CHUTNEY: CONSTRUCTION, CIRCULATION AND THE ASCRIPTION OF MEANING TO THE GENRE
“You take a capsule from India, leave it here for a hundred years, and this is what you get”.
The chutney ‘vogue’ manifested itself as a result of the Indian Indentureship system which in Trinidad spun between 1845 and 1917. This was in response to the aftermath of the emancipation of slaves between 1834 and 1838 in the British West Indies. Plantation owners were now on a mission to obtain labour that was inexpensive and reliable. They sourced laborers from Africa, China and Portugal which to their disappointment had a sudden demise. Eventually they turned to India and by the end of Indentureship approximately 144,000 East Indians came to Trinidad.
Music played a significant role in the Indian`s everyday life. It acted as their agency to cope and survive the harsh realities as Indentured Laborers. The Indians sang for almost any task or ritual. Their repertoire included:
“work songs, these were generally associated with various forms of manual labour, for example the washer woman, the leather-worker, songs while grinding grains and songs while working in rice-fields. Secondly, songs associated with life-cycle events such as weddings, childbirth and funerals. Thirdly, songs associated with seasons and seasonal festivities, e.g. Phagwa or Holi and finally, religious songs or bhajans” (Manuel 8).
The genre engaged by the indentured known as tan-singing, was the popular form of music that predominated among them. The music of the East Indians was typically regarded by local Europeans as “lugubrious and depressing” (La Guerre 37). As a result of the variegated socio-musical soundscape that began to emerge in the 1900’s, there was a decline in the performance and consumption of tan-singing. According to Manuel, “the conditions of the Indo-Caribbean diaspora promoted particular patterns of cultural continuity, syncretism, and innovation. Many aspects of traditional culture declined in the new social setting” (5). English becoming the lingua franca among the Indians also signaled the birth of a new musical endeavor. This genre would soon be an emblem of the Indo-Caribbean identity.
Resulting from a process of cultural retention, adaptation, creolization, modernization and globalization, chutney was born. The etymology of “chutney” is derived from the Hindi word chatni, meaning to lick. This anglicized form of the word into “chutney”, today has two distinct meanings. It can refer to a sweet, spicy and or tangy flavored condiment usually served alongside Indian dishes as well as a popular music genre of the Caribbean especially in Trinidad, Guyana and Suriname.
This essay seeks to articulate and interrogate the music genre of Chutney by contextualizing its construction, circulation and ascription of meaning, and further, illustrate how these meanings might change over time, whilst simultaneously providing a discussion on the dynamics involved in shaping the practice. Akin to its culinary interpretation of being hot and spicy, its musical coinage bears a similar meaning. Chutney music may be defined as a hybridized Indian Caribbean popular music genre; an offshoot of North Indian folk music from the regions of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Traditionally it was first sung in Hindi and/or some associated dialect e.g. Bhojpuri or Awadhi. Today many chutney songs employ a significant degree of English lyrics and western instrument accompaniment. It should be noted that several Indian instruments remained involved in chutney`s production and performance. Such instruments are: the ‘dholak’ (drum), ‘harmonium’ (organ) and ‘dhantal’ (an idiophone consisting of a metal rod struck by a U-shaped clapper).
“Chutney was a genre of songs performed by Indian women in some of the sex-segregated rituals of the Hindu wedding ceremony, before it became a popular art form. When chutney made the transition to the public sphere and adjusted to include men as performers and audience members, it was still considered an exclusive space for Indians” (Mohammed 2).
Raymond Williams argues that culture is ordinary. “Every human society has its own shape, its own purposes, its own meanings. Every human society exposes these, in institutions, and in the arts and learning. The making of a society is the finding of common meanings and directions, and its growth is an active debate and amendment under the pressures of experience, contact, and discovery, writing themselves into the land” (93). Such a statement echoes the construction of chutney. This syncretized genre takes elements from calypso, soca, reggae, tan-singing, Bollywood film music, devotional Hindu hymns and the most recent Electronic Dance Music (EDM) influences. These divergent influences have resulted in the formation of a style truly emblematic of the diversity of the space in which it occupies.
