Rukminee Holass-Beepath: Preserving East Indian Culture in Song


“Indian Arrival Day is about remembering how we preserve and spread the culture that has been passed down to us over the years. It’s been 177 years.

“What did they bring with them in their backpacks or what we call jahagi packs? They brought all their customs, their traditions, their songs, in their head they brought music, they brought dance, seeds to grow all kinds of crops. All of these things have been brought here, even the language, although there may seem to be a small barrier from time to time, we have managed to overcome it.

“I think if you really want to retain your identity, whether you’re African, Indian, Chinese, you have to know your traditions, your culture,” Rukminee Holass-Beepath said in an interview with the Sunday Guardian.

Holass-Beepath knows only too well how to preserve the heritage of its ancestors. The second of seven children, she comes from a family of East Indian cultural singers and musicians.

The 69-year-old singer, songwriter and former schoolteacher is well known for her singing and her meticulous compilations and compositions of Indian folk and classical songs, having received numerous awards. On June 25, she will become the first Sangeet Acharya or music teacher in Trinidad and Tobago, a title bestowed on her by T&T’s Kathak Kala Sangam Institute of Fine Arts led by cultural stalwart Dr Sat Balkaransingh under the patronage of the mayor. by Chaguanas HW Faaiq Mohammed.

Holass-Beepath’s rich heritage in East Indian music and culture began in Granville, Cedros, where she spent her early years with her parents and siblings in the house where her maternal grandparents lived. From age three to five, she lived with her paternal grandmother in Chatham. After passing the scholarship exam as a student at Granville RC, she attended Point Fortin College from age 11 or 12 and her family moved to Chatham as transportation to school would be easier.

Holass-Beepath’s parents were his first teachers of East Indian art, which they had learned from their parents, who had come to this country as indentured labourers.

Songs for Kartik Snaan and Ganga Darshahara Festival by Holass-Beepath.

Songs for Kartik Snaan and Ganga Darshahara Festival by Holass-Beepath.

“In the evening, my parents put us all in a semicircle and taught us the songs. By the end of the week, you’ve learned about four or five songs. My mother, her parents came to the Fatel Rozack and my father, and his parents came to the Fatel Rozack. My father, all the songs, customs and traditions of his parents, he imbibed their oral traditions.

“My mother too, she could only sign her name, but all she learned was from her parents who they brought with them from India; all their customs, traditions, what they could do, what they couldn’t do and all those songs,” Holass-Beepath recalls. Responding to a question, she goes back further, informing that her paternal grandparents only had one name. Her grandfather was Holass and her grandmother was Jankie, and she thinks they are from Bihar in eastern India.

“They came on the Fatel Rozack and as they were coming one of their sons got sick and died, and they threw him overboard. He was a baby when they left, and they didn’t had no choice after her death. She came here with two children who are my father’s brother and sister and then my father was born here, my father and his other brother were born here.

Mangree and Sookhoo Dewajit from Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh in northern India were his maternal grandparents.

“On my mother’s side, I think one child came on the boat with them and three more were born here,” Holass-Beepath said.

Recounting her childhood, she said that it was not long before her parents, she and all her siblings formed a group called Amar Sangeet. With her older brother as drummer, Holass-Beepath and another brother Budram, who would become an international singer and local cultural icon, sang while the other sisters played percussion.

Rukminee Holass-Beepath, fourth from left, his parents and siblings pose with former T&T chairman Noor Hassanali and his wife.

Rukminee Holass-Beepath, fourth from left, his parents and siblings pose with former T&T chairman Noor Hassanali and his wife.

Although supporting a family of nine was difficult for his hardworking father Harry Holass, they managed to supplement their food supply with fish from the nearby sea, and fruit and ground provisions from a garden. that his mother, Samdaye, had planted. His father also sold some of his catch. They performed in villages and towns like Cap-de-Ville in Point Fortin, mostly for free. The children were happy and content to learn from their parents and her father was proud of them.

“At that time, it was not for the money that you played. It was really to help people when they had prayers or small celebrations. We played with our parents, but we learned at the same time.

One of those performances would be for former President of Trinidad and Tobago, Noor Hassanali and his wife at the President’s House in St Ann’s – a major highlight for Holass-Beepath.

