Bhojpuri melodies of a Mauritian tune

Geet-Gawai

For a cultural tradition of one dimension to take root so prominently in another so as to emerge to be a distinctive heritage identity of the latter speaks of a certain appeal rested in that realm of artistic expression. And so does the Geet Gawai tradition specific to Mauritius but owing its origins to the Bhojpuri people of India emerge as being that definite dwelling in distinction of which global recognition is an essentially occurring exploration. A ceremony of much significance as a pre wedding ritual, this tradition of Geet Gawai found inclusion in the UNESCO’S Intangible Cultural Heritage List in 2016.

Literally translating as ‘sing songs’, these female specific ‘performances’ might have been traditions indeed of a certain some people of the north Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. But they have been prevalent in the overseas territory of Mauritius for quite long now, and deriving indeed considerably upon the influences of this country from which it has scouted out a residing in much esteemed identity.

A ‘treasure’ accompanying the indentured labourers coming to Mauritius from India between the early 19th and 20th centuries was this cultural marvel of the geet gawai that has over the years evolved immensely in the region of its non native but much welcoming residing. It had been precisely sometime in the 1830s that the ritual came to curate its cultural charm upon the foreign land. As melodies flowing out of the existence of the ‘Girmitya’s’- as those labourers from British India were collectively called, the geet gawais presented then at least one spectrum of ‘authentic’ existence for these Indians working on the sugarcane plantations of Mauritius, which they did indeed cherish therefore as a feel of home almost.

Despite the very evocation in its mention as Geet Gawai being one very definitely alluding to expressions of songs and dances, this tradition much revered along its now essential Mauritian identity is one rather diverse in fact. While Bhojpuri sung melodies and dances indeed are very much aspects of this composite cultural classification, it also would be other expressions of the ritualistic that occur as equally innate to it. Celebratory as well as religious is the essence of the Geet Gawai tradition in its originality, composed as it is also of certain rituals and prayers seeking out the blessings of the divine in the auspicious occasion of the wedding time occurrences.

As an oral tradition passed on from generation to generation, it is commendable indeed that the Geet Gawai tradition has managed to not just persist but flourish indeed in a land much removed from its place of origin. And it is in recognising perhaps this noble identity of Mauritius and its people as being so welcoming and inclusive of a culture far removed from their own that the UNESCO representation has been accorded to it. The stature of global defining is indeed furthering of the heritage residing that this culturally distinguished composition stands out as but it perhaps also is a acknowledging of the greater Mauritian culture as well to be so imbibing of an essence not essentially their own.

Coming to the exact curations of what unfurls along this rendition of the Geet Gawai ritual in cultural expression and the revelation is one of varied receivings indeed. Once an exclusively female domain of performance, the ceremony itself has involved to today be encompassing of men as well. Equally heartening is the fact that despite its strictly Indian origins and its as definite prescribing to that realm of heritage, the tradition has emerged to be regarded with much interest and reverence by the Mauritian natives.

geet gawai
Source: Le Mauricien

Particularly since the 1970s, performances of such Bhojpuri character has come to be even more cosmopolitan. Not only has this exploration of culture spread outside the Indian diaspora to encompass also the wider Mauritian community in enjoyment of this performance, it also has been non Bhojpuri singers and dancers ensuring the continuity of this uniquely harmonious mode of human coexistence.

Equally expansive has been the arena of their occurring, in being not confined to wedding venues as personal indulgence in traditional celebrations but also taking over public stages as performances of artistic defining. With almost 40% of the country’s population alluding to the Bhojpuri identity, it only is obvious that this living tradition of the community should come also to be such a quintessential characteristic of the entire island nation. Much embedded in the Mauritian existence is the essence of this wide repertoire of the cultural, so much so that led them to thrust upon it enough for finding significant place in the coveted UNESCO listing.

Steeped today in much Mauritian elements indeed of both tangible and intangible assertion is this entire expression of the Geet Gawai tradition playing out across a much elaborate range of happenings. And while additional expressions of the cultural and newer genres of music find identification within the originally ethnic exploration of the Bhojpuris, the very essential practice of the ritual as important part of the pre wedding festivities still play out much in the intended scope of their origin.

Held a couple of days prior to the actual wedding ceremony, Geet Gawai expresses as a melange of exciting encounters of both the devotional and the enjoyable. Generally performed by the women of the family who gather at the bride’s or the groom’s house this essentially musical rendezvous is one significant in every step of happening. The ritual begins with five married woman performing what is called lagan kholna by sorting out pieces of turmeric, grains of unhusked rice grass and coins of money.

Occurring to the tunes of the lagan geet, sumiran and sandhya honouring the divine and extending to the ritual of the dharti bandhai, the ceremony sees a rather curious paying of respect to musical instruments. Called the dholak puja, this distinctive evoking of the religious bears an essence of initiating the complete musical performance wherein items of everyday life ranging from spoons and brass containers and plates to proper instruments of the dholak and the jhaal are made to work together for a very unique sound indeed of producing. The accompanying songs of the suhag geet and the jhumar only helps build up the vibe further, as all those present sway to the beats and tunes of the music while indulging in fun and revelry.

More traditionally though, Geet Gawais happened to be a week long celebration. Unfolding as a spontaneous performance with one lead singer accompanied by some 10 or 12 other women, who identifies uniquely as Geetharines, these very evidently celebratory events would be equally frenzied expressions in aspects of costume and cuisine. Partaken of by women in traditionally colorful costumes is this social and cultural practice, interspersed of course with food elements of what essentially does the rounds in any and every case of celebration. From the general snacks and tea to the more customary servings of ginger powder and betel leaves and black chickpeas, the entire Geet Gawai experience is one of much diversity indeed.

But it isn’t just in such fore of the auspicious and the occasional that this originally Indian, now largely Mauritian identity finds significance. For the music that makes it up is one expressive of every element through which life sustains. Touching upon the universal pathos and pleasures of the human existence and asserting in much perceptible flow of the emotions, while dwelling also in every aspect of what makes the very act of living an art variegated in itself, is this particularly profuse heritage of the cultural realm that shapes up therefore as essential indeed in so many ways of existence.

A definite agent in unity, more than amply reflected in its Mauritian identity of much pride while continuing to be the harbinger of Indianness for those whose ancestors had been once the indentured labourers, the Geet Gawai perhaps is amongst the more unique representations on the UNESCO list. Equally unique is the essence along which the tradition furthers itself, emerging simultaneously as a spontaneous dive into the appeal of the musical while being also rooted in centuries long ancientness of tradition. Consider also the fusion emerging out of an influence of the contemporary times as well as derived upon its Mauritian fore of furthering and the whole Geet Gawai resplendence is one much heterogeneous indeed.

Even outside its innate essence, geet gawai ceremonies still are residing in much profound realisations of life. The very nature of its occurring being one exploring the sacred realm of marriage, these songs and rituals and traditions speak in terms of a certain comfort. A type of comfort arising out of the assurance availed out of marriage being a path in continuity of the human lineage is what makes this representative heritage all the more relevant in its auspiciousness.

Of course more obvious factors in similar comforting association would be the fostering of that feeling of commonality between people, indeed within the family but also outside their own. Precious as well in being a collective piece of cultural memory and one that furthers the feeling of community by arousing pride in being bearers of such a globally revered tradition, the geet gawai speak also of a significance that arises out of it being the only wealth of its people when they were forced to move so far away from their native land and mould themselves into a foreign existence. That it survived for so long and flourished as well in all flair of its defining, even evolving to be an asset of not just communal but national sentiments is indeed what makes this very nostalgic expression a reality looked up to in as much awe.