Indian drums and music resound in distant Belize

Indian dancers at Tagore festival, Dartington Hall, 2011

This article by Shubba Singh appeared in India News.

The sounds of Indian drums and music resounded in Belize during a cultural festival held earlier this month to commemorate the arrival of Indians in the Central American country more than 150 years ago. Indians were taken to Belize in the mid-19th century to work on the sugarcane and banana plantations and in the logging industry.

Belize, formerly known as British Honduras, is the only English-speaking country in Central America. It borders Mexico and Guatemala on two sides with the Caribbean Sea on its eastern side. Its Maya ruins, exotic wild life, unspoilt beaches and marine life and barrier reef are major tourist attractions.

Belize is a multicultural society with more than half a dozen different cultures and languages being spoken by its 330,000 population. The descendents of Indian migrants assimilated in the local society through intermarriages and lost their Indian languages. Now the only signs that indicate their Indian ancestry are Indian sounding surnames, ethnic traits like long black hair and dark eyes and some Indian traditions that they have retained.

Indians were taken to the Caribbean islands as indentured workers in the mid-19th and 20th centuries. Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana and Suriname have large communities of people of Indian descent. Other Caribbean island nations like Jamaica, Barbados, St Vincent and the Grenadines have small Indian communities.

It is said that the first group of Indians to be brought to Belize were former Indian soldiers, who were transported for life (exiled) after they rose against the British during the First War of Independence in 1857. Another group of voluntary Indian workers were brought to Belize in 1872 to work on the plantations after their indenture contracts had ended in Jamaica.

There are about 7,000 Belizeans who are descendents of the early Indian migrants; they form four percent of the population of Belize. Most of them live in the Toledo, Cozaral and Belize districts. There is also a small community of Indian businessmen and their families, who arrived in Belize in the past three decades. They are traders and merchants and run shops in the cities. They are mainly Sindhis who came through chain migration, most of them calling their family and relatives to join them in Belize.

In the past few years there have been efforts by Belizeans of Indian descent to reclaim their Indian identity. There has been a revival of interest in India and Indian culture and this revival got an impetus with the establishment of the Corozal Organisation of East Indian Cultural Heritage in 2009. An annual cultural festival was started two years ago that has sought to showcase Indian culture and traditions in Belize.

“Our Indian ancestors had adapted to a different land and despite all the struggles they managed to pass on to us a legacy of a taste of India. Certainly Belize has reaped the rich flavour that the East Indians added to the building of the Belizean nation,” Sylvia Gilharry Perez, president, Global Organisation of People of Indian Origin of Belize, told IANS in an email interview.

The themes of the two cultural festivals were ‘Entrusting our cultural history to our descendents’ and ‘Infusing our past into the future’.

The distance from India has meant that Trinidad and Tobago, across the Caribbean Sea has been the place to get help in “regaining lost Indian cultural forms”. Some groups have gone from Belize to participate in festivals and other events in Trinidad to perform Indian dances from Belize such as the “masala” dance.

A prominent exponent of Indian classical dance, Shanade Ganese from Trinidad performed at the cultural festival and also taught traditional dance to a group of young girls. A museum display at the cultural festival explained facets of Indian culture and the story of the Indian arrival in Belize.

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