I met 88-year-old Pita Pyaree last year shortly after the aging performer had become a recipient of an award from the Guyana Folk Festival committee. Pita Pyaree is, of course, a stage name meaning a 'father's love.' Her real name is Munia Tulsi Ram, and she was born in Aurora village, Essequibo Coast, on May 10, 1917, the very year marking the end of Indian indenturship. Her father, who came from India, was a skilled musician who also played the clarinet and violin. After her parents died early - her father passed away in 1930 - the young Munia moved to Georgetown and lived with a step-relative.
Pita Pyaree does not belong to this age, and to write about her is to recall an era almost lost from national memory; a time when East Indian culture in the public place was at its height. Before the advent of local sugarcane revolutions and political parties, it revived some defunct East Indian organizations and gave birth to others, including the Guyana Maha Sabha, the British Guiana East Indian Association, and the British Guiana Dramatic Society, which staged dance-dramas (eg, Indar Sabha), plays (eg, Rabindranauth Tagore's King and Queen), and drama-pageants (eg, Savitri and Ramlila) adapted from Indian epics. This is the age from which the most accomplished of East Indian musicians ever, including multi-talented maestro, Ustad Balghangandar Tilack, emerged.
When Pita Pyaree came of age, folk music genres transported from the villages of India and a strain of classical called tan sangeet which has since died were prominent. Even some of the instruments used then - sitar, sarangi, tabla, have disappeared from our community. Local music and dance became influenced by the influx of the Indian 'talkies' - movies - which started in 1935. Predating the age of 'filmi' music, leading actors were required to be singers, and someone like KL Saigal became fixtures in the imagination of local East Indian performers. That same year, an 18-year-old - Pita Pyaree - entered a singing competition sponsored by Joseph Jaikaran (the original owner of today's Jaikaran's drug store). She won, starting an astonishing career in performance art.
For the first one hundred years in the colony, East Indian women did not dance on the public stage as performers, though they were singers and musicians, and danced privately at matikors ('dig dutty') and mouran (shaving of newborn's hair) ceremonies. Men, including the london ki naach dancers who dressed and performed as women, danced publicly. (It was these dancers that attracted Pita Pyaree when she was a child, eventually prompting her to dance later.) Initially, two dance styles, again based on imported folk traditions, were prominent within the Indian community: the nagara (solo act, energetic, very acrobatic moves) and jatkay ki naach (swirls, subtle hip moves, emphasis on graceful tendencies, elaborate hand gestures).
But, at the turn of the twentieth century as indentureship waned, a third style - rajdhar - appeared. It developed rigid ties with local tan sangeet and absorbed moves and mannerisms from the other two schools of dance, with an emphasis on intricate pouti (footwork). Those who danced in this tradition were called rajdharies. It is this rajdhar style that Pita Pyaree adopted (especially the pouti), after she received dance instructions while on a visit to Trinidad in 1939.
The role of the female Indian dancer
Twentieth-century British Guiana/Guyana has had an abundance of write-ups on dance. Yet, there is very little on Indian dance in the first fifty years and no evidence of interest in the role of the female Indian dancer - or, the combination of singer-dancer, a performance category that does not exist today. After World War II, much of what was written bordered on abstract descriptions that lacked a sense of the dance techniques, dance styles, or dance philosophy found in the East Indian community. This is most evident in the writings of the seventies, when the worst dramatic critiques appeared.
In April, after Pratap and Priya Pawar from India gave a performance, one reads; "Pratap and Priya reached high cultural levels in the interpretation of a Dance Island" (Chronicle, April 26, 1976). The reviewer fails to mention Kathak or Ordissi dance styles - classical forms in which the Pawars specialized - or what constitutes "high cultural levels." This phrase is used because it merely sounds sophisticated and fashionable. In the second example, one sees the corrupting linguistic influence of Guyana's socialism, which tended to make everything, including dance and art and music, political. Two young Indian women from Berbice are described as "comrades" who are "top class dancers" in "pop and classical dancing." The writer does not define "pop" dancing, and expresses his ignorance of Indian dance styles by thinking it sufficient to say "classical" instead of actually identifying a manner of dance. Whether it was Bharat Natyam or Kathak was irrelevant to the reviewer (Chronicle, August 10, 1976). As these examples show, the skills of the Indian woman on stage in general remained untouched, without adequate description, unknown.
The female East Indian stage dancer broke with tradition in the late thirties-early forties, when a few women such as Gracie Devi and Pita Pyaree dared to dance. And with time, their dancing created a permanent public space enjoyed by dancers of later generations - Marlyn Bose Shah, Dolly Baksh, Rita Christina, Fazia Ally, Nadira and Indranie Shah, and today's female dancers from the Guyana Hindu Dharmic Sabha such as Vindya Persaud. The early pioneers performed amidst severe condemnation - to the extent that an actual dancer's name (Paturia) became a label to mean an immoral dancer. To be East Indian and a woman on stage was a great throwback on the community from which one came, and deserving even of ostracization, a view that found expression in the supposed justification of the rape and murder of Ms Dolly Baksh, a premier dancer, "because" she was a public dancer, and "because" she was East Indian.
As a dancer, Pita Pyaree improvised on her rajdhar techniques, incorporating mannerisms and costumes associated with American vaudeville dance-dramas, and techniques from Hawaiian Hula dance (which she referred to as "oriental"), both of which surfaced in the British colonies on account of World War II. She became famous for her acrobatic 'splits,' as much as for being different. During her dominance, she worked with four foreign promoters, touring Suriname, Cayenne, and Trinidad for shows and contests, as was customary. In one music-and-dance competition involving the prominent female dancer-singers (eg, Champa Devi, Kamla Devi) from Guyana, Suriname, and Trinidad, Pita Pyaree emerged as the winner. For much of the fifties, she performed in Suriname at its Konfreyari festival.
In 1962, although Pita Pyaree continued to sing, the dancing stopped. She remained busy in the seventies, hosting a half-hour segment of live Indian music on Radio Demerara, featuring a new generation of singers such as Manie Haniff; she even acted in a small role in one of our locally filmed movies, the Sound of Sugar Cane. After having sung 'filmi' songs of playback singers for decades, she wrote and cut her only record in 1981. (She has no actual copy of the vinyl record today.) My Husband's Girlfriend, a lament on infidelity and mistrust between two women who are close friends, was covered by India's Kanchan in her album of Guyanese East Indian folk songs. When she toured Guyana in the mid eighties, Kanchan and Pita Pyaree performed the song together onstage:
When I was a young girl
I heard my mother say
Never have a woman friend
She'll take your man away
Well I knew this woman
I thought she was my friend
Then I come to realize
She was my husband's girlfriend
I asked her to sing this song, and she did, accompanied on the harmonium by her 90-year-old husband, Pandit Tulsi Ram, a musician in his own right and one of the few people with knowledge of our bygone classical sangeet. (Momentarily, one may suppose, 1935 was recreated by this unusual couple of dancer-singer and singer-priest, who had, after all, first met that same year at the ZFY radio station, where each had gone to sing.) Pita Pyaree suffered an attack of dengue fever a few years ago, and its effects were still audible, for she started painfully, wrestling with long notes as if she were intent on betraying age and illness until truly, like the experienced performer she is, the songster returned even if momentarily to a place of her own.
Thanks to Pita Pyaree and Pandit Tulsi Ram.
written and edited by Dr Vibert C Cambridge. Dr Cambridge