Public Performance: The Case of the Chutney Stage

For Sampath (1993, 1997) the public performance of masculinity was a critical issue for Indo-Trinidadian males seeking to establish their manhood in an Afro-dominant society. We have already seen how these become performances of what Kavyta Raghunandan has termed hyphenated identities (Raghunandan 2012, 7), reminiscent of Sampath’s reputation/respect- ability dualism. This performance necessarily includes the everyday—as in hegemony over their women as well as in the publicly accepted values of success, e.g., wealth, politics, sport, and sexual performance (not necessarily in that order). But also important in Trinidad and Tobago is the public performance of “freedom” and expressions of joy through song and dance as reflected in the creole popular cultural forms like calypso, carnival, and soca.

The emergence of chutney and chutney-soca presented for the first time forms of Indo-Trinidadian popular culture, capable of attracting large audiences during Carnival—the hegemonic national festival. Originally, chutney was a folk genre associated with the female-only rituals of traditional Hindu pre-wedding ceremonies. Today, men have come to dominate the modern public chutney and chutney-soca arenas. For some Indo-Caribbean women’s groups and national Indian cultural organizations, these musical performances were a disgrace to Indian culture. For younger Indians, predominantly male cultural nationalists,9 they represented a popular alternative to calypso and the emergence of a mass Indian popular culture that could promote Indian solidarity (Niranjana 2006,

116-117). It also provided a space for Indo-Caribbean youth and working classes to engage in Indian-led, large-scale public performance and festivities. While as with calypso and soca, the majority of performers are male,10 there are always female performers.

Entitling her analysis of the public performances of Indo-Trinidadian chutney-soca artistes, “Love and Anxiety,” Aisha Mohammed identifies the chutney space as one of contending narratives around normative ideas of masculinity and femininity as well as one of contestations and negotiations around gender and sexuality and complaints by both women and men (A. Mohammed 2007, 9).11 The songs by women complain about men’s financial, emotional, and sexual inadequacies or absences, often in a pleading and urgent tone. Men’s songs, however, reject this and accept no culpability.

Mohammed identified eight core themes emerging from the lyrics of these songs.12 In relation to her first theme, “Dem man and dem so lazy”: Grievances in Love and Marriage,” women complain about laziness, abusiveness, and controlling and demanding behavior. Mohammed suggests that women are no longer satisfied with the traditional notion of “male provider,” but express the need for satisfaction of their emotional needs in addition to the physical and financial ones:

In Rasika Dindial’s song “Lazy Man” (1998), the husband is absent emotionally, financially and physically; he contributes neither labour nor money to the household and prefers to go down to the river to lime with friends. On top of all that, he is also abusive and controlling. (A. Mohammed 2007, 13)

The old and recurring trope of infidelity is used by men to justify the absence of emotional engagement and trust.

In another of Mohammed’s themes, “Ranis and Rajas of Chutney: Songs of Self-Affirmation,” she argues that “men sketch out what it means to be an Indian male” as “one who can control women’s bodies and is sexually potent” (A. Mohammed 2007, 10). Through the songs, she suggests, Indo-Caribbean men exert a symbolic power (A. Mohammed 2007, 10) reminiscent of similar sexual boasting in the public performance of calypso, soca, and other popular musical forms, supporting her assertion that this is primarily a negotiation with other men for prestige as there are few songs of self-affirmation from women.

In another theme, “Violent Love: Men Sing About Domestic Violence,” Mohammed noted that Indo-Trinidadian male performers are often the ones who sing about domestic violence and that these songs are directed toward men. They assume a kind of moral authority on behalf of female victims and distance themselves from abusive men. In many ways, this type of performance presents a public rejection of an established stereotype of Indo-Trinidadian males and reflects the success of the regional women’s movement in delegitimizing (although not eliminating) gender-based violence. While, for the most part, they express disapproval of violence against women, their performances do “embody the entire spectrum from normalizing domestic violence by conveying a humorous situation or speaking out against it by condemning abusive men” (A. Mohammed 2007, 36).

Mohammed concludes that the shift from the private female-only chutney space to the male-dominated public arena created an opportunity for women and men to renegotiate their identities both on and off the stage, yet men have continued to dominate the performance stage and no woman has yet won the coveted first prize. Women performers however have used the space to express their own perspective on men, as reflected in Rasika Dindial’s “Lazy Man” which brought her second place in the 1998 Chutney Monarch finals and Drupatee Ramgoonai’s “Meh Husband Only Want Me to Cook.” What is interesting is that many of the women’s songs are written by men who appear to understand women’s situation and to represent their feelings and emotions. It also suggests a degree of co-writing between the singer and the songwriter. Mohammed notes further that while, in an analysis of lyrics, women’s voices can be drowned out by men’s, in the performance space, women’s participation as members of the audience and participants on the dance floor is a powerful and transgressive image (A. Mohammed 2007, 40).

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