Did you know there is a small monument in a western neighbourhood of Kolkata called Mai Baap Memorial? A replica of the Baba Mai Memorial built in Paramaribo, the capital of Suriname, a country in South America? Or that Bhojpuri singers still intone old melodies woven around those who went as migrant workers to foreign lands? Or, did you ever wonder why many in the Caribbean islands have Indian sounding names?
Apparently disconnected dots, they are all part of a little known chapter of Indian history. That of indentured labourers, who sailed from India to various British colonies, especially in the Caribbean, African and south-east Asian countries in the 18th and early 19th century.
After slavery was abolished in England in 1834, the various colonies turned to India to look for labourers who would work in the sugarcane and other plantations. Largely hailing from Bihar and the British India United Provinces, these labourers were either recruited by the British administration or they signed up voluntarily in the hope of escaping poverty at home. Calcutta (as Kolkata was then known as) was the major port from where these indentured labourers set sail.
Mostly men were recruited but couples and families were also known to have set sail. The journey by ship was fraught with dangers and sickness, a situation that hardly improved even when they landed on the foreign coast. According to UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register, 1,194,957 Indians were relocated to 19 colonies over nearly 100 years since the 1830s. And wherever they went, these people transplanted bits of Indian culture in their new home country. While the lure of prosperity may have escaped them but their successors have definitely made their efforts worthwhile.
Suriname is one country (a former Dutch colony) that remembers its Indian connection with pride. It celebrates June 5 as Indian Arrival Day, commemorating the day in 1873 when the first group of indentured labourers arrived here aboard the ship Lalla Rookh. The practice is believed to have continued until 1917. A statue of a couple called Baba Mai (Father and Mother), representative of the hundreds of Indian indentured labourers, marks the spot in capital Paramaribo where they first set foot in Suriname. In 2015, the Mai Baap Memorial in Kolkata was unveiled at the spot in Gardenreach from where ships used to leave for Suriname. In fact, the Port Trust had set up various jetties to accommodate the ships carrying indentured labourers to the colonies. The Mai Baap Memorial in Kolkata, also known as the Suriname Memorial, consists of the statues of a couple, dressed in typical Indian attire, carrying small cloth bundles, recalling how the labourers would set off on their long sea journey.
Besides the well-known ‘Autobiography of an Indian indentured labourer: Munshi Rahman Khan (1874-1972)’ (Sinah-Kerkhoff, K. (Editor); Bal, E.W. (Editor); Deo Singh, A. (Editor). New Delhi: Shipra, 2005), the life and times of these labourers have been chronicled by various authors. But not many know that Bhojpuri songs include some very poignant recitals that speak of the then contemporary situation.
Documentary filmmaker, writer and development practitioner Simit Bhagat, has been collecting these songs as part of his The Bidesia Project. His documentary film ‘In Search of Bidesia’ (which premiered at the 18th Dhaka International Film Festival) is a poignant recording of the history of the labourers, their lives and the folk songs describing their lives or the sorrow of the family members left back at home etc. To ensure the songs are not lost or erased from human memory, Bhagat has not only been recording them for posterity but have also been uploading them on digital media.