Author: Dr. Visham Bhimull
The celebration of light over darkness known as Divali has been given greater significance during the last twenty-five because of the perseverance and determination of the members of the National Council of Indian Culture who have been devoting much time and effort in the promotion of Indian Culture that has culminated in the establishment of the Divali Nagar. The period of activities leading up to the actual day of celebration gives an opportunity to many artists both locally and internationally to showcase their talent and as a consequence the members of the NCIC holds Divali Nagar very dearly to their hearts.
It was February 1986, one week after the annual grand celebration of the national festival of Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago. A meeting was carded to take place at the Barataria office of the travel agency, Amral’s Travel Service, by its owner, the then President of the National Council of Indian Culture (NCIC), Mr. Hans Hanoomansingh. For several years this office had served as a meeting place for the members of the council in carrying out its mandate to propagate and promote Indian Culture with reference to the Indian Diaspora in Trinidad and Tobago. The agenda of this meeting was no different to those held previously, as it focused on developing strategies for the promotion of Indian Culture, and implementation of plans for execution.
However, on that particular day there was an air of extreme anticipation, as members of the council, under the advice of the President of the Council, had invited prominent individuals, who for many years were at the forefront of the promotion of Indian Culture. These individuals were hand-selected by the NCIC executive to be privy to the unveiling of a master plan to bring together the peoples of the Indian Diaspora in T&T in a united effort to promote Indian Culture. The air of expectancy was reminiscent of a similar event, 22 years prior, when on the 19th of July 1964 the founders of the NCIC, Bisram Gopie and Narsaloo Raamaya, had organized a meeting with over a hundred activists of Indian Culture at the Gandhi-Tagore College in San Fernando to announce the formation of this very same council designated back then as the National Council of Indian Music and Drama.
All assembled on that fateful day, Monday February 17, 1986 at Amral’s Travel Service, waited with baited breath to hear the vision that was the brainchild of Mr. Hanoomansingh. It was hinted that its focus would be on the development and implementation of a strategy for a national, and presumably, international focus on Divali, the Hindu Festival of Lights. This ancient and spiritually ennobling festival was brought to T&T since the period of East Indian Indentureship and is being celebrated to the present day in this twin island Republic. It received national recognition from 1966 as it was declared a national holiday, two years after the NCIC itself was established. However, like most aspects of the culture of the Indian Diaspora, Divali was not viewed as a significant part of the culture of T&T, despite the fact that almost half of the nation’s population was of East Indian descent. At that meeting in 1986 Mr. Hanoomansingh recalled that while as a participant attending a series of seminars on invitation by the US Government, on international management, during brief session at the state department, his eyes caught a very impressive poster headlined, “The African Diaspora in the Caribbean.” Indeed, he thought that its focus was valid and important but one question was burning in his mind and he felt compelled at ask it. “But what of the Indian presence in the Caribbean?” he inquired. Blank stares greeted him by state department officials. He continued, “With your active political involvement in Guyana and your intelligence activities in Suriname and Trinidad, you must know of the substantial Indian population in the region.” The officials conceded that they had never considered the point.
The general perception of the culture of Trinidad and Tobago both locally and internationally has been exclusively steelpan, calypso and carnival. The recognition of Indian Culture was never as significant as the other aspects which was considered “we ting or we culture” and for that reason provisions by the government of the day were meager funding if any at all. This financial strangulation of Indian culture by the powers that be raised concerns especially among members of the NCIC.
During that time Divali was traditionally celebrated at home but gradually in those villages and communities with strong Hindu presence, there have been the coming together of those families in a community effort to foster better relations by engaging in puja (ceremonial worship), lighting of deeyas, and cultural programmes in celebration of the event. Even though a huge section of the population celebrated this religious festival, it was low key due to the lack of government support. The responsibility for celebration among the villagers was undertaken by those members of the Indian community themselves, since major funding was inaccessible for large-scale celebrations like Carnival.
Since the establishment of the NCIC in 1964, there were efforts to have a united celebration for Divali at Harris Promenade and Skinner’s Park in San Fernando. In spite of all this the celebration was never embraced as other festivals such as Christmas, Easter and Carnival etc. Divali, like other Indian festivals and cultural expressions, had never been given space on the national stage. Something was needed to make a statement to the national community.
