A hypnotic beat rumbles through every nook of the temple. It bounces off of every wall. The melody is chanted in a repetition. Six times. The gleaming faces in the tight circle face off in a friendly competition. They are comrades and devotees.
Growing up, I witnessed Chowtal musical circles in my Hindu temple. When Chowtal songs began, I always felt a sudden change from being in a prayerful mood to one that was celebratory. By being a first-generation youth, I couldn’t quite understand the meaning of Chowtal nor the reason for the loud repetitions of joyous chants. And so began my journey to understand the passage of Chowtal from the West Indies to NYC Hindu temples.
At the Shri Trimurti Bhavan, a temple in Ozone Park, Queens, the annual Chowtal Gol group forms every Holi season to sing Chowtal songs each day for 40 days. According to a prominent member of the Trimurti Chowtal group, Nandranie Brijmohan also known as Aunty Shanta, like many other Chowtal groups, the Chowtal Gol starts the Holi season and the group sings the “seasonal renditions” not only at the Trimurti temple, but at the homes of group members and others who would like to invite the joyful sounds into their homes.
Chowtal, originally a Bhojpuri Indian musical genre, is a form in which two rows of singers face each other. The group members sing a Chowtal based on various Hindu deities such as: Krishna, Shiva, Durga and Rama. Chowtal undergoes a series of changes in tempo, voice modulation, and speed. The musical genre encompasses a variety of subgenres and is sung in a series of repetitions usually six to eight times. Today it is practiced by numerous Indo-Caribbeans throughout New York City, Guyana, Trinidad, Jamaica, and Suriname during the festive Holi season which marks a triumph of good over evil. The Chowtal musical form is a way to usher in the new season and Hindu year by removing all negative emotions and sentiments of the past and stepping into the fresh present.
For Nandranie Brijmohan who started singing as a little girl about 6 years old in Guyana, Chowtal is a way to “Show strength in motion. You must prove your strength and shout louder at times. It’s a fun seasonal thing that starts the day we plant Holika.”
As Brijmohan noted that while bhajan singing has become a major part of her life, so too is Chowtal. She noted, “A lot of people are surprised a female can sing Chowtal…I never wanted to be worshipped as a bhajan singer. I always thought I must be helpful and meaningful. It also helps the audience stays focused because they are accustomed to seeing male involvement and less females.”
This statement of seeing many males involved in Chowtal rings true for the 1962 field recordings of Raghoonath Ramdass and his all male Chowtal group in the album “East Indian Music in the West Indies.” At the conclusion of the album, an interview is recorded where the interviewer likens the all male group’s excitement singing Chowtal to that of a “football team.” This album can be found in multiple locations of the Queens Library.
Currently many members of the Trimurti Chowtal Gol are females. Nandranie Brijmohan mentioned that, she has much faith in the newcomers including the involvement of several vibrant young females, Megan Crowley, Anabel Crowley, and Kamini Doobay. Perhaps the increased involvement of female youth will become a trend for upcoming Chowtal groups in New York City. However as a leader of the Trimurti Chowtal Gol, Brijmohan also stated, “We would like the younger generation to be more active.”
Having the next generation preserve Chowtal, a musical form that traveled from India, to the West Indies, and now New York City is important as the Indo-Caribbean community evolves. It was interesting to hear from the perspective of a young college student, Junior Ramroop, who emigrated from Guyana a few years ago and was once involved in a Chowtal Gol back in his homeland.
Back in Georgetown, Guyana, Junior Ramroop, a college student in NYC who immigrated from Guyana a few years ago, explained the fun times spent at the Alexander Village Temple where he along with his godbrothers ages 10 to 12 years old would surround the Holika plant, help burn it, and play around with the ashes. Ramroop mentioned Holi was “our Christmas.” He noted his involvement in a Chowtal group was one of the most fun times of his life. Ramroop recollected experiences where he participated in “fights to be the loudest” and members would “lose their voices” while they engaged in rigorous singing sessions. He noted his job was to be the jhal player but the drummer had the toughest job because he had to keep up with everyone. After inquiring whether he’d participate in a Chowtal Gol in New York City Ramroop said, “I would like to be involved. But it’s not the same without the same people. I look forward to it back home. But I would give it a try here in the future.”
In matters of preserving Chowtal, the genre has undergone a series of regional changes. According to the online encyclopedia, Wikepedia.org, “During 1845-1917, Chowtal was one of the Bhojpuri folk music genres transmitted by indentured workers to the Caribbean (primarily Trinidad, Guyana, Jamaica and Suriname), and also the Fiji Islands. In these sites it has flourished vigorously–in spite of the decline of the Bhojpuri language in Trinidad and Guyana.”
But for the Indo-Caribbean community preserving Chowtal has become an endeavor to continue the vibrant, rich, and attractive culture of a people twice-removed. The “creolized version of East Indian music” has become just one of the many aspects that make Chowtal fascinating. The singers, audience, and booming vigor make up the essential features of this music we call Chowtal.