Trinidad and Tobago


Kendra Phagwa --Reviving Traditions

March 11, 2001

Culture Minister Ganga Singh will this afternoon douse a number of dignitaries, including Indian High Commissioner Parimal Kumar Dass and Chaguanas Mayor Orlando Nagasar, in a ritual spraying of colourful abeer on the main stage, to formally open the 11th Kendra Phagwa Festival.

Phagwa (or Holi) is a family-oriented Hindu festival to welcome Spring, the period of rejuvenation, when nature's colours once again replace the white of winter. The festival takes place from 2 pm at the Divali Nagar site in Chaguanas. Its main activity is the spraying of abeer (coloured water) on fellow participants, who arrive at the site dry and wearing white and leave as wet, dancing kaleidoscopes.

Rooted in religion, the sanctity of the festival is maintained at every level of celebration. It is free of licentious behaviour, no alcohol is tolerated and over the 11 years of the Kendra Phagwa, the observances have been incident free.

At every sequence, the Kendra Phagwa respects Hindu traditions and locates its major events on significant days. The launch of this year's Phagwa took place on January 29, to Hindus, Vasant Panchami, the first day of Spring. It was also Saraswati Jayanti, the birth date of Mother Sarawati, the embodiment of knowledge and the arts.

The launch also marked the start of "boiling the abeer", the name given to the month-long interim, during which composers, musicians and singers came together nightly for rehearsals and a time dedicated to learning, sharing and bonding amongst participants, whose primary motive is to engage friendships, although they are competitors. But the Kendra Phagwa does more than merely observe the ritual spraying of abeer and singing of chowtals.

A number of other Hindu traditions have been introduced over the years, adding new flavours to the already colourful staples. This year saw the revival of yet another. On Friday night, Holika Dahan, a celebration of the victory of Dharma over tyranny, was staged at the Prachaar Kendra headquarters.

Kendra Phagwa chairman, Geeta Ramsingh hopes to employ all available creative insights to rekindle the focus on Holika Dahan (the burning of Holika) which, she said, had lost its importance. "It is our intention to develop Holika Dahan into a voice that will compliment Pichakaaree," Ramsingh said.

The Pichakaaree, a singing competition introduced by Sri Ravindranath Maharaj (Ravi Ji) in 1992, has been one of the highlights of Kendra Phagwa. Hailed by the International Conference on the Indian Diaspora held at UWI in 1995 as a positive presence in the preservation of Hindu traditions, today's final will feature 17 singers, selected from the 40 hopefuls who participated at the preliminary stage. The Pichakaaree is written in English or local dialect and must include a few Hindi or Bhojpuri words and phrases. Songs must be not less than three or more than six minutes each and performed to Indian folk tunes, old filmi or may be original compositions.

The tune, however, must have a distinct feel of Indian music, using traditional instruments like the dholak, dhantaal, jhaal and harmonium. The songs must stay with themes that record Indo Caribbean developments, history, aspirations, views and responses to national issues. Compositions that include character assassination, licentious interludes or references to alcohol are not permitted.

Apart from the overall champion, there are prizes for the singer best representing this year's theme United We Stand, best social commentary, best festive Pichakaaree, most imaginative use of Hindi and a special award to the best composer.

Among the other special features of the Kendra Phagwa is the Maakhan Chor (literally translated "The Butter Thief"), a tradition traced to the childhood days of Lord Krishna Himself. As the story goes, Lord Krishna and his friends would form a human trestle by standing on the shoulders of consenting peers, to steal the butter, which was always kept on high shelves to preclude precisely such a prank. Even when caught, he would never be punished, since it was part of His Divine Leela.

Today's contest follows much the same routine. A pot is suspended six metres above the ground, with little jhandis (flags) inside it. Teams of not more than ten persons each are required to form human pyramids in the attempt to take down a jhandi. Cooperation and strategy are necessary to success, in that the team doing it in the fastest time (without breaking the pyramid) wins.

This year, competitors will again seek to not only complete the activity quickest, but better the all time record of nine seconds set by the United Brothers of Longdenville. The Ranga Barase (colourful shower) is also one of today's highlights. In this activity abeer is sprayed on all from overhead pipe and sprinkler systems. This shower of coloured rain is accompanied by appropriate music, songs and dance, as is the chirkaying (scattering) of fulaal (coloured powder). The process is repeated several times during the evening, until the 1,800 gallons of prepared abeer expires.

The youth is not left out of the general festivity. A number of Bachon Ka Khel (children's games) are available, some of which are played out on the main stage. The sada roti and condensed milk eating contest harks back to days of abject poverty among Indian immigrants, who survived on the thick roti bake and sweetened cow's milk. The sada is held at head height by a string and clean plastic is laid below, so if a chunk falls, the children may eat it off the sheet. Again, the contestant finishing fastest is the winner.

Children also participate in the Rang Ka Gulaal or powder blowing competition. For this contest, identical amounts of coloured powder are placed on small plates and contestants are required to blow all of it from the plate. Bigger children are selected for this activity as it requires some skill to prevent the powder getting into facial orifices, but the overall visual is something to see.

Ramsingh assured the Sunday Express that all systems are in place for today's four-hour celebration and advised members of the public wishing to attend as spectators or participants to wear appropriate clothing and footwear, as they will quite likely be sprayed with abeer. "Those coming should keep a towel and plastic covering in their vehicles, to prevent the liquid or colour from soiling upholstery," she said, "nothing must spoil the good time we have in store."

Similar celebrations are scheduled to take place in other centres locally, as well as in Guyana, Suriname, Jamaica and New York.


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