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  • Transnational Chowtal: Bhojpuri Folk Song from North India to the Caribbean, Fiji, and Beyond
  • Peter Manuel (bio)

In mid-February of 2007, I attended some lively sessions of chowtal (Hindi, cautāl), a boisterous Bhojpuri folk song genre, in a Hindu temple in a small town a few hours from Banaras (Varanasi), North India.1 The following weekend I was singing chowtal, in an identical style, with an Indo-Guyanese ensemble in Queens, New York City. In the subsequent season of the vernal Holi (Hindi, holī) festival, in March 2008, I found myself singing along with a group of Indo-Fijians in Sacramento, California, as they performed a similar version of one of the same chowtal songs. Despite the nearly identical styles of the three song sessions, they were separated not only by thousands of miles, but more significantly, by the more than 90 years that have elapsed since indentured emigration from the Bhojpuri region ceased. Subsequently, cultural contacts between that region and its diasporic communities in the Caribbean and Fiji became minimal, and those between the latter two sites have been practically nil. Given such geographic and temporal remoteness, the similarities between the three chowtal renderings I witnessed are in themselves noteworthy, as are, in a different sense, the disparities. In this article, I provide a basic description and analysis of chowtal as performed in Indo-Caribbean music and, to a lesser extent, in India and Fiji. I further compare and contrast the traditions as extant today and offer suggestions as to how diasporic dynamics have contributed to the dramatically successful way that the genre has taken root and flourished in the diaspora, while declining in India itself.

Extant literature regarding chowtal itself is limited, whether in reference to India or the diaspora. The most extensive and insightful discussion of the genre is Kevin Miller’s dissertation chapter on Indo-Fijian chowtal, much of which is applicable to the Caribbean as well (Miller, 2008). Usharbudh Arya, in his volume on Indo-Surinamese folk song, provides a succinct description of chowtal and a few lyrics with translations (Arya 1968, 22–3, 100–3). Stephen Slawek briefly describes and schematically notates two chowtals sung by a kīrtan group (The Birla Kirtan Samaj) in Banaras (Slawek 1986, 188, 263–5, 275–7), as does Helen Myers 1998, 74–8) with a Trinidadian example. Henry (2001–02, 36) [End Page 1] devotes a paragraph to the subject in an article on Bhojpuri folk music in India, and also recorded a few chowtals in 1972 in a Ghazipur district village northeast of Banaras in 1972. In the realm of literature in Hindi on Bhojpuri music, schematic transcriptions of chowtal in sargam notation are given in Mehrotra’s songbook (1977, 187–9, 211–4) and in an article by Rajendra “Vanshi” Mishra (1966, 215–16); short descriptions of the genre are also found in books by Hiralal Tiwari (1980, 83–4), Shanti Jain (1980, 31–2), and Rajkumari Mishra (2007, 186). Several surveys of Bhojpuri-region music do not mention chowtal at all.2

The present article may be seen as building upon these works and other studies of Bhojpuri folk music (e.g., Henry 1988) and of Indo-Caribbean music in general. It seeks in particular to complement extant studies of Indo-Caribbean music in relation to its original South Asian sources and counterparts, primarily as explored in my book, which focused on “local-classical” music and chutney (Manuel 2000a). While concentrating primarily on Indo-Caribbean chowtal, this essay also aims at achieving a triangular perspective by incorporating reference to North Indian and Indo-Fijian practice. However, the present study must be regarded as provisional rather than definitive, due to the incomplete nature of my fieldwork. Chowtal is in fact a vast genre, comprising many regional variants even in small countries like Suriname and Guyana, not to mention the immense and under-researched Bhojpuri region. It thus merits much more extensive documentation than I am able to provide in this article. An exhaustive study of chowtal (which remains an ongoing interest of this author) would necessarily extend over several Holi seasons spent in different locales in India and the diaspora.3

Chowtal Context...


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