Filmmaker Priya Sen’s exhibition reveals migration stories from Trinidad, Mauritius, western India

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The exhibition is on at the Archive and Research Centre for Ethnomusicology (ARCE) in Gurgaon till April 28–a report from the Indian Express.

Over the earphones, a man coughs, clears his throat, and says, “Hamar naam Seevbalak. Umar hai 94.” A harmonium breaks in with a flourish and Seevbalak’s croaking voice swells into a boisterous song about home, autumn and a little girl. As he sings, you notice that Seevbalak is substituting Bhojpuri with a few foreign words and even struggles to recall a ballad from the cow belt. After a lifetime in Trinidad, Seevbalak from Kashi had turned his mother tongue, Bhojpuri, into a mixed lingo of the Caribbean migrants. How displacement affects the selfhood of a person is one of the areas that exhibition, titled “Seevbalak’s Echo Chamber”, on at the Archive and Research Centre for Ethnomusicology (ARCE) in Gurgaon, seeks to highlight. “The more you forget, the more things start to change,” says Seevbalak.

Filmmaker Priya Sen spent a year with the extensive archive at ARCE as a fellow of the India Foundation for The Arts, studying soundscapes to explore ideas of movements, migration, territory and homelands. The recording with Seevbalak dates to 1977, and was made by Hindustani vocalist Laxmi Ganesh Tiwari. There are 35 other clips, including those from Tiwari’s collection of Bhojpuri women’s songs, among them of a group from Waterloo, a village in Trinidad, singing Ram chale banke / Bharat chale gharke, to the tinkle of cymbals and clapping. “Songs travelled in many ways through the diaspora, from films and radio to popular culture and missionary work, but I noticed that the women kept massive amounts of songs alive, from wedding and ritual songs to season songs,” says Sen.

The exhibition is spread over the cataloguing room of the archive. On three listening stations, one can hear recordings made by Tiwari and Helen Myers in Trinidad and Prittiviraj Jayaram in Mauritius. These are accompanied by archival photographs and projections of weddings and migrant life in the islands. In Trinidad, the union of Indian sounds and island songs, such as the Caribbean calypso, gave rise to chutney music, of which Drupatee Ramgoonai was a famous performer. “Ultimately what survives of the various kinds of music that came into the islands through different types of migration is a mix. This is an interesting idea to me because it displaces the idea of identity,” says Sen.

A separate listening room is dedicated to four videos playing on loop of the Siddi community of Gujarat, who had come to India from southeast Africa, centuries ago. The African diaspora give the narrative a different shape and form because, as Sen says, “You cannot trace them to any place or time though they are said to have come from Abyssinia.” As the late qawwal Kamar Badhshah performs at Gori Peer dargah in Gujarat, it is clear that “a kind of assimilation” has taken place among the Africans in India. “This is the opposite of migration,” says Sen.

The exhibition is on till April 28

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