“My father said he had a dream: to never give up on his culture. Always learn and promote, learn and spread your culture, so that it is passed on to the next generation. He said, ‘I’m teaching you all this now, but the only way you’ll live is when you teach your children the same,’” she recalled.

Not wanting the songs to be lost, Holass-Beepath took his father’s advice, sat his parents down one day, and began compiling various genres of Indian songs as they dictated to him.

Most of the songs were written in Bhojpuri, a primary Hindi dialect spoken in places like West Bihar and East Uttar Pradesh and has changed over generations of Caribbean speakers. Holass-Beepath was able to translate the songs due to her knowledge of Hindi from high school and the National Institute of Higher Education, Research, Science and Technology (NIHERST) and the fact that Bhojpuri and Hindi have similarities, Holass-Beepath pointed out. She would earn a Diploma in Dramatic and Theatrical Arts in Education from UWI and be trained in singing by Mungal Patasar and at the Caribbean School of Indian Music.

To date, Holass-Beepath has written six songbooks, according to the stages of a Hindu’s life. For birthdays, she documented chutneys and barhis in her book, Janama Geet,

Vivaaha Geet features Hindu wedding ceremony and songs, and Ganga Darshanam are songs for Kartik Snaan and Ganga Darshahara Festival where devotees seek spiritual cleansing and renewal by bathing in sacred rivers and seas. She also has a songbook for death and cremation, 140 Bhajans for Antyesthi Sanskaar. She has also translated and archived 108 classic songs, dividing them into 19 categories. The songs are accompanied by recordings on CD to facilitate their learning.

She enlisted the help of physician Dr Visham Bhimull, who is well versed in Caribbean Indian dialects, to translate Urdu (spoken by Muslims in northern India) and some Bhojpuri songs.

Over the years, the active singer picked up some notes on the organ-like harmonium and learned to play the dhantal with its steel rod and percussive sounds.

Finding it difficult to afford certain instruments, improvisation was often the order of the day in his childhood. His father incorporated the shac shac or maracas, a non-Indian instrument, which he made by filling hollowed-out gourds with grains of channa. For a manjeera—a pair of small hand cymbals—he would strike two bicycle bells and a coil spring from a car, and a thin piece of steel would make a pretty good dhantal.

After graduating from Point Fortin College, Holass-Beepath had to work to support her family. Feeling miserably incompatible with her first job crunching numbers at the Treasury, she turned to a friend who helped her get into the teaching service where she would serve for 40 years.

Book and CD of birthday songs by Janama Geet Holass-Beepath.

Book and CD of birthday songs by Janama Geet Holass-Beepath.

She passed on her traditions to her students as well as to her three children. Her daughter is a professional dancer and teaches music and dance at Saraswati Girls’ Hindu College. She was also happy with the achievements of her sister Pulwaty in seeking to establish the first Hindu temple in Tobago and finally holding the dedication ceremony in February.

Keeping the culture alive also meant establishing the Beepath Ranch and Cultural Center in Caparo with her husband and children. There they recruit other volunteers to help them educate the public for free in wrapping sarees, dhotis, headwear, pottery, painting, rangoli (creating designs for celebrations using colored rice, sand), mehendi, sewing jhandis (Hindu flags), paper decorations, making malas or garlands and making Indian dishes.

As part of a Ministry of Culture project, Holass-Beepath provided singing lessons of traditional East Indian songs across the country until 2015. In 1996, she was among 100 women recognized as change by the NGO Network.

The talented cultural promoter who has composed songs for singers like her brother and chutney soca artists like Marva Mc Kenzie, Kenneth Seepersad and Navin Prabhoo, as well as radio stations and schools, has her own band Sangeet Milan formed since 1980 with her husband. . Her eight members have now grown to five, and she has only made a few appearances over the past two years. Although she has lost two volunteers at the ranch to COVID and her husband has suffered two strokes and is bedridden, Holass-Beepath still plans to fully resume group and ranch operations. In fact, she has been busy since the reopening of activities in the country, performing at Divali Nagar activities and appearing on radio stations during this Indian Heritage Month. She has an appearance tomorrow.

The grandmother of four who believes in taking advantage of her limited time on this earth and making her own life interesting and impactful, is also a registered farmer, who exercises, does her own chores and has learned Zoom to deliver virtual classes locally and abroad during the pandemic, she proudly announced.

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