On that fateful evening, Mr. Hanoomansingh addressed the members assembled at this special meeting with the most inspiring and encouraging words, “Let me invite you now for a few moments to travel with me ahead of time. It is the last week of October 1986. We are in a huge public place; sacred music fills the air. Around us are strong images of the festival. Proud artisans are completing their displays. Dancers and musicians are at the last-minute rehearsals. Some distance away mouth-watering Indian dishes are being prepared. Rehearsals are also taking place for a professional presentation of Ramleela. Someone, with a deep sense of accomplishment brings you the first copy of the Divali brochure in English and Hindi; so intricate, so excellent. The brochure gives details of the week-long activities; appropriate worship for Divali among them and you automatically walk towards the area set aside for the prayers. A feeling of purity and joy envelopes your being. You sit there entranced, envisioning the events that lie ahead and hoping each activity will bring the response towards which you have worked so devotedly. With your eyes closed, you see event after event taking place, crowds of nationals and visitors absorbed with this unique event and then the final celebrations of Divali with thousands of deeyas and coloured bulbs, voices in song, hearts enriched; one energised nation in noble pursuit. Brothers and sisters, Divali 1986, will this become a reality?”
This vision he called Divali Nagar. This “Nagar” (City) in which the national community can congregate as a united people to celebrate Divali was indeed a noble vision of Mr. Hanoomansingh. The national focus on Divali, he truly believed, would have achieved an awareness of the religious, social and cultural dimensions of the festival to the extent that did not exist at that time in T&T, and hopefully, by extension, achieve the same for Indian Culture as a whole.
Those sitting at that meeting were indeed intrigued by the idea and lent their full support. A Divali Nagar committee, led by Pundit. Dr. Rampersad Parasram, was immediately set up and coordinated by Ms. Nirmala Maharaj. In the coming weeks a press conference was held at the Holiday Inn, Port-of-Spain to announce the event. This sent a wave across the country and many religious organizations began approaching the NCIC requesting to lend assistance towards this brilliant venture. Some groups were approached but many came on their own and unsolicited by the NCIC to lend assistance and to put together the first Divali Nagar in that year 1986. Groups worth mentioning were the Fireburn Mandir, Hindu Praachar Kendra, Edinburgh Mandir, Beaucarro Mandir and the Mc Bean Mandir. There were also individuals who came from the business sector offering financial support. The Seeram brothers allowed their massive parking lot at the Mid Centre Mall in Chaguanas to be used as the site for the Divali Nagar (The City of Lights). The NCIC was indeed overwhelmed by the volunteerism shown by mainly members of the East Indian community.
On the evening of the first night of Divali Nagar 1986 (the first Divali Nagar) a procession of school children escorted a murti of the Goddess Lakshmi, accompanied by tassa to a specifically designated site at the Divali Nagar, Mid Centre Mall. The sound of tassa and the vision of the Goddess being paraded between the many jhandis flying so loftily at the site was a sight to behold that touched the hearts of the thousands who were present. The air was filled with a sense of unity never felt before. Everyone was focused on the one thing they wanted to see happen, and hoping it would.
As the murti took its rightful place within the City of Divali, the cultural programming began. Various groups performed on the main stage of Divali Nagar that night and the nights that followed, rendering their heartfelt expressions centered on the festival Divali and performances that stemmed from the Indian Diaspora in Trinidad. Bhajans were the main attraction as it was an auspicious period of worship. The highlight of the stage performances was Hari Om and Nandini Sharan, the dynamic duo from India famous for rendering soulful bhajans. Their renditions were very popular among the Indian dipspora and still are today. It was said while these two performed on the stage, it began to rain. Their performance was so captivating that the crowd stood mesmerized. Not a soul sought shelter.
Those words enunciated by Mr. Hanoomansingh, only a few months prior to the event, indeed came to pass as performance after performance captivated the hearts of the thousands gathered at the first Divali Nagar. To see Indian Culture and talent showcased in such a grand affair for the first time brought tears to the eyes of the NCIC members involved in its production. For seven days, not only the performing arts were showcased on a grand scale, but the way of life, that was so familiar to Indians in Trinidad for over one hundred years, was on display.
One cannot forget the Girmitya Gaw (Village of the Indentured Labourers) display organized by the Hindu Praachar Kendra. This demonstrated a typical estate village house with full domestic amenities that were unique to the estate Indians. This elaborate and intricate display brought out the point that the Indians were proud of who they were and from whence they came. Such display of Indian daily life and religious activities were common themes amongst various religious booths that were constructed throughout the Nagar. Even commercial booths had some display that centered on the ‘row of lights’ concept of Divali. Indian cuisine also took centre stage as many stalls were set up to prepare traditional East Indian food of T&T e.g. roti, chokha, sabji tarkari, anchaar, aloo pie, doubles, sahina, kachowrie, Indian delicacies etc. The aroma of mouth-watering Indian dishes filled the air.
Prior to the first night, the NCIC members had informed the Commissioner of Police that no more than 10,000 people would have been expected, but the idea of Divali Nagar seemed to have opened an outlet to release the dynamic force of Indian Cultural expressions that had been suppressed for decades. The total number of persons attending on the first night totaled 23,000. This was the largest gathering ever assembled to celebrate and event pertaining to the Indian Diaspora in Trinidad.
