on the one hand,
Singh publicly praised PNC endeavors, especially its efforts to transform Guyanese culture. For instance, on July 14, 1973 in an article printed in The New Nation, Singh argued that all Guyanese must vote for the PNC (Singh 1973). On the other hand, as my readings of “Days of the Sahib” and “Per Ajie” will demonstrate, she indirectly critiqued the party’s biases and avidly promoted Indo-Caribbean culture and women in literature and through the Messenger Group.
Singh’s commitment to art and civic engagement was fostered by her parents. Her father, Dr. Jung Bahadur Singh, was educated in England and served as a medical administrator on ships transporting Indians between India and the Caribbean. Her mother, Alice Bhagwandai Singh, was involved in the Red Cross and YWCA and founded two important organizations: the Balak Saharta Mandalee (a charity organization that served poor Indian women and children) and the British Guiana Dramatic Society. In her chapter in this collection, Patricia Mohammed makes a case for considering biographies as sources in tracing Indo-Caribbean feminist genealogies. Following Mohammed, I present Singh’s family history as a site of Indo-Caribbean feminist consciousness. In her unpublished autobiography, Alice Singh discloses that her mother defied her Christian Indian middle-class father by marrying an “ordinary coolie, heathen boy” and moving from Dutch Guiana to British Guiana, giving up her religion, family, and class status for love.2 Rajkumari Singh thus had strong female role models in her grandmother and mother, who influenced her development as a socially conscious author and civic leader. This brief consideration of Singh’s family history illustrates how definitions of feminist agency gradually shift over time.
As feminist scholars have argued, Caribbean women who might be considered as having a feminist consciousness or who called themselves feminists often represented middle-class values and aspirations. However, as my readings will demonstrate, for Indo-Caribbean women writers, even those from the middle classes, working-class origins are ubiquitous and greatly shape their lives and literature, disrupting rigid class divisions. We see the crossing of class boundaries in the charity work of Alice Singh. Establishing the Balak Saharta Mandalee in 1936, she used her educated, middle-class status to enact social change. The organization assisted poor Indian children “educationally, morally and socially,” especially supporting education for girls.3 Speaking on behalf of the association in 1938, Olivia Teekah states that Indian girls leave primary and secondary schools “yet cannot make for themselves success in any sphere of life. Apart from marriage life to which is often attached a great deal of drudgery, shorthand and typing, writing are usually resorted to as a means of livelihood, but alas! It is soon discovered that there is no market for [these] products.”4 Teekah critiques marriage as the only option for Indian women to live successfully, indirectly suggesting that it marginalizes them. The organization’s vision for girls’ education included “sewing, housewifery, basketmaking, embroidery, and the making of preserves,” which prepared them to be housewives. Recognizing the limitation of these courses, Teekah acknowledges the need for professional instruction, such as “First-Aid and Nursing,” to improve the employment prospects of Indian women outside of the home.
The Balak Saharta Mandalee’s advocacy for Indian girls’ education suggests that Alice Singh and others recognized education as what Mohammed terms “a primary agent of change” for women. Although the 1876 Compulsory Education Ordinance granted elementary education to all children in British Guiana, many Indians, especially in rural areas where majority of them resided, kept their children home. Parents were wary of the influence of Christian missionary schools and needed the money brought in by their children’s labor. Moreover, colonial policy discouraged the education of Indian girls. For instance, in 1904, Governor Swettenham recommended that Indian parents not be punished for keeping their daughters out of school. In 1925, more than 20 years after Swettenham’s policy was enacted, only 25% of the Indian children enrolled in primary school were female (Poynting 1986, 136). These policies, which stayed in place until 1933, had long-term effects on the status of Indian women in Guyana. For example, while the Indo-Caribbean male writer Peter Kempadoo published Guyana Boy in 1960, Indo-Guyanese women did not publish full-length novels until the late 1980s (Kempadoo 2002).
A member of the Balak Saharta Mandalee, Rajkumari Singh was also involved in the British Guiana Dramatic Society (BGDS) from 1940 to 1957. The society mainly represented Indian middle-class perspectives, not the large portion of the Indian population that was still living on the estates at that time. For instance, in 1950, 43.7 percent of Indians in British Guiana still resided on the estates (Poynting 1986, 135). For many Indians who had acquired property, education, and relative wealth, the lifestyles of the peasantry and working class served as evidence of indentureship which they perceived as a shameful past to be forgotten. Consequently, the BDGS performed scenes from Indian mythology, like the Mahabharata, and plays by Rabindranath Tagore, as a means to connect to a glorious Indian heritage that was disrupted by New World migration. The example of the BDGS demonstrates the ways in which indentureship and working-class history was consciously or unconsciously suppressed by the emerging Indian educated elite and shows the importance of excavating this past: a task Singh and Das take up in their writing.