Aspects of the construction and evolution of the chutney industry conforms to the arguments by Adorno and Horkheimer in their work “The Culture Industry- Enlightenment as mass deception”. They argue that the Culture Industry has changed significantly. Its production has moved from an artisanal stage to an industrial stage and in the process of such, produces a much more standardized and mass-produced product. Adorno and Horkheimer further articulate the importance of such a transition in the formation of an identity. They use the term culture industry to describe the commodification of cultural forms that had resulted from the growth of monopoly capitalism. “Culture monopolies are weak and dependent in comparison. They cannot afford to neglect their appeasement of the real holders of power if their sphere of activity in mass society is not to undergo a series of purges” (Adorno and Horkheimer 408). This phenomenon is reminiscent to the transition from tan-singing to chutney and the series of purges it went through to evolve into the style it is today. A very potent aspect of Adorno`s case is his suggestion that under particular social conditions, art (music) can provide an alternate vision of reality. He posits that autonomous art (music) is capable of exposing the injustice of the status quo by presenting what mankind seeks to aspire towards. Such is the case with chutney whereby its lyrical construction attempts to expose the realities of the day whilst suggesting what may be the singers’ ideal hopes and desires. However, some many argue that the genre seeks to enforce stereotypes, positing Indo-Trinidadians as a regular consumers as alcohol, and/or having relationship troubles with in-laws.
The concept of popular culture is imperative to mention when framing any discussion on Chutney. “Popular culture is the accumulation of cultural products such as music, art, literature, fashion, dance, film, cyber culture, television and radio that are consumed the majority of a society’s population” (Crossman 2017). It is known for its mass accessibility and appeal, traditionally associated with the middle or proletarian class and usually opposes the “official culture” of the upper class. When articulating the production, circulation and consumption of chutney it should be mentioned that it situates itself as one example of the popular music not only within the Indo-Trinidadian context but within the larger realm of being Trinbagonian. According to Tina Ramnarine, “chutney in Trinidad indicates that is being promoted, not only as an Indian-Caribbean but also as a national, cultural form” (1). Within the theory of popular culture, scholars have posited two arguments. One argument states that elites who control the media and other popular culture outlets use it to control those of the middle and lower class thereby creating hegemonic sensibilities. The second argument states that popular culture is a tool for the rebellion against the culture of dominant groups. It is in the latter whereby chutney music can be positioned. The genre, similar to calypso came as a need for social, economic and political commentary. One good example is Chutney-Soca 2017 winner Ravi Bissambhar’s piece entitled ‘Budget’. This song spoke about the increase in alcohol prices and not being a deterrent for consumption of it. Humor and parody are also common elements in chutney. Similar to its mother genre of tan-singing, chutney melodies are generally strophic, often adhering to the simple two-part verse-refrain form. According to Manuel, “lyrics tend to be repetitive, often consisting of reiterative lines in which only one or two words are altered, as is the case in North Indian folk counterparts” (9). There its historical links to the ancestral land can be deciphered. Tassa drumming is another very popular type of musical accompaniment in chutney. This is a North –Indian derived ensemble, typically consisting of four or more persons. One plays the dhol (massive barrel drum), two plays the cutter (small kettle drums) and one person plays the jhanjh (cymbals). Chutney-soca artiste Drupatee Ramgoonai in 1989 made waves in both the Chutney and Soca arenas with her composition entitled ‘Roll Up De Tassa’. This piece juxtaposed chutney and tassa in one song.
At the epicenter of the chutney vogue is another performance feature known as dance. This popular dance form especially within the Indo-Caribbean community is known as chutney dance. Chutney dancing is a style that incorporates graceful hand gestures and vigorous pelvic rotations also known as ‘wining’ (gyrating of the waist). It is a derivative of the Bhojpuri folk dance. Modern interpretations of chutney dances have included the synthesis of non-traditional Indian attire and western dance moves to the choreography. Such a phenomenon epitomizes the fluidity of the practice which all adds to the allure transcending race and religion. According the Michael Salickram, artistic director of one of Trinidad’s leading East Indian dance group, over 20% of his girls who dance chutney are of African descent.
In the inscription of meaning to the genre several considerations should be taken into account. Blacking posits “the functions of music in society may be the decisive factors promoting or inhibiting latent musical ability, as well as affecting the choice of cultural concepts and materials with which to compose music“(35). This serves as a good point of entry to articulate what Chutney music does on an individualistic and societal level. It promotes a sense of achievement, happiness and satisfaction, it helps in the release of emotions and in the expression of one’s feelings and finally, the trajectory of chutney singing transmits cultural value, history and the oral tradition. “Music can express social attitudes and cognitive processes, but it is useful and effective only when it is heard by the prepared and receptive ears of people who have shared, or can share in some way, the cultural and individual experiences of the creators” (Blacking 54). Beyond the realm of decorating social events, chutney music has been at the forefront of even religious practices particularly during Hindu wedding rituals. One Trinidadian Chutney singer argues that it is from the ‘Mathkor’ (pre-wedding ritual) ceremony that chutney was born. Rawatie Ali emphatically located the origins of chutney in Hindu wedding rituals, specifically in the mathkor ceremony. “Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise!” she extorted (Ramnarine 4).
