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Kitchrie 2002: An Extravaganza of Indo-Caribbean Music, Dance & Drama

The traditional and the modern intersected at Richmond Hill High School in Queens, New York where a vibrant, cheery and warmhearted musical play was transmitting and augmenting a passion for the holiday spirit of December.

There were three productions in previous years in the New York City area portraying festivals of Indo-Caribbean Arts and Culture. December 21/22 was my first exposure to the festival run by The Rajkumari Cultural Center in Queens, New York, and done under the production title of Kitchrie 2002.

For the culture-starved people in the area theatrical magic filled the auditorium of Richmond Hill High School during the two evenings. In addition, the production had a central order and purpose, and a subtle symmetry – with a clear message for all, regardless of ethnicity, religious persuasion or nationality, that is, about “losing one’s self” in a diaspora that is easily yielding to the prevailing dominant culture.

It was not very obvious but it was wonderful to see the whole performance hung together with the palpable tension between the traditional and the new. This tension became the primary message to the choreography. The tension became painfully discernible in the music and solo chanting by Seorie Autar… as well as in the fluid and soulful blend of the sounds from the harmonium, dhantal and dholak, and the melodious renditions of the pulsating and talented Ramrajie Prabhoo, reminiscent of the soothing sounds of Bihar brought via indentureship to the Caribbean and later here in New York. It must be “in her blood” as her two sons, Navin and Nirmal, likewise excelled with the dholak and dhantal.

The play also provided space for the audience to soar metaphorically, enlivening the deepest spot of the emotional centers. Throughout the performance the accompanying live music and singing brought vivid memories – the arrangement of sounds which are familiar to the older folks and which might have been played at village ceremonies during religious functions, weddings and fun parties – “back home”. One easily became enthralled by the orchestration of three basic musical instruments – the harmonium, the dholak and the dhantal.

And the performance dances were executed with explosive physicality at times, and, at other times with a kind of discontinuous perpetual motion, an exceptional style that reveals a flowing meandering like a slithering cobra. The dancers, by any measure, beautiful, oozed and swayed on the stage proffering subtle but ample indicators of sexiness and good common humor. In their confrontation both Romanee Kalicharran and Lisa Singh, traditional and modern respectively, danced as if beguiled as they charged across diagonal paths of light on a darkish stage (that could have benefited from extra hands in the lighting department).

The choreography for some of its weaker moments (which were very few) turned out to be vague agitation – the caution that in dance as in other performance: less can be more – at times. If there were occasional lapse in memory of a line, it was difficult to quickly notice as the cast carried on with the performance with energy and contagious spirited enjoyment that measured up to a good time for the patrons.

Romanee Kalicharran moved as if she has no bones and with an infinite sense of rhythmic subtleties. She of course is trained and experienced in classical Indian dance. And Lisa (Patricia) acquitted herself exceptionally well especially as a first time performer. Her intensity on the stage was like an adrenalin infused gymnast with rubberized body parts. Overall, the audience was presented with a provocative taste of modern hip-swinging dance, in the soca-chutney style, compelled by propulsive music and toe-tapping rhythms that encouraged cautious and irrepressible audience gyration. And they cheered appreciatively.

For its certain successful conclusion, it takes more than good performances of repertory… the story line was also within the viewing experience to resonate fully and evoke the silent and approving audience interaction. The attire, language and stage manner sometimes appeared casual in nature but not in the playing.

The virtuosity of the musicians, singers and dancers belies the fact that the show has its aim more on a story line with a message than on music. Still, both the new and the old dances revealed that times are indeed changing, and can evoke strong emotions and friction within families – the generation gap!

It seems clear that the script writer and director, Sharda Singh, and the dance choreographer, Romanee Kalicharran, carefully calculated to please…. The choreographic patterns grew incrementally. For me, with a commitment to the pedagogical principle, there was also the more intellectual pleasure of observing the growing concern of living in a modern complex environment, brought about in the script. All together everything was skillfully connected in the totality of a message and the final vivaha.

The dance-drama Till I Dance With My People, I’ve Never Danced Before essentially is about a young lady (Parvati) with her roots in Guyana, who has grown up and is living in America. She (Lisa Singh) prefers to be known as Patricia and is quite au fait with all that America has to offer in terms of glamour, and is succumbing to the pressures (that all young people are challenged with) of “speaking like them, dressing like them, walking like them, dancing like them”, with the cosmetic make-up and hair tinting and dyeing to appear blonde an over-riding preoccupation. In short, in this diaspora she is losing her identity, and with that her self-concept, self-esteem and traditional values. She is constantly at loggerhead with her father (Mahadeo Shivraj) on account of her improper behavior.

