Cyril Madray Kanhai 1923 – 1980
By Petamber Persaud
THE better part of his first collection of poems, ‘Songs for a New Guyana’, New Dam, Canje, East Berbice, 1961, was published in his own handwriting – italic handwriting which was very pleasing to the eye and other senses and sensibilities. Such beautiful penmanship developed a fluid conversation, a peculiar intimacy between writer and reader. Cyril Kanhai was trained in italic handwriting, lino-cutting, pottery, stone carving, modelling and art history on his way to obtaining a Teacher’s Certificate from the Brighton College of Arts and Crafts in 1956.
Ten years earlier, he gained his Primary School Teachers Certificate in Georgetown, carting off the highest award offered by the Teachers Training College in the process.
Kanhai started his education at Albion Canadian Mission School, the institution that produced J. W. Chinapen, another poet, potter, painter and educator. There is a possibility that the two met at the same school in a teacher/student relationship.
During the period 1963 to 1964, he studied at the Inter American University of Puerto Rico gaining a B.A. in Art and M.A. in Education.
Apart from being a teacher, Kanhai served the education system of Guyana as Assistant Chief Education Officer – Primary, and Deputy Chairman Teachers’ Service Commission.
Educator, painter, poet, Cyril Madray Kanhai was born in 1923 in Port Mourant, Corentyne, Berbice, going on to make all the correct choices and banding in the right associations during a short but meaningful life.
He played a significant role in the History and Culture Week of 1961, a body that was formed to bring about national cohesion by getting peoples to know each other better through the exhibition of their diverse literary and cultural heritages. He was a part of International P. E. N. – the Guyana Writers Group, fostering national pride through imaginative literature. And he was also the President of British Guiana branch of Italic Handwriting.
Kanhai was a very religious person, clad in Christian Theology from his childhood, as was the case with many Indians at the time, ‘clasped hands we kneel dear Lord this day/for the youths of Guyana to pray/and where’er they may roving be/lead them, dear Father, Home for Thee’.
The choices he made along the way were acknowledged with many awards. In 1954, he won the Bain Gray Medal of the British Guiana Teachers Association, named in honour of the first man to make significant innovations to the local education system.
In 1961, and again in 1962, he won the Burnham Gold Medal for Art. Martin Carter said of Kanhai that ‘some of his paintings have attracted critical attention both in Guyana and abroad’. Ms. Elfrieda Bissember, curator of the National Art Gallery stated that Kanhai was ‘a regular at national exhibitions’. Two of his pieces, ‘Road Menders’ and ‘Green Land of Guyana’, are presently on exhibition at the National Art Gallery under the title ‘Circa 1966’ marking Guyana’s 39th Independence Anniversary.
In 1968, the Guyana Writers Group published, ‘An Anthology of Voices of Guyana’ edited by Donald Trotman in commemoration of International Human Rights Year. Herein, Kanhai’s poem, ‘The Struggle’ revealed that ‘the brightest day is darkest night/for him whose feet are wrought in chain/…the darkest night is brightest day/for him whose feet are free to rove’. Significantly, this collection marking such an occasion featured the poetry of five women of 13 writers.
In 1969, he won the Jagan Gold Medal for literature with his poem, ‘So let us Serve’, filled with patriotic fervour ‘I will work/though my limbs ache…to build my beloved country’. That same year, he released his second collection of poems, ‘My New Guyana’. This was published by Sheik Sadeek who had acquired a printing press and was using it effectively to promote the work of many emerging writers. Sadeek was also responsible for bringing to public attention the work of another Cyril – Cyril Dabydeen.
Martin Carter described Kanhai as essentially a nature poet; Barbados found it appropriate to display his poem, ‘The New Land’, inviting more tourists to the island!