*Is the Bocas Literary Festival biased?*
By Dr Kumar Mahabir
It seems that the city of Port of Spain has a no-entry sign for
Indo-Trinidadian (Indian) cultural performers. The Fiesta Plaza in
MovieTowne does not entertain these kinds of artistes. The Live Music
District in the capital also does not showcase cross-over orchestras such
as Dil-E-Nadan, T&TEC Gayatones, Karma, and KI & the Band.
The recently-concluded NGC Bocas Literary Festival (April 25-29) is yet
another example of discrimination against Indian cultural performers in
Port of Spain. The powers residing in Port of Spain have demonstrated their
biased belief that (a) Carnival is the only form of national culture in the
multi-ethnic society, (b) Indian culture should be pushed behind the Caroni
bridge, and (c) at best, Indian culture should be confined to a token show
of tassa drumming and an Indian dance. This marginalised treatment is
showcased every time at the Caribbean Festival of Arts (CARIFESTA).
The latest published Government CSO population census in 2011 revealed that
Indians form the largest ethnic group in Trinidad and Tobago (T&T). Yet
they constitute less than ten percent (10%) of the attendees and
participants at Bocas Lit’ Festivals. It seems as though Indians have
silently and individually decided to boycott this biased annual event. The
fact that the main event takes place in Port of Spain, where few Indians
live, also makes it challenging for Indians to attend.
Bocas Lit’ Fest is a great, exciting extended weekend event of readings,
discussions, performances, interviews, workshops, storytelling, music and
film screenings. The National Library (NALIS) venue is abuzz with
activities mainly with local, regional and international writers, readers,
publishers and critics of literary and non-fiction works.
The festival’s founder and director, Marina Salandy-Brown, must be
commended for this initiative. Running for eight years, Bocas Lit’ Fest has
emerged as the Caribbean's premier annual literary festival.
On Bocas Lit’ Fest, literary critic Dr Raymond Ramcharitar wrote: “[T]he
main concern is not promoting literature or art, but establishing the
entitlement of certain people to produce, profit from, and control literary
and artistic production, always at the expense of others” (*Guardian
I interpret “at the expense of others” to also mean the exclusion of Indian
This year, Bocas Lit’ Fest hosted extempo deliveries and workshop on
extempo composition, but no bir-a-ha workshop or renditions. A biraha is an
impromptu song composed on any subject, religious or secular. It may break
all bounds of propriety and social rules. It may even subvert accepted
practices and customs as well as ridicule respected citizens. A biraha is
sung as a solo item and may or may not be rendered with a dholak or typical
nagara drum. It is accompanied by a dance (*ahirwa nach*) punctuated by
rhythmic, fast footwork performed after each stanza.
Bocas Lit’ also included a workshop on fictional biography and biographical
fiction based on the life of calypsonian “Kitchener”, and a documentary
film on the calypsonian “Calypso King” from Costa Rica. Again, no workshop
or film or discussion or performance on biraha, chutney or pichakare.
Both chutney and pichakare are musical forms indigenous to Trinidad.
Chutney soca is a crossover genre incorporating soca elements and
Hindi-English, sung with instruments such as the harmonium, dholak and
Pichakare is a type of social-commentary song created by Ravi-ji, a
spiritual leader, as a counterpoint to political calypsoes which defamed
Indian politicians and personalities. It is sung in Trinidad Hindi
(Bhojpuri) and English on stage during Phagwa, the Hindu festival of colour
This year’s edition of Bocas Lit’ Fest also featured monologues by Carnival
Midnight Robbers. The festival did not showcase an excerpt of Ram-leela or
any of its characters.
Ram-leela is perhaps the oldest living form of free outdoor folk theatre in
the Caribbean. Villager actors play the role of animals, clowns, humans,
saints, gods and demons through masks, costumes, props, gestures and body
movements. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1992, poet and
playwright Derek Walcott spoke glowingly about Ram-leela in Felicity in
central Trinidad. In 2008, UNESCO proclaimed Ram-leela as an intangible
cultural heritage of humanity which should be protected and promoted.
In all of its dramatic performances, the Bocas Lit’ Fest has never included
folktale figures such as *B*irbal from Trinidad and Sachuli from Guyana.
They are the Indian counterparts to the Afro-Caribbean trickster spider,
Indian cultural performers and promoters have realised that the culture
which they practice and promote will always be marginalised or excluded.
They have decided to create their own shows, competitions and literary
Towards this end, the NCIC Nagar, led by Deoroop Teemal, has established
“An Evening of Readings and Discussions” in Chaguanas. Its third quarterly
readings with former journalist and novelist, Ariti Jankie, on Sunday April
22, drew more than 100 guests, mainly Indians.
Spitting fire, Teemal must have blurted, “To hell with Bocas!”
*THE WRITER is an anthropologist who has published 11 books.*