Patricia and her father tried to meet mentally to bridge the cultural gap – in hesitant yet sincere attempts to embrace.

Her father invites her to accompany him to Guyana for a wedding of a relative. Her limited knowledge of Guyana makes her squirm and hostile about the trip – she could not bear living “in those conditions, like them”. During a family gathering she happened to see an old photograph that stunned her – the uncanny resemblance to her – the picture of her paternal grandmother, her Agie. She learns from an old family friend (Parbatty Tejsingh) about her Ajie: that she loved to dance and was very striking and pretty. Ajie when she was young (also named Parvati played by Vidya Singh) was in love with Gobin (Mahadeo Shivraj in a double role) who was an ordinary man. Her father however would not consent to their marriage and her mother (Pritha Singh) is the reticent and protective one with no real voice in the matter. She wants to elope but is caught by her father (Rudolph Jagopat). Tradition! Tradition. Tradition must be respected. So she marries another and does not share love. Love cheated Gobin (now old and played by Shivraj) and he spends his days in dewan, becoming an indigent drunk and singing his heart out. He is ridiculed and called pagal (madman) – except by the family friend (Parbatty Tejsingh) who maintained a secret love for him, and would feed and take care of him whenever possible.

On one occasion Gobin now old became stupefied with alcohol and everyone feared he would die. He lives and begins to admonish them for their attitude to him and about the real values in life. The homeless indigent Gobin (Shivraj) was portrayed with movingly ragged defiance, poignantly summarizing the frailties and failing of society (as he saw it). They are ashamed.

Patricia is in Guyana for the wedding and is gradually understanding her father’s ways of traditional values and begins to contemplate ancestral memories. The wedding takes place. Gobin is dry. He looks clean. And the family friend coyly but bravely reveals her feelings for him. They will spend times together.

In an orchestra the individual musicians may be experts. However, the beauty of a rendition is a function of the cooperation of all in the orchestra rather than the soloist. Thus, Kitchrie 2002’s enormous theatrical success is the result of the collaborative efforts of all the actors, the singers and musicians, the script writer, director, choreographers, stage mangers, lighting technicians, sound people, and many others in the background.

The majority of the players are young and inexperienced. They have done well and worthy of high plaudits. With so many great talents and with my personal subjective biases, it is difficult to individualize the honors. Yet, one is left with a distinctive impression of the versatile and dynamic artistic qualities of Mahadeo Shivraj.

Mahadeo Shivraj is an extraordinarily fluid and instinctive actor, and his performance was a glorious exhibition of artful and spontaneous gliding effortlessly from one character to another. He dissolves metaphorically into the body and mind of an open but indigent drunk who was shattered into becoming a pagal. Adding depth to his performance is the flashing intensity with which he became the strict father to deal with the mercurial bouts of tantrum from his ‘American’ daughter. At the end, a brief soliloquy by Parvati’s father (Mahadeo Shivraj) was both dignified and required, and emotionally draining.

Kitchrie 2002 provided an affordable and refreshing opportunity to engage in an evening of culture, to imbibe the music of Tan, Chutney, Film and Wedding-house songs, and to be satiated with sizzling classical and modern dances by Romanee Kalicharran, Lisa Singh, Denyse Baboolal, Ramona Singh, Shivana Jorawar, Amrita Persaud and others. The enchanting melodies of Ramrajie Prabhoo still linger.

It was a chance to savor the performers’ emotional and technical resonance. This fine group of youthful performers can only mature and flower brilliantly as actors, directors, producers, choreographers, dancers and singers, and to also develop the kind of consciousness of self and selflessness that come eventually as one peaks to the top. Wholesome energy and lots of heart were poured into each of these two emotionally charged performances. Because Kitchrie is ’bout we.

Kitchrie 2002 is a production of The Rajkumari Cultural Center in Queens, New York. The festival was conceived by Pritha Singh who leads the cast and who is the inspirational head and Executive Director of The Rajkumari Cultural Center. Sharda Singh not only wrote the play and directed it, but also acted and provided the smooth choreography that enlivened the action and performances on the small stage.

– By Gary Girdhari