Fiji Indian diaspora pays homage to Girmitiya ancestors

(L to R) Jimi Nathu, Jitendra Pratap, Mrs Ghiya, D J Babu, Indian High Commission Second Secretary (Consular) Mukesh Ghiya, Chinnaiya Naidu , Manikam Gounder, Pt Mukeshwar Ram Sharma, Rattan Prakash, Krishna Gounder.
(Front row): Sisters Samiksha Singh and Shivakhya Singh (Photo credit: Richard Kelly))

Venu Menon
Wellington, June 3,2024

A minute’s silence followed by poignant songs, lively dances, nostalgic reminiscences, comic interludes and sumptuous ethnic cuisine combined in the commemoration of Girmit Remembrance Day 2024 in Wellington.

The Fiji Indian community of Wellington thronged the Indian Cultural Hall in Petone on June 1 to remember their Girmitiya ancestors.

Organised by the Fiji Indian Association in partnership with TISI Sangam (Then India Sanmarga Ikya Sangam Wellington), the well-attended event mixed nostalgic cultural elements to evoke a painful chapter of the community’s history.

Host Dev Narayan traced the origin of Indentured Labour, a system of recruitment started by Britain in 1874 to develop the agricultural economy of its far-flung colonies such as Fiji, Mauritius and the Caribbean. India was the key source for recruiting workers under an agreement or Girmit.

“These brave men and women endured unimaginable hardship, leaving their homeland with hopes of a better future,” Narayan told the audience.

But the event was also a celebration of the “rich cultural heritage, traditions and enduring legacy of the Girmitiya ancestors.”

The programme kicked off with a devotional song by Aparna Prakash and her 7-year-old granddaughter Ahana (giving her debut performance), which was followed by a classical Indian dance item performed by students of the Mudra Dance Academy.

Delivering a dramatic preamble on how the Girmitiyas were lured out of their homeland of India by visions of prosperity overseas, Jimi Nathu belted out a haunting melody that conveyed the emotion of the Girmitiyas’ journey.

Nathu shared with co-emcee Samiksha Singh his early childhood memories of how he was drawn to singing.

A song by the Sargam Group followed, which captured the pangs of parting as the husband leaves to pursue his livelihood across the seas.

Indian High Commission Second Secretary (Consular) and Head of Chancery Mukesh Ghiya, standing in for High Commissioner Neeta Bhushan, who was out of the country, contributed to the Girmit narrative and theme by highlighting the “feelings of those [family members] left behind in India by the workers who left for Fiji.”

Second Secretary Ghiya drew attention to the Chalo India scheme launched by the Government of India to boost visitor numbers to the country, and assured the Fiji Indian community that visas would be granted at short notice by the Indian High Commission in Wellington to facilitate their travel to India. His statement was met by applause.

Up next, Dr Pritika Narayan, fielding queries from co-host Amav Singh, came up with startling statistics that showed Fiji Indians, who number over 100,000 in New Zealand, have a disproportionately high prevalence of heart disease within the community.  Dr Narayan is currently engaged in pioneering research, which is the “first study of its kind for the population of the peoples of Fiji.”

Songs by Deepak Narayan and Dinesh Prakash followed, with Prakash rendering his own composition about a Girmitiya’s forlorn journey from his village in India to the alien shores of Fiji.

Wellington Sangam Association’s Krishna Gounder spoke of the role of the Sangam in “identifying the Fiji South Indian community, inspired by Sadhu Kuppuswami in 1926, one of our Girmitiyas.” He updated the gathering on the activities of the Sangam within the Fiji Indian diaspora and the wider community.

Fiji Indian Association President Rattan Prakash, also a key sponsor of the event, wrapped up the proceedings by stressing the importance of Girmit Diwas to the Fiji Indian community. He referenced the “daytime event” with its focus on “children, and the young mothers who are training their children to be part of the community.” He urged the youth to “take up the reins of the organisation.”

The programme culminated with the presentation of awards to “individuals who have risen above the ordinary and reached for the extraordinary.”

FIA Secretary Nirmala Balram gave the vote of thanks.

The organising team included Kashmir Kaur, Sunita Narayan, Krishna Gounder, Sesh Ram, and Sathish Naidu, among others. Kiwi Fern Immigration, TISI Sangam and Vert Construction were key sponsors of the event.

A movement underway to get the New Zealand government to classify Fiji Indians as an independent category in census surveys became a focal point of the evening as the audience was urged to fill in forms in support of the move.

Girmit Diwas combines two conflicting sentiments. It celebrates liberation from the bondage of Girmit on 1 January 1920.

But it also harks back to the start of that grim odyssey when the first Girmitiyas boarded the Leonidas in 1879 to embark on a perilous journey across the waves that took them from the rolling plains of Hindustan and left them culturally marooned on the palm-fringed Pacific Island destination of Fiji.

Venu Menon is an Indian Newslink reporter based in Wellington

 

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