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Reel Review: “Saucy Wow” in the documentary ‘Jahaji Music: India in the Caribbean’

A black woman in a white shoulder top and white shorts dancing unfazed. She is the dancing pose where she is a little bent with her knees to the side and outward.

Under the nationalist discourse, the female body has been the site of political polemics, and in popular discourse these diatribes have appeared more often than not in the garb of morality. This review analyses the immigrant Indian community’s outrage at Trinidadian chutney soca artiste Denise “Saucy Wow” Belfon’s performer body.

The material for this investigation emerges from Surabhi Sharma’s 2007 documentary, Jahaji Music.

Sharma’s film navigates the rapids of cultural fluxes exploring lives of Trinidadians through the many subcultural genres of Calypso[1]-inspired music that make for an enthralling sound track. As we travel through the musical landscape of the film, we follow Remo Fernandes (Indian-born musician from Goa of Portuguese nationality) on his journey to find a collaborator across the Caribbean. In doing so we are privy to the lives of contemporary Trinidadians amongst whom is a group of chutney soca artistes.

Chutney soca is a crossover of Trinidad-origin soca (soul of calypso) music with lyrics that are firmly rooted in Hindi/Bhojpuri music, often accompanied by beats from traditional Indian instruments like the dholak and dhantal. It is symptomatic of the creolisation (the cultural mixing of people brought about by colonisation – in this case the Afro and Indo Trinidadians) of a generation of Indo-Trinidadians, witnessed through the stage being shared by Indo- and Afro-Trinidadians alike.

The music is characterised by lyrics seeped in sexual innuendoes layered over soca beats, often accompanied by a chutney soca dance performance. Though there are many more male than female performers of chutney soca, the genre still features more women than the African-dominated calypso music does. It exhibits the heavy influences the island has on the lives and identities of second-generation East Indians while acknowledging the link to their past.

The film’s title, Jahaji Music, or ‘ship’s music’, perhaps draws from such a surge, in a tributary reference to the ‘Pagla Jahaj’, or the ‘mad ship’, that carried indentured labour settlers from East India to the French colony in the mid-19th century.

This first generation brought with them their music and sense of community, drawing from ties of belonging to a family back home in India. 150 years later when Fernandes makes his journey, not much has changed, where Bollywood music still blares from the radio, maintaining links of belonging between a people despite the generations that have since passed.

However, the successive generations of Indian immigrants to a Caribbean island that is a former French colony have led to particularly exacting questions of immigrant identities in a land of displacement. With the possibility of naturalisation in flux, they hold on to specters of national identities of the past. Chutney soca that stands as a material reminder of their cultural assimilation with Afro-Trinidadians has been at the receiving end of much moral retribution.

Indian Trinidadians have raised objections against chutney performances (in their inherent nature of being rendered in English), bringing traditions that were earlier confined to the space of the home on to an Afro-Trinidadian realm of the public. In some instances such sentiments have been further fueled by right-wing Hindu (which is the dominant migrant community) concerns in the Indian community in Trinidad that act as the mouth piece of the community demanding that the police intervene in chutney performances on grounds of vulgarity. Their collective stand has been that the notions of ‘the liberated woman’ has created a crisis of ‘womanhood’ that threatens the Hindu religion which is taking steps to reintroduce ‘values’ to the Hindu woman.

Remo as a figure of a contemporary Indian on a search for an international collaboration makes for a provocative juxtaposition against this landscape in the film. What further fuels this figure and lends it its critical current is the boisterous figure of Saucy Wow who has, by this point in her character arc, successfully ruffled the feathers of many an immigrant sentiment in her song Looking for an Indian Man (see lyrics):

The sentiment of Indian-origin Trinidadians can perhaps be better understood keeping in mind the following quote. It explains how male nationalist ideologies are articulated based on the construct of women in the larger nationalist dialogue, where “Female sexuality under nationalism is a crucial site of surveillance, as it is through women’s bodies that the borders and boundaries of communal identities are formed.”

– Gayatri Gopinath, Impossible Desires, 2005

This nationalist surveillance is reinstated through the diaspora in Trinidad where the figure of the sexually expressive Saucy Wow stands in for the amoral, sexually impure ‘Other’ Black body against which postcolonial Indian morality is defined in their lashing out against her.

As Gopinath points out in Impossible Desires, the figure of the amoral, sexually impure Indian woman abroad was used by nationalists in India in the early 20th century to produce the chaste, virtuous Indian woman at “home” as representative of a “nationalist morality”.

In a similar vein, Tejaswini Niranjana (also a co-producer of Jahaji Music) in her 2006 book Mobilizing India: Women, Music, and Migration Between India and Trinidad elaborates how in analysing the Indian ‘woman’ we often set her up against her modern Western counterpart, a position which is challenged when she looks at points of reference for the contemporary woman that lie outside of metropolitan contexts.

In doing so, Niranjana turns to the campaign against indentureship in tropical colonies by the nationalists, which helped fuel a moral case against colonialism[2]. This she finds germane “for their foregrounding of the question of female sexuality, an issue that increasingly is being seen as central to the formation of citizenship and to dominant narrative of modernity and citizenship.”

