Back Tracks: Shankar, 98, recalls the good old days

Sadhu Gauri Shankar (left) with his son Saras Chand at his home in Malawai, Nadi. Picture: NAVNESH REDDY

When the Leonidas left Calcutta on January 28, 1879 and began its almost 11,000km journey to Levuka, it not only brought the first batch of 522 girmitiya to Fiji, the vessel also brought Indian culture, music and a rich tradition to Fiji’s shores.

The first Indian workers would gather in the evenings after a hard day’s toil and traditional Indian folk groups, such as bhajan mandali sprung up in little Indian settlements.

Bhajan are devotional songs which have been influenced by the teachings of saints such as Tulsidas and Kabir Das, some of the greatest poets of medieval India.

Stories, poems, verses of bhajan have been told and re-told over the years and will continue to be told for many years to come.

Girmitiya forefathers have passed on the teachings of the epic Ramayana to the current generation, and one man who vividly remembers it all too well is 98-year-old Sadhu Gauri Shankar.

His father was a girmitiya who came to Fiji when he was just 18 years old.

“I grew up in Mulomulo in Nadi, and I have been singing from when I was around 15 to 16 years of age,” he shared. Shankar said he learnt everything from his family’s bhajan mandali as the whole group had mentored and nurtured him.

“My mandali’s name was Dharam Veer Ramayan Faag Mandali, and I have learned everything about bhajan from the people within that group.”

Shankar also briefly talked about two prominent bhajan singers of Nadi back in the days, and their ability to captivate the audience in countless hours.

“There is clearly a lot of difference in the way bhajan was sung back in the 1930s as compared to now.

“Almost all the bhajan singers of yesterdays were outstanding.

“There were two extremely talented men in Nadi back then, one was Devi and the other was Shiu and both were from Mulomulo and Nasau respectively.

“These two particular men were champion bhajan singers, if they sat at a bhajan gathering you will last until the dawn of the next day, that’s how intense and loved, their bhajan used to be.”

He also described the first bhajan that he sang and also talked about his most used musical instrument during bhajan.

“There was a puja, at a person’s place named Shital in Mulomulo — that was where I sang my first bhajan.

“It was about Lanka Kand, the contexts of the bhajan is taken from Ramayana which talks about Lord Rama’s final battle against the Demon King of Lanka, Ravana, who had abducted Sita, the wife of Rama.

“They prepare a bridge with floating stones with name of Rama written on it.

“My first ever bhajan was on those lines,” he said.

“When I used to sing, I played, dandtal, a lot.

“It is played by striking a metal rod with a U-shaped metal beater.”

He talked about a particular Ramayan gathering which lasted an entire day (24 hours).

“Once, bhajan mandali from six to seven districts came to a home in Mulomulo, and it took a whole day and the bhajan lasted one whole night.”

The soon-to-be centurion also said that it was very difficult to estimate how many bhajan groups there were in the olden days.

“There was a lot of bhajan groups in Fiji back then, in every village there used to be a bhajan mandali.” Shankar added that young men these days, especially during bhajan gatherings, must learn to maintain an ambience of peace and religiosity.

“Young boys are on the phone most of the time, and it really kills the vibe.

“During olden days, there was a lot of respect among the old and young during bhajan sittings.”

Shankar mentioned he had no formal training in music and he picked it up, after listening to many different bhajan. “I can sing bhajan until this day, however, I sing mostly now in my mandali only.

“I “I have verbally heard and understood the history of Ramayan, thus I know what I am singing.

“It is important to make sense about what you are singing on, and for that, you need to understand the story of Ramayana properly.”

Shankar talked about his parents and the environment during the girmit days.

“I am a son of a girmitiya, my father’s name was Bidesi and he was an indentured labourer from India.

“He was a young man whose beard and moustache had started to grow maybe around 18 years of age when he came to Fiji.

“My mother’s name was Makhali, she was born in one of the ships, that came to Fiji.

“My father worked in the sugarcane plantations as a labourer.”

Shankar then delved further on the different forms of bhajan.

“There are 24 incarnations of Lord Vishnu and in that the incarnation of Krishna and Rama is the most talked and sung about.

“Bhajan on Rama avatar talks about the life of Lord Rama, bhajan on Krishna avatar talks on the basis of Srimad Bhagwat Puran.

“Kabir Das, one of the greatest poets talked about the human body and the soul and many bhajan is constructed out of his poems.

“Gita bhajan is sung after a person dies, it talks about the human body and soul.

“Piya Sara is a form of devotional bhajan, sung in respect to the beloved God.”

Shankar told this newspaper that his mandali group used to travel all over Nadi, to sing bhajan and there was a lot of harmony among bhajan singers back then when compared with mandali of the current generation, which at times engages in blistering take-downs and there is a sense of competitiveness now.

“We used to travel all over Nadi, I have travelled everywhere in Nadi over the years.

“All the bhajan singers used to sit together and even exchange musical instruments, such as kartal (wooden clappers), manjira (small hand cymbals), dholak, harmonium and dandtal as well.

“Now, at a gathering, there is usually, two different bhajan groups, sitting separately.”

Shankar said he had passed his bhajan knowledge to his son, who is also a bhajan singer.

“I have passed all my music knowledge to my son who sings bhajan as well.”

Shankar lives in Malawai in Nadi, with his son, daughter-in-law and one greatgrandson.

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