Monday, June 2, 2014

Auckland pays homage to Girmitiyas

Auckland pays homage to Girmitiyas

Thakur Ranjit Singh

President of Fiji Girmit Foundation of NZ, PUNDIT DEVAKAR PRASAD (left) with the keynote speaker and Chief Guest of Fiji Girmit Remembrance Day in Auckland, PROFESSOR BRIJ V. LAL.
No sooner had the audience in a completely full and decorated Skipton Hall in Auckland settled down for the programme to begin, than the silence was shattered by Punjabi dhol. This rhythmic beat made them stand up with reverence and respect. This was on Fiji Girmit Remembrance Day on 18 May, 2014. The dhol heralded the entry of children and ladies carrying wreaths. National Anthem of Fiji, India and New Zealand respectively echoed and reverberated in a pin drop silent hall. It was an emotional tsunami, engulfing all who had gathered to pay homage and tribute to their Indentured Girmitiya forebears, and celebrate the fruits of their sacrifices and vision.

The beat of Punjabi Dhol heralds the entry of ladies carrying wreaths in memory of Girmitiyas.
The Chief Guest for the afternoon, Professor Brij Lal lit the candles, followed by other elders who later placed the wreaths in memory of the departed Girmitiyas. The Master of Ceremonies for the afternoon, a well-known Jaycee from Fiji, Nek Mohammed called on the president of the organisers, Fiji Girmit Foundation of New Zealand, Pundit Devakar Prasad. In his welcome speech, Prasad laid the future vision of Girmit Foundation, which would not only become an umbrella body encompassing all Indo-Fijians in Auckland, but also has vision of promoting our history, heritage, music, culture and education, and preserving our history for coming generations.

Elders with wreaths to lay in memory of departed souls of Girmit: From left: PUNDIT HARDEO RAM SEWAK SENIOR, PUNDIT SHARDA NAND MAHARAJ, GOVIND PRASAD, NARAIN PRASAD and an elder lady. On the stage, on the lectern is MC for the afternoon, NEK MOHAMMED.
Pundit Devakar took the opportunity to respectively introduce the visionary leadership of Foundation. Thakur Ranjit Singh (Secretary) Krishal Naidu (Treasurer) Executives: Harnam Singh Golian, Master Shiu Charan, Rajendra Prasad (author), Pundit Ram Kumar Sewak, Radha Kanhai Reddy, Pradeep Chand, Satya Dutt and Vijendra Prasad, and latest people to come on board, Nek Mohammed, Rita Singh and Suresh Prasad Kanhai.

The musical portion of the afternoon began with beautiful Girmit songs and the afternoon brought back memories of Girmit with melodious numbers taking us back to those cane farms and “ coolie lanes” (accommodation barracks). This fitted in well with the theme of afternoon and motto of Girmit Foundation: reconnecting, reclaiming, and restoring Indo-Fijian History. The items which helped doing these included bidesia, kajri, sohar, alha and other music unique to Girmit era. The most notable one is bidesia, which is a lamentation, or “bilaap”, which is expression of deep sorrow of separation from the loved ones.

Bidesia-the song of lamentation: Swatna Lal  (on harmonium) presents an emotional composition of the author of "Tears in Paradise", Rajendra Prasad.This bidesia is a lamentation or "bilaap", which is an expression of deep sorrow of Rajendra Prasad's Girmitiya grandmother, and he had specially dedicated that bidesia to her on this Girmit Day.
Other items which helped to reconnect and reclaim our history, included oratory on Girmit and a talk by Pundit Ram Sewak Senior, a well-known Ram and Krishna Lila convenor of Fiji. He spoke of those tough times and how our people have come out of the whole situation, culturally richer and far better off than their pioneer forebears, never losing hope. This was later echoed by other orators, who reminded us of those dark days, vision of our forebears and their emphasis on education to liberate their new generation from the bondage of colonisers. We were reminded to move ahead and not let the dreams of our pioneer Girmitiyas go in vain.

The display of Girmit Day: Thanks to Jennifer Janiff for facilitating this nostalgic display showing items used by Girmitiyas ( included a billy can, negro pots, coal iron,"soop", hurricane lamp, a karchool or deep spoon, among others)
Fiji Girmit Foundation of NZ was commended for taking time out to declare 14 May of every year as Fiji Girmit Remembrance Day worldwide, and to initiate commemoration of this day in Auckland. A loud and clear reminder went to all people throughout Indo-Fijian Diaspora: Unite, mark and commemorate 14 May of every year as Fiji Girmit Remembrance Day, so that one day, within our lifetime, it takes the prestige and honour equivalent to similar days respectively like Independence Day, Memorial Day, Thanksgiving Day, ANZAC Day, Waitangi Day etc. where people take pride in their heritage, and pay homage to their forebears.