In the analysis of this, it may seem possible to accept as true because of one of the common features of a mathkor ceremony is the practice of it becoming a forum to advise the bride-to-be, on what to do on her wedding night sexually. After the religious aspect of the Mathkor ceremony was completed and the officiating pundit departs, women would sing songs deemed to be “vulgar” and perform sexually-suggestive dances usually with a ‘baigan’ (eggplant) to illustrate to the bride-to-be, what to do and expect on her wedding night. Sexual undertones and inferences are a common narrative in chutney. Consider the following examples of two old chutneys
1) Bichiya mare kani ungariya, jharo bedardi ho balama
A scorpion bit me on my finger, come soothe me…
2) Daiya mange batti aur batti mange tel ankhen mange nindiya jobanwa khail
The deya wants the wick and the wick wants the oil, the man`s eyes want sleep but the breasts want fondling.
With the decline of spoken Hindi, recent chutney has become creolized by the introduction of English words. Also, singers have an interest in having their audience understand what they are singing, both because of a decline in the prevalence of Hindi to English, and also to garner a cross-appeal to persons outside the East Indian community. Chutney, similar to its Soca counterpart, generally functions as dance music as opposed to “listening” music and its lyrics as stated earlier are very repetitive. There has been another layer to the chutney soundscape. Melodies from religious hymns or ‘bhajans’ have been the impetus for several chutney compositions. Neeshan Prabhoo in 2005 released ‘Listen Mr. Shankar’, which was a duplicate of a bhajan entitled ‘Jai Jai Shiva Shankar’. Prabhoo’s chutney variation sang about his father-in-law labeling him an alcoholic, whilst the bhajan is devoted to praising the Hindu deity Lord Shiva. Additionally, actual bhajans have been mistakenly identified as chutney and is performed and consumed in spaces considered impure because of its affiliation with meat and alcohol. One example is the famous ‘Nanda Baba’ which is sung in a combination of Hindi and Bhojpuri lyrics, and is actually a bhajan devoted to Lord Krishna. This could possibly have been due to its fast-paced melody and its heavy drumming accompaniment or simply sheer ignorance by its consumers.
Manuel posits, “As a music genre, chutney is of interest insofar as it has become a dynamic Indian diasporic art form and a prominent fixture of the Indo-Caribbean music and dance world. Although chutney as a musical style is relatively simple, the chutney phenomenon as a whole is multidimensional and complex, and has provoked a storm of controversy within the Indo Caribbean communities” (169). The Indian community, like any other has had fractions and controversies and its notions of identity has been subjected to contestation and negotiation, even to this day. Behavioral patterns attached to chutney appear to be in the front burner. Alcoholism, vulgar dancing and sexual promiscuity are traits that have been associated with Chutney and discussions were raised by the, National Council of Indian Culture, Hindu Women`s Association and the Sanathan Dharma Maha Sabha articulating their disapproval.
“Hinduism being such an amorphous and heterogeneous religion, it is not difficult for advocates of any viewpoint to find precedents to justify their arguments. Conservatives can easily point to ideals of asceticism and female modesty and to the almost complete absence of heterosexual couple dance traditions in India. For their part, liberals can stress the hoary traditions of erotic Hindu poetry, sculpture, painting and dance-not to mention such phenomena as the association of prostitutes with certain Hindu temples or, for that matter, the lewdness portrayed in Hindi films” ( Manuel 185).
As previously mentioned, some also see it as enforcing stereotypes. It is important to note that from a feminist perspective, chutney can be seen as an agency for women`s assertion and empowerment against a patriarchal society. A metaphoric medium for women’s liberation, akin to what take places during the mathkor ceremony.