Singh’s shift from community organizations to politics indicates the movement of Indian middle-class women into the national public. Inheriting her mother’s commitment to Indian women and the poor, Singh went further to enact change on a national level by merging art and socialist politics. She advocated for the recognition of women through various leadership roles, including as a founding member of the Women’s Progressive Organization (WPO) (1953-1954) and the Women’s Revolutionary Socialist Movement (1975-1978); as a delegate to the United Nations International Year of Women Conference, Mexico (1975-1978); as director of the GNS’ cultural section (1975-1978); and as creator of the Messenger Group (1973-1978). Through the Messenger Group, Singh mentored Indo-Guyanese artists such as Mahadai Das, Rooplall Monar, Janet Naidu, and Gora Singh, creating a space (in her home) for artistic expression and collaboration. Through its reclaiming of coolie art forms—aspects of Indo-Guyanese culture associated with indentureship and peasant and working-class communities—the literary circle responded to sections of the PNC that believed Afro-Caribbean culture was authentically Guyanese whereas Indo-Guyanese culture was foreign, and addressed facets of the Indian community that sought to revive “authentic” Indian culture by endorsing speakers and films from India (Benjamin et al. 1998, 108-109). Published in the organization’s journal, Heritage, Singh’s 1973 essay, “Coolie,” redefines coolie from a derogatory term to one that signifies the “tears, defeats, [and] achievements” of Singh’s “hard-working, economy-building forefathers,” affirming a heritage that had been officially and unofficially denied (Singh 1996, 352-353).
In her volume of poetry, Days of the Sahib (1971), Singh addresses themes of cultural identity, class, nationalism, and gender.5 Her eponymous poem, “Days of the Sahib,” displays a feminist working-class ethos grounded in the history of indenture. It begins by expressing skepticism about whether independence has liberated Guyanese people:
Days of the Sahib are over or should be,
now that our land is free of the overlord’s yoke, —(Singh 1971, 3)
Employing the Hindi term Sahib (“master”) to represent the colonizer, this first verse appears to celebrate the end of colonialism. However, the poem’s tone transforms in the third line; the phrase “or should be” delicately indicates that there may be a new Sahib and that the days of tyranny, for the working class and poor, might not be over. This line might be interpreted as a subversive critique of PNC leadership that promised equality to all regardless of ethnicity, class, and gender but whose practices signaled otherwise. In Singh’s nonfiction and creative writing, there is no direct criticism of the party; however, one cannot escape the unease about the poem’s present, expressed in those three words “or should be.”
Singh encourages the Guyanese people to resist new forms of domination in the penultimate stanza:
for no force on earth, no, no violence, no terror
can ever still the spirit of a people
bred to sacrifice and to achieve! (Singh 1971, 4)
Emphasizing the resilience of the formerly indentured and enslaved through a repetition of the term “no”, the poet draws on a shared plantation experience that “bred” Guyanese people to “sacrifice” for and to “achieve” emancipation and independence from their exploiters. Deploying a common history of oppression to promote a unitary vision of Guyanese national identity based on a working-class consciousness, Singh celebrates the victory of the proletariat over capitalism. Her poem calls for unity in a society in which male political leaders often appealed to ethnic and class allegiances to gain and maintain power.
Importantly, the poem underscores the indentured woman, suggesting that her labor legitimates the female poet’s writing of silent histories. In stanza five, Singh identifies women as the group who must disseminate this knowledge:
The Word alone
passed from Mother
to child is evidence of brown women
ravaged in filigreed shadows of swaying sugarcane (Singh 1971, 3)
Recognizing oral narratives as sites of indenture history and of women’s stories, Singh legitimates her own poetic voice. Through the female ancestor’s work and resilience in the face of the sexual abuse she endured, the poet gains strength to “pen” this buried past and to claim Guyana as her own. As Singh’s poem demonstrates and scholar Rosanne Kanhai states: “The canecutting woman, hidden in the canefields, pitting her will, her endurance, her ingenuity against a system that would grind her through its mills and spit her out as canetrash, is the history and psyche of the Indo- Caribbean woman who wants to write” (Kanhai 1999, 213).