Wreath made in shape of Syria Ship which sank at Naselai Reef, with loss of many lives of Girmitiyas.
Professor Brij Vilash Lal, our very appropriate and distinguished Chief Guest and the keynote speaker, stole the show. I had the honour of introducing him. “Introducing Professor Brij Vilash Lal is like showing diya (candle) to sun. With his many commendable writings, he is a son of Fiji who honestly paid his dues to his forebears. “

A glimpse of audience in a fully-packed Skipton Hall
Lal is Professor of Pacific and Asian History in the College of Asia and the Pacific at The Australian National University (ANU) and represents international face of Fiji, having taught at various renowned overseas universities. He did his doctorate on Fiji Girmitiya, and is widely credited internationally for introducing the word 'Girmitiya' into discussion and writings of Fiji history. Professor Lal is highly decorated with multiple international honours, whereby Fiji and Indo-Fijian Diaspora are blessed with such a worthy son.

Another look at those who came to pay homage to Girmitiyas.
He gave two historical talks during his Auckland visit: one at the Calvary Indian Assembly of God Church in their Girmit function and the other at Foundation’s Girmit Day on 18 May. My FIJI PUNDIT blog site will facilitate separate articles to record, archive and treasure these historical thoughts from a Maestro Historian. Had it not been for him, the world and we would have remained ignorant of the true History of our Girmitiyas.

You can remove Indo-Fijians out of Fiji, but you cannot remove the Kava basin or tanoa from any function of Indo-Fijians. So was the case at Fiji Girmit Remembrance Day, where free grog was supplied 
A very humble Professor spoke not about Girmit, but what happened after that. And he commenced with his lecturing hat on, and posed a question to the audience: What makes Indo-Fijians a unique culture of people in the world? Fortunately, Professor Lal was the most qualified to answer this. There are external as well as internal reasons for their uniqueness. One most important external reason, is that “…In Fiji in contrast to many other places, indenture was a limited detention, not a life sentence…” as after indenture of five to ten years, people were free to settle wherever they could find land. In addition, internal factors were in play: the formation of cultural institution like Arya, Sangam, Sanatan etc., Indian newspapers, Hindi Radio, Hindi movies and the type of education that shaped the culture and knowledge of our people, formulated and promoted by our own people, were instrumental in making us what we are today.

Networking and enjoying meal: Sitting from left, Dr Padma Lal, Professor Brij Lal and Sukh Deo. Standing, from left:  Krish Naidu, Shobhag and Dr. Ajit Swaran Singh and Thakur Ranjit Singh
Professor Lal had come, armed with Hindi ki Pothis -1 to six and other books we used in schools in 60s. He created hilarious moments when reciting some of poems and verses many were familiar with. An interesting topic was old Bollywood movies that most elder people could relate to.. One other subject that he covered in his speech earlier on, was that contrary to belief that all indentured labourers were of lower caste and poor impoverished people, many came from middle and upper class.

The hudda-tassa show
The afternoon’s programme ended on a high note with birah and hudda and tassa (big drums) with traditional songs, followed by a sumptuous dinner provided by the Foundation. This occasion provided a good opportunity for all to network, re-establish old contacts, photo session. We departed with the hope to meet in Fiji Girmit Remembrance Day 2015.

Networking and meeting people, from left, Y.P. Reddy, Dr Padma Lal, Professor Brij Lal, Harnam Singh Golian, Imraan Hussein, CEO of Shah Group of Companies and Krish Naidu.
Planning for 2015 function has already begun by President, Pundit Devakar Prasad, who would bring his four decades of planning abilities and programming, and hopes to make this one a memorable historical event. Those who missed this year, see you next year, with your elderly parents.

[About the Author: Thakur Ranjit Singh is the Founding Secretary and Trustee of Fiji Girmit Foundation of NZ. He is a media commentator, a journalist and blogger, running two blog sites: FIJI PUNDIT ( and KIWI PUNDIT ( ]

The author of this article and blogger of FIJI PUNDIT, Thakur Ranjit Singh (left) with Professor Brij V. Lal.

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