What transpired in those seven days of the first Divali Nagar created a ripple effect in the nation. It was indeed the fillip needed to push Indian Culture in the forefront of cultural activities in T&T. Mr. Bob Ramroop, an NCIC executive member since the 1960s, in a recent interview expressed the following sentiment about Mr. Hanoomansingh and his vision. “Mr. Hanoomansingh chartered this council from a non-recognition factor and demanded recognition by the non-Indian community, and he got it!” he said. Mr. Hanoomansingh himself had this to say about the effect of Divali Nagar on the nation’s consciousness and acceptance of Indian culture. “Historians would recognize what had happened was that the embrace went beyond the tens of thousands of people who have been coming to Divali Nagar. It has gone everywhere in the country now and for a long time since the start of Divali Nagar, the NCIC and its supporters have the satisfaction that in spite of the fact that there was no recognition of the culture, now various business places e.g. the banks during the Divali period, one sees the bank tellers wearing traditional Indian wear, the row of lights on display, the sweets handed out, the serving of Divali vegetarian luncheons. I recall Hubert Dolsingh with great jubilation, coming to see me and showing me that the first-class meal on BWIA, the national airline, consisted of a total Indian meal. When the churches replaced candles for deeyas at Divali time, when the newspapers put images of Divali and the Hindu tradition in the front page and in colour and write editorials in support and recognition of the voluntary work, then we know that the vision and the work succeeded. Indeed, we have seen the acceptance take place.”
In the years following, Divali Nagar at that site had become an annual event and was celebrated until 1989 on the grounds of Mid Centre Mall prior to the day designated the Divali holiday. Year after year the supporters and patrons grew, increasing the caliber of its grand celebrations. Around the same time of the Divali Nagar event 1989, there was a change in the political tide. The new government was sympathetic to the cause of NCIC, particularly two key political individuals; Prof. Brinsley Samaroo and Mr. Winston Dookeran. They lobbied for the NCIC to obtain sufficient parcels of land to host the Divali Nagar, land that would be donated by the government to the NCIC for the promotion of Indian Culture. This resulted in the procurement of fifteen acres of Caroni 1975 Ltd. land at that known site off the Uriah Butler (formerly Princess Margaret) Highway, Chaguanas, the ‘home’ of the Divali Nagar. Due to the insurrection by the Jamaat al Muslimeen in 1990, no celebrations were held by the NCIC, but in 1991 Divali Nagar was held for the first time at the present site.
As the years passed by, the exposition of Indian Culture at the Divali Nagar has expanded with significant improvement. The celebration is annually undertaken with a theme depicting an aspect of Hindu philosophy from the Indian Diaspora is highlighted. There are various displays that are selected to educate the visitors on the theme. Mahatma Gandhi and Swami Vivekananda were two of the most popular themes over the years. For the latter theme, a huge statue of the Swami was erected on the compound and for years it brought great inspiration to locals and foreigners alike.
The NCIC sees itself as the guardian and patron of the folk tradition in T&T. Its major focus in the early days as the National Council for Indian Music and Drama was the promotion of the local classical art-form of the Indian Diaspora. Yearly during Divali Nagar there is a special theater, designated the Folk Theater, for performances of the folk traditions of the Diaspora. It is the hope that this initiative will preserve this dying art-form in the midst of the commercialization from India in T&T, especially the Bollywood influence. The main stage performances have grown to be of world-class standard as it is not the performing arena for local artistes alone, but world renowned international artistes from India and many other places in the world where the banyan tree that is India has spread its beneficent shade.
Indeed one cannot deny that the commercial aspect of Divali Nagar has also grown with its popularity. Critics of the NCIC have often emphasized this point. A major part of the finances that supports the NCIC comes from the investments of the business sector during the Divali Nagar celebrations. Without such major funding this venture may not have survived the 25 years it has been in existence, considering the deficiencies in state support over the years. But marketing our unique brand of T&T Indian culture may very well be the way to go if we are to compete with the big players in the game of globalization. Divali Nagar has enormous tourism potential for Trinidad and Tobago. With the rapid rise in popularity of the Divali Nagar every year, locals who have gone abroad to live and even foreigners with an interest in Indian culture flock to T&T just to be present at this event.
Divali Nagar, in the last decade has stretched its influence outside T&T. The words of Mr. Deokinanan Sharma, the current NCIC President, at the 25th Anniversary dinner held in July 2011, aptly described the extent to which the influence of the NCIC and Divali Nagar have since 1986. “Divali Nagar has certainly evoked widespread interest not only in Trinidad, but throughout the Caribbean and North America and as far as India. It is not only showcasing Indian Cultural practices in Trinidad but has inspired other Caribbean countries to seek to revive their own lost heritage and has stimulated similar types of festivals in the USA, Canada and areas were people have migrated. That has been the power of Divali Nagar which you have helped to establish and to see it grow into the national institution it has become.”
Researched and Compiled by Dr. Visham Bhimull