Migrants and culture

The essays will be of immense value to students of diaspora studies as they encompass significant cultural transformations over a long period of history.

Published : Apr 17, 2013 00:00 IST

THE multiple dimensions of the phenomenon of migration have long aroused the interest of sociologists and anthropologists alike because of the complex interplay of socio-economic and cultural factors that shape the identity of the migrant subject. The study of diasporic cultures has considerably shifted focus in recent times from an earlier preoccupation with the purely economic aspects of migration to a more holistic appraisal of the enduring cultural configurations that it produces.

In the early and late phases of colonialism, migration was often an instrument for furthering the interests of exploitative colonial capitalism leading to large-scale displacement and uprooting of people from their native cultures.

For the migrants, especially those employed as cheap labour in a variety of colonial projects, the initial phase of acclimatisation to the alien land was strewn with difficulties.

Culturally speaking, this period was also marked by a longing for the native land and consequent attempts at preservation of an “authentic” native culture. This cultural transformation by no means follows a straightforward and similar trajectory across the entire spectrum of diasporic populations.

For instance, the Punjabi diaspora in the United Kingdom has an interesting history of cultural transformation—from a deep emotional attachment to the authentic culture of the native land, there has been a gradual shift to shaping their own more complex cultural configurations in the 1980 and 1990s.

The anthropologists R. Ballard and G. Baumann, in their work in the 1990s, have presented a nuanced ethnography of contesting cultural identities among the diaspora in multi-ethnic Britain. On the other hand, in Bangladesh, migration to West Asia as well as to the West led to the reintroduction of a more authentic, “pure” Islam among the migrant population shorn of local rituals, which were perceived as “impurities”.

The anthropologist Katy Gardner’s work in the 1990s dwells at length on these aspects of migration from Bangladesh.

The book under review, a collection of essays on the Indian diaspora in the Caribbean edited by Rattan Lal Hangloo, touches upon the diverse aspects of the history of Indians who migrated to the Caribbean between the 1840s until the 1920s, mostly as indentured labourers. The understanding of the migrant Indian populations in the Caribbean is complicated by the heterogeneity of the group in terms of cultural practices and the complex nature of the encounter between “indigenous” cultures and colonial domination.

This collection of essays successfully teases out the complex cultural reconfigurations of the Indian diaspora in the Caribbean. Culture is seen as a dynamic, ever-changing entity, which even while asserting itself as a form of resistance to colonial hegemony also emerges as a site of contestation for competing power centres within the indigenous community.

The essays compiled in the volume speak to each other in complicating the emergence of an “Indian culture” against the backdrop of a range of historical events shaping the diasporic identity. Drawing on a range of archival sources and secondary literature on the subject, including newspaper articles and colonial records, the essays engage with the question of reconstruction of culture emerging at the interstices of significant socio-economic and political changes. One of the central concerns that most of the essays address is how the notion of an “Indian culture” is shaped through contestations between heterogeneous, at times competing, cultural ideologies and how in the post-indentureship period this ideology is used as an instrument of nation-building.

While the book makes a significant contribution in delineating the diverse ways in which the cultural identity of the Caribbean diaspora is constituted, one would have expected a more detailed and nuanced treatment in some essays of the question of nationalism and nation-building in the post-colonial societies in the Caribbean. The question of nation-building and the attendant need for legitimacy in a post-colonial society emerge from a project of cultural reconstruction of the colonised. In this context, adequately analysing the tenuous connections between cultural reconstruction and nationalism is significant to understand the history of a diasporic population.

This collection of lucid essays would have been further enriched by contributions that highlighted these links in a nuanced way. The dynamic nature of the “culture” of the Indian migrants, which evolved through a complex interaction of socio-economic and political processes, is adequately brought to the fore by some essays in this collection.

Radica Mahase, in her essay titled “Indian culture in Trinidad”, notes how the Indian culture transported to Trinidad by the indentured labourers comprised a variety of Aryan, Dravidian, Hindu and Muslim traditions as well as cultures of different villages, castes, districts and religions.