Taking gender as a central theme, Singh’s 1971 award-winning poem, “Per Ajie,” imagines the experience of the first Indian female indenture. “Ajie” is the term used by Indo-Guyanese Hindus to refer to a paternal grandmother. Critic Brinda Mehta notes that, in Indo-Caribbean women’s writings, Ajie figures move “beyond mere archetype to indicate their importance as socio-cultural and historical interpreters who initiate transformative re-evaluations of women’s history and cultural resistance” (Mehta 2004, 138). The poet represents Per Ajie as a pioneer who braves the kala pani (dark waters). Although Hindu tradition stipulated that Indians who crossed the sea risked contaminating their Hinduness, for Hindu women migration presented the possibility of transgressing rigid patriarchal structures and abusive communal traditions.
While the New World holds possibilities of liberation and economic improvement, Per Ajie’s status as a single woman leaves her susceptible to sexual exploitation. The poem disputes colonial constructions of Indian women as powerless objects for male consumption by positioning this disenfranchised woman as the viewer of the land:
In my dreams
Thy dark eyes
Peering to penetrate
The misty haze
Veiling the coast
of Guyana. (Singh 1971, 15)
Here, the poet appropriates colonial male gazes, effectively inverting two common colonial tropes: (1) the Indian woman as the object that is being gazed upon, and (2) the land as a woman’s body to be conquered. In colonial discourse, the New World was symbolized as a virgin to be penetrated by the European male explorer. This trope is perpetuated by early Caribbean poets of European descent, including white Creoles H.S. Bunberry and
Tom Redcam (Bunbury 1996, Redcam 1996). Moreover, in the works of the two most well-known postcolonial Caribbean poets, Derek Walcott and Kamau Brathwaite, landscape is continuously represented in feminine terms and the exploration of it is constructed as a male endeavor (DeCaires Narain 2007). For postcolonial Caribbean male writers in the 1960s and 1970s in particular, reclaiming the environment was an important component of decolonization. It represented a claiming of ownership as the region was passed from male colonial rulers to male postcolonial inheritors and presented a way to differentiate the region’s literature from European literary productions. In her poem, Singh revises relations of power by challenging male ownership of the female body and the New World as Per Ajie “penetrates” the land with her eyes. Describing the Guyanese land as “veiled” by a “misty haze,” the poem usurps the veil from the face of the Indian female and transposes it onto the foreign territory, calling attention away from the woman’s body as sexual object to be subjugated. Although Singh employs feminine terms to represent landscape, she presents it as a space of labor rather than one that must be tamed.
The poem goes on to align the feminized landscape with the indentured woman by linking the land’s fertility to women’s reproductive agency: “Couldst thou but see/The land’s abundance/Of growing things/And thy offsprings/Steeped in thy Philosophy” (Singh 1971, 16). The common end rhyme of “growing of things” and “thy offsprings” emphasizes Per Ajie’s role in the planting of cane and the birthing of future generations of Indians. Claiming that the “tears” of the ancestral mother nourishes “The blades/Thou didst sow/In my land,” the speaker uses the possessive pronoun “my” to present the Guyanese land as an inheritance of Ajie’s physical labor, emotional suffering, and marginalization (Singh 1971, 16). In this way, Singh transforms the plantation from a place of exploitation to a site of belonging for the indentured woman and her progeny. Moreover, Singh’s representation of the indentured woman in her workspace contests colonial images “that naturalize workers in their surrounding by blending them into the landscape,” such as those “in early twentieth century postcards and photographs commissioned by multinational food corporations” (Mahabir 2013, 149).
Scholars have overlooked Singh’s impact on the development of Indo-Caribbean feminist thought and few have paid careful attention to her literature. In addition to writings, her contribution to Indo-Caribbean feminism is evident in the work of Mahadai Das, whose poetry can be read in part as a product of Singh’s literary and political mentorship.
About 30 years Das’ senior, Singh (and other Indo-Guyanese women of previous generations) created a space for younger Indian women to advance their literary and political pursuits. By linking the activism of Alice Singh and Rajkumari Singh in the previous section and Rajkumari Singh and Mahadai Das in the following section, I do not attempt to trace a linear narrative of feminist progression, but aim to show how previous generations of women “laid the [foundation] so that succeeding generations could grasp and build on the opportunities that became available in later years” (Kanhai 2011, 12).