Karan insists that “Chutney treats women as sex symbols. Sundar Popo’s ‘The Virgin’ was said to be so graphically obscene that it was banned from Trinidad and Tobago’ Radio 610” (15). It should be noted that these restrictions or censorship have not been proven to hinder their general acceptance and consumption. Interestingly, they have served as a popularizing force. Gender ideologies are visualized and conceptualized through several forms in popular music. They might be negotiated through lyrics and stage performance, which are in turn mediated by audience members through various interpretations. Consuming Chuteny music with its sexist quality at times, the listener may find him/herself in realm deciphering what the singer is alluding to against their own sensibilities on the subject matter. Peter Manuel problematises the study of song lyrics in his article entitled “Gender Politics in Caribbean Popular Music”, and highlights the gap between consumer perspectives and academic interpretation:
“If the sexism in many such song lyrics may seem readily apparent, interpreting their social significance is actually far from simple. A conscientious analysis of such music must take care not to overgeneralize from unrepresentative samples, and to recognize the often contradictory relationships between expressive discourses like popular song and actual gender relations and attitudes. Most important is the need to contextualize lyrics in their broader cultural milieu, and to consider consumer interpretations and the social practices embedding reception. Basic to such an approach is the recognition that the social meaning of a song cannot be unproblematically “read off” the lyrics by an analyst, however well-versed in modern literary theory he or she may be” (13).
In chutney’s further evolution, the syncretized genre of Chutney-Soca was developed. This synthesis of chutney and soca (Afro-Trinidadian fête music that developed through a mixture of calypso with soul), brought a new dynamic to the soundscape of Trinidad`s popular music. The narratives of the music remained the same for most parts; however the articulation of the content is where we have seen the distinction. Additionally the superimposition of English as the vernacular for Chutney-Soca alludes to another distinction. The organizers of the Chutney-Soca Monarch competition seek to make it marketable to a foreign audience by conforming to ‘international’ standards that can significantly account for the product that have manifested. This links back to the concept of the political economy and the culture industry which seeks to analyse the interplay between politics, society and economics and a system of commodifying and popularizing cultural products for economic gain, while also having a wide appeal to satisfy the “masses.”
George Singh in 1996, established the Chutney Soca Monarch with the objective of creating a forum for chutney and soca artistes to interact, exchange musical ideas and merge the two styles to create an amalgam that may seem promising for an international market. This has become one of the most potent channels for the distribution of Chutney music in the Caribbean. Fearing cultural erosion the Chutney Soca Monarch event also provides an exhibition for the traditional style of chutney known as tan-singing. The Chutney Soca Monarch can be viewed as a contributing factor for the production and survival of the Chutney Industry as annually, local artistes would compose ‘new’ music in their quest to becoming the winner for that year. According to the Trinidad and Tobago Chutney Artiste Association “It has moved from sacred ground to licentious halls; from rural community to urban society. Chutney Soca, Chutney Calypso and Chutney Glow were examples of how Chutney music has influenced the construction of the Carnival festival”. This can be interpreted as one of East Indian contribution to Carnival and national identity.
Throughout the evolution of chutney, it became inconceivable on how Indian music, and the Indian community could retain its “Indianness” without their Hindi vernacular. Nationally acclaimed pioneer in chutney Sundar Popo’s “Nana and Nani”, one of many English songs that can be considered a precursor to modern chutney, offered a solution. The use of familiar folk, Bollywood -style enunciation, are a common practice today by artistes such as Ravi Bissambhar and Adesh Samaroo, bridge the gap by giving their songs a Bollywood melody while widening their appeal to non-Hindi speakers.
Peter Manuel’s commentary on the style, structure and content of chutney and chutney soca brings to the fore contradictions in the music. He notes that:
“Chutney, like “jam and wine” soca, generally functions as dance music rather than listening music, and its lyrics tend to be light and insignificant. If soca song texts are generally unimportant because of their brevity and triviality, most “classical” chutney lyrics are semantically insignificant because of their conventionality and, more obviously, because of the fact that they are sung in a language (Bhojpuri Hindi) that is largely unintelligible to most Indo-Trinidadians and Guyanese” (176-177).
What was once a private and segregated style of women’s music embedded in the core of a conservative and patriarchal society has become a vehicle used by Indo-Caribbean women not only to protest men’s power over them but to celebrate their own sensuality. The genre has evolved tremendously and would continue to do so in the future. It confronts and negotiates a plethora of historical, socio-cultural and musical discourses. The value of Chutney music in people’s everyday lives depends on the contexts in which they hear it, their interpretation and analysis of the uses, and the extent in which they engage with it. These sensibilities then inscribe meanings to the genre and such meanings are subject to transformation as the processes of construction, circulation and consumption of chutney are in constant negotiation.
Adorno, Theodor, and Max Horkheimer. “Chapter 29.” The Cultural Studies Reader, Routledge, London, 2010, pp. 407–408.
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