The essay also touches upon the complex negotiation of the colonial masters with the cultural practices of the labourers: it notes that while every attempt was made to suppress the culture of African slaves, “less repressive measures” were used for the Indian indentured labourers. The colonial masters were selectively intolerant of the cultural practices of the labourers that they deemed to be a threat to colonial domination and order. The essay also traces the gradual evolution of an “Indian” culture as forging a sense of solidarity among Indians placed in a hostile environment of oppression and enslavement.

Sherry-Ann Singh’s essay titled “The Ramayana in Trinidad” looks critically at the question of cultural reconstruction in an alien environment and outlines the processes of formation of new cultural configurations shaped by the contingencies of the diasporic condition. The essay illustrates these processes with the variety of ways in which Tulsidas’ Ramcharitmanas was introduced into the socio-cultural and emotional life of the indentured labourers. The author notes that the wide appeal of the religious text led to its integration into the ideologies of any religious organisation attempting to gain a following among Hindus in Trinidad.

The 1980s witnessed a relaxation in caste considerations in ritual matters, which was evident in the increasing number of non-Brahmins officiating at the yagnas. In fact, the author mentions that there was a practice of non-Brahmin Ramayana readers presiding over informal satsang s. Several ideals posited by Ramcharitmanas have been reconsidered and reshaped according to changing social norms. The other essay by the same author, titled “Trinidad Hindusim, 1917-1945”, outlines the process of Sanskritisation that had begun by the beginning of the 20th century whereby there was a move towards attaining a “standardised form of Hinduism” by eliminating rituals that were seen as not in keeping with the spirit of sanatan dharma .

Growth of nationalism Some of the essays in the book trace the growth of nationalism and the emergence of a “national culture” in the post-colonial period in the Caribbean. Rattan Lal Hangloo’s essay titled “Nationalism and Education: Dr Eric Williams” throws light on the ways in which the nationalist project was shaped by Dr Eric Williams through concerted efforts to forge solidarity between nationalists of different cultural, ethnic and even territorial roots in the Caribbean. Other essays in the book also touch upon the growth of nationalism. Radica Mahase’s essay traces the growth of a Trinidadian middle class that made attempts to propagate Indian culture in the colony. Radica Mahase does gesture towards some of the obstacles to a process of emergence of a common “national consciousness” as well as the wider socio-cultural ramifications of the nationalist project. She mentions an article in East Indian Weekly , which reprimanded women for not “reverting to the glorious past of Mother India” and “called on the Trinidadian Indian population to marry Indian”.

The project of nationalism in a society with diverse strands of culture, however, needs to be problematised further.

One is left wondering after reading the essays that touch upon this subject if the project of nationalism involving the integration of diverse cultural practices was an entirely seamless activity. What kind of tensions did it produce across the contours of caste and religion of a heterogeneous diasporic population?

The book raises these important questions but does not adequately answer them. The project of nationalist integration in multicultural societies in the post-colonial period has never been an easy one. The enterprise of nation-building has always encountered the difficult questions of the position of minorities in the project, the risk of lapsing into majoritarian cultural domination, and the legitimacy of the project itself vis-a-vis its vision of a multicultural society. There could have been a deeper engagement with these concerns.

There are other essays in the book that throw light on the salient aspects of the cultural identity and history of indentured labourers in the Caribbean.

Ann Marie Bissessar’s essay titled “Breaking the Glass Ceiling” traces the experience of the female indentured labourers who migrated to the Caribbean.

Shaheeda Hussain’s article presents a general history of the economic and labour activities of women who had adopted occupations apart from plantation labour, including market-vending, small-scale agriculture and market gardening. The article traces the gradual emergence of entrepreneurship and the emphasis on being self-reliant among Indian women who wanted to engage in economic activities outside the state structure.

The book will be of immense value to students of diaspora studies, historians and anthropologists as it encompasses significant cultural transformations over a long and turbulent period of history.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment