January
2011

Vol. 10 - No. 7


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THE DIASPORA


 

The First Indian CaribbeanMuseum

Memories of the old Indian Diaspora

 

BY DR KUMAR MAHABIR

The one million People of Indian descent (PIO) who live in the Caribbean were delighted to hear the news that India is planning to install a memorial, and subsequently build a museum dedicated to its early emigrants in the Diaspora.

The proposed memorial will be the first of its kind in India, and perhaps the first in Asia. PIO in the Caribbean feel that the proposed museum in Kolkata would complement their Indian Caribbean Museum, which was opened in 2006 in Trinidad and Tobago.

The memorial plaque will be installed near the Kidderpore (Demerara) depot clock tower in Kolkata on January 11, 2011.  Symbolically, Demerara is also the name of a region in Guyana (Caribbean) where 239,000 migrants from India went to work as indentured labourers. It is in ports like Kidderpore in India that about one million indentured workers waited, sometimes for months, for ships to take them to colonies on journeys that sometimes took as long as 103 days.

The plaque seeks to commemorate the spirit of those who left India between 1834 - 1920 “as Indian indentured labourers to far-away lands seeking better livelihoods for themselves and their descendants; for their pioneering spirit, determination, resilience, endurance and perseverance amidst the extremely harsh and demeaning conditions they encountered …”

The President of Guyana, Bharrat Jagdeo; the Prime Minister of Mauritius, Navinchandra Ramgoolam; and the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, have been invited to participate in the inauguration ceremony. Newly-elected, Persad-Bissessar is not only the first woman Prime Minister of the twin-island republic, but also the first woman Prime Minister of the Indian Diaspora. 

The Caribbean Indian Museum, the only one of its kind in the world, is situated near the world-famous Temple-in-the-Sea, and the 84-foot/26 meter Hanuman murti [sacred statue] in Waterloo Road, Carapichaima in Trinidad.

Its collections include old items such as rare musical instruments, agricultural objects, cooking utensils, pieces of clothing, ancient photographs and historical documents. Some objects of historical and aesthetic value include a sapat [wooden slipper], jata [grinding stone], boli [gourd bowl], hassawa [grass knife], and aluminum scoop.

On the museum’s grounds is a huge copper (cuppa) basin used for boiling sugarcane syrup in the factory up to the 1930s, which was afterwards adapted as water troughs for animals, and water tanks for household use. There is also a dhekhi - a wooden contraption used for pounding cocoa and coffee beans as well as corn and rice grains.

The museum also houses an art gallery and a reference library. Soon to be established in the museum’s outdoor space is a botanical garden with some of the rare endangered plants of Indian origin like the satputiya (angled loofah), poi bhaji (Indian spinach), urdi (mung bean), and khakri (wild cucumber). There is a large permanent screen in a recessed wall of the museum for the screening of historical films and documentaries.

Owned by the Maha Sabha, the museum is a non-profit organization with affiliation to government agencies like the Tourism Development Corporation (TDC) and The National Museum and Art Gallery of Trinidad and Tobago.

The museum is open Wednesdays to Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. free of charge. On an average, the museum has about 600 signed visitors every month, with the highest number (1360) visiting in May (Indian Heritage Month) every year.

On his first visit to the museum on December 22, 2010, Arts and Multiculturalism Minister, Winston ‘Gypsy” Peters, said that he was impressed with the institution. He also said that more should be done to promote the museum to locals and foreigners, and that the facility should be expanded to accommodate the growing number of visitors.

From 2006, museum has grown to become a national treasure, a keeper of culture, a window to the past, and an opportunity to see history come alive. To many visitors, it evokes memories of the past, a link to the present, and a vision for the future. The museum serves as a foundation for collective memory, cultural continuity and national development. It provides a common experience that families can share across generations, and serve as a link between revered ancestors and living people.

The Indian Caribbean Museum plans to establish international cooperation and collaboration with the stakeholders of the proposed museum in Kolkata.
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Dr Kumar Mahabir is an anthropoligst and President, Association of Caribbean Anthropologists (ACA). His email address is: mahab@tstt.net.tt

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