Guyana Times Section on History of Chatnee Music Misleading and Inaccurate

Guyana Times Section on History of Chatnee Music Misleading and Inaccurate
Photo : Somdat Mahabir

The Sunday edition of the Guyana Times newspaper (January 27, 2019) did a special section on the history of “chutney” music. While I applaud the newspaper’s effort in that regard, the section was misleading and inaccurate in various ways, and points to the larger problem of erosion and anglicization of Indian culture and Indian cultural vocabulary in Guyana.

First, the correct word is chatnee not “chutney”.  Chatnee is a Hindi word (चटनी with the letters ca, ta, na and a long e) and it means spicy or hot. Like so many other words that express parts of our culture, “chutney” is an anglicized version of the Hindi chatnee, and the music and songs are by definition the garam masala types, rhythmic dance melodies, expressing its hot and spicy nature.

Writers, including those of the Guyana Times should know that not everything on “Wikipedia” is correct. In the paper, the pictures showing Ramdev Chaitoe and Dropati, both legendary taan or baithak gana singers from Surinam as “chutney” singers are inaccurate. Ramdev Chaitoe and Dropati, and most other baithak gana kalaakaars (artistes), including the older generations of Guyanese kalaakaars did not anglicized their lyrics or musical presentations. They were not “chutney” artistes and would probably take offense at such a derogatory depiction of their work. Even in Guyana, up to the late 1980s, taan kalaakaars in Berbice proudly presented their taan songs in Hindi and dialects such as Bhojpuri, Awadhi and Braj Bhasha representing geographic origins in India from which Indians came. They never tainted their songs and compositions with English words. The equivalent of taan or baithak gana in Trinidad is called “Indian classical style”. Even today, there are still few young people in Guyana, and of Guyanese-origin in the United States and Canada who follow the taan parampara, valiantly keeping that aspect of the culture alive.


It is also false that Ramdev Chaitoe and Dropati sang only religious songs. Here is one example to refute that false label and it is in Chaitoe’s popular song “Babhan aave jaaee.” I present a part of the lyric here regarding the Babhan (“Pandit”) whom the singer apparently mocks: Babhan aave  jaaee,  babhan  aave jaaee (The “Pandit” comes and goes), mor man laaga babhanavaa (My mind is on this “Pandit”), aavat  jaatee, ajee aavaat jaatee (He has come back today), Ohe babhanavaa kee ekta hee aankhiyaan (This “Pandit” has only one eye, he is looking all around)… 

The unique style of music taan and baithak gana represent a perfected form of Indian culture that was appreciated across the Indian population because it told everyone’s story – the struggles of life, hopes, Gods, values, love, corruption, etc. For Indians, taan expressed their place in kaliyuga (the current degenerate cycle of time and place) and they searched and got meaning in their compositions about their glorious and expansive cultural past, of the time of Gods like Krishna and Rama, of the Rishis, Swamis and Yogis, and heroes like Bheeshma, Drona, Arjuna, Karana, Bheema, etc. They sang about their women as Seetaa, Saraswati, Laxshmi, Durga, etc.

Here is a short list of taan kalakars of Guyana who never compromised their language and can never be classified as “chutney” singers: Balgangadhar Tillack, James Babulall, Sakhawat, Sonny Singh, Paltu Das, Balnain, Dasrath Mangru, Mohit Mangru, Evelyn Morgan, Balgobinsingh Lalljee and Tailor Bisnauth Ramjattan, to name a few.

“Chutney” evolved in Guyana and Trinidad only after Indian-Guyanese and Indian-Trinidadians lost their ability to speak Hindi and other Indian languages. This did not happen in Surinam where they still speak fluent Hindi and Bhopuri. And, in Surinam they do not say “chutney”; they say chatnee.

The “chutney” singers of Trinidad have no doubt popularized this art form, but many of them have made it unpalatably vulgar and devoid of cultural values as well, such as in “chutney” songs like ‘Rum till I die’ which seems to promote rum-drinking. In Guyana, the “chutney” singers seem to be conforming to the hegemony of Masharamani, modifying their Hindu/Indian identity, not only in their lyrics, but also their performing names. The so called “chutney” singers of Guyana also seem to be using lesser and lesser Indian words and much, much more English phrases. Some of the songs that pass for “chutney” are in fact “English songs” that have no Indian cultural connections.

Nevertheless, I would like to wish all the “chutney” singers well and encourage them to not neglect their identity, religion, culture, and most importantly their studies to make Indian culture in Guyana “great again”.