Drawing from historical writings on the period, she elaborates how the maintenance of a mandatory sex ratio (which in itself was arbitrarily revised and often not adhered to) was an attempt at creating a “stabilising factor”, or rather, at exercising a control over the male labourers that were indentured to planters. However, the resultant disparate sex ratio of labourers, either due to the inability of recruiters to hire more women or the unwillingness of married male labourers to bring their wives along (choosing instead to leave them behind under the ‘protection’ of a joint family) led to ‘immorality’ amongst the few women immigrant labourers who now had “great freedom of intercourse and much evil example around them” (as she quotes from statements by women evangelicals of the Canadian Presbyterian Church in Trinidad. Their quotes echoed the sentiments of the Indian emigration commissioner who, at the time, was occupied in avoiding recruiting “bad women” who would “do more harm than good”).

Describing the obsession with sex ratios as a primary preoccupation amongst historians of the time, she further goes on to explicate how the low number of women willing to immigrate was proof enough for the government authorities, missionary accounts and colonial administrators that the women who did were “innately depraved”. The nationalist anti-indenture agitation then stood to right the ‘reprehensible’ exercise of sexuality amongst ‘deviant’ women, an exercise for them brought about, no doubt, by the influence of foreign settings.

Now, within the displaced Indian-origin residents of Trinidad, this tendency reemerges as perhaps a way to reinstate their (colonial) ‘Indian virtues’. Where they would’ve earlier represented the ‘Other’ for the 20th century nationalists, they now Otherise the Black body, drawing on racial differences in the lack of regional or caste ones, and in doing so, reflecting and perpetuating the figure of the ‘woman’ as marked by patriarchal gender and sexual arrangements (in the oppression of female sexual expression) at ‘home’ (here, in the nationalist construct of India).

Another tangent that then emerges to hook the cultural imaginary of the Indo-Trinidadian lies in the Creole. While describing her first impression of a picture of the singer Drupatee Ramgoonai (who has been credited with coining the term chutney soca), Niranjana writes:

Diaphanous, shiny, sequined and “Oriental”, the costume did not seem like anything that a leading singer in contemporary India would wear. On a subsequent visit to Trinidad, I saw young Indo-Trinidadian women in similar outfits at the Indo-Carribean music awards function, the grandest and most cultural occasion I ever witnessed there. It seemed to signal an attempt not to connect to an alien present-day India but to a history that was now insistently being inscribed on the dominant “Creole” imaginary.

The figure of Saucy Wow with her Black body that exemplifies the Creole ‘demands the impossible’ in wanting an Indian Man, for it evokes a desire of an interracial integration that emerges in stark contrast to the sensibilities of Indian-identified Trinidadians who strive to maintain their legitimacy to an Indian nationality. Their need to maintain a cohesive Indian cultural identity (in the lack of citizenry identity, resultant of colonial indentured labour) is seen in preserving and revising their ‘Indianness’ through either memorised folk songs that their ancestors brought with them from their ‘home’land or, as mentioned before, Bollywood music that they tune into over the radio.

Music serves as an apt device that keeps their collective consciousness in tune with that of the right-wing moralist surge back home. It is then pertinent for the figure of the contemporary Indian male, legitimate in the eyes of the citizen state, to attempt to answer to Saucy Wow’s call for an Indian Man by serenading:

Saucy baby, I’m your Indian man

I ain’t come from Port of Spain

Neither Penal

I’m your Indian man from India

– Remo Fernandes (in collaboration with Saucy Wow/response to ‘Indian Man’)

It is Saucy Wow’s song that inspires Remo Fernandes to reply through his own. The song that emerges from the collaboration that ensues fulfills the melodramatic desire of the film.

Jahaji Music: India in the Caribbean

A still from ‘Jahaji Music’

The currents of thinly-veiled racism, akin to an echo from a colonial past, are confronted through the thrust of the performer body symbolic of the female sexual virility that posed as the antagonist in the moralising nationalist narrative. Wow’s Black body stands as a provocation to the fabric of residual, though potent and penetrative, coloniality which is answered through the duet in the concluding sequence in the film, ending on a note of racial integration.

[1] Calypso is a form of Afro-Caribbean music that originated in Trinidad and Tobago, tracing back to the arrival of French planters along with their slaves in the early 20th century. It draws from African and French influences and was traditionally performed in French. Since its origin, Caplyso has served as a political tool used in mobilising public opinion, and with a turn to performances in English, it has flourished by gaining more notice and continues to maintain its critical current to this day.

[2] Initially, indentureship did not feature in the nationalists’ agenda, with articles from the time going as far as to credit indentured labour emigration as providing relief from the growing population in India. Eventually however, due to intervention from M.K. Gandhi who had been witness to the plight of indentured labourers first hand during his time in South Africa, the issue grew in prominence on the nationalist agenda.

Long before the nationalists took note of the inherent exploitation in the system of indentured labour, humanitarians had termed it ‘a new system of slavery’ in the 1830s.

For more details, read: Ashutosh Kumar. 2014. Indian Nationalists and the End of Indentured Emigration. Nehru Memorial Museum & Library: New Delhi.