Rajkumari Singh (1923 - 1979)
A New Offering On Racial Conflict Resolution
By Dr. Vibert C. Cambridge
Sunday, May 30th 2004
Rajkumari Singh with Doodnauth Hetram
(Photo courtesy of Ms Pritha Singh)
Rajkumari Singh surmounted many challenges during her life. At the age of six, she contracted polio, but this did not confine her. She rose above this challenge and made significant contributions to Guyana's political and cultural life. Her children have expanded on her work, and today her legacy thrives through the Rajkumari Cultural Center in Richmond Hill, New York.
She grew up in an activist home in Georgetown. Her mother, Alice Bhagwandai Singh (nee Persad), was born in Suriname. Alice's grandfather was a Kshatriya from Bengal who came to the Caribbean region as a Christian interpreter. He served in Grenada, British Guiana, and finally in Nickerie, Suriname where he became Chief Interpreter of Indian Languages.
Rajkumari's father was Dr Jung Bahadur Singh who was born at Goed Fortuin, West Bank Demerara. Rajkumarie's parents had met on a ship that had transported indentured immigrants from India to the Caribbean. They were both dispensers and got married on February 23, 1912. There were three ceremonies: a civil ceremony, a Christian ceremony and a Hindu ceremony.
In 1929, after the successful production of Savitri, Rajkumari's mother founded the British Guiana Dramatic Society. For almost two decades, the British Guiana Dramatic Society was "a cradle of Indian culture" in British Guiana. In addition to her work with the performing arts, Alice Singh was actively engaged in social welfare projects. She was a member of the Red Cross, the YWCA and the Dharm Shala, and served as a prison visitor. In 1936 she founded the Balak Sahaita Mandalee - a child welfare organization that provided education and training for needy East Indian children. She was awarded the MBE.
After completing his medical education at Edinburgh University in 1919, Rajkumari's father started a career as a medical practitioner on the ships that transported indentured immigrants to the Caribbean and back to India at the end of their contacts of indentureship. In 1920, he was the medical superintendent on the SS Madian. In 1938 he was the surgeon superintendent on SS Ganges. This career permitted him to see the construction of the global Indian diaspora as he travelled to Fiji, Natal, Jamaica, Suriname and Trinidad, and to appreciate the challenges associated with settling in new spaces.
In between their professional careers, the Singhs were actively involved in political activities. Between 1920 and 1949, Dr Jung Bahadur Singh served as President of the British Guiana East Indian Association six times.
According to A J Seymour, "In 1929, he became a member of the Legislature for Demerara-Essequibo and in his long legislative service served on many committees and boards."
He founded the Maha Sabha and served as its president from 1935 to 1955. In 1944, he was awarded the CBE.
This environment influenced Rajkumari, who established a reputation as an innovative and multi-talented broadcaster, producer, director, playwright, poet, songwriter and cultural activist.
Rajkumari was an announcer and presenter of Indian cultural programmes on Radio Demerara. She was a member of the British Guiana Dramatic Society and is remembered for her play Gitangali. In 1960, she published six short stories in A Garland of Stories.
Rajkumari also participated in the political environment. In the 1960s, she was engaged by the People's Progressive Party and was appointed to serve on the Commission of Inquiry into the racial violence at Wismar.
In the 1970s, Rajkumari returned to the cultural sphere. She went back to broadcasting and literary activities and has been described as "one of the first Indo-Guyanese women writers to speak to both the ethnic and gender issues facing Indo-Caribbean women." (Peepal Tree release)
Rajkumari became the editor of Heritage, a literary booklet. She also became the leader of the Messenger Group and served as the mentor for some of Guyana's most talented personalities in the post-independence era - Gora Singh, Mahadai Das, Rooplal Monar, and Gushka Kissoon.
I remember visiting her home in Lamaha Street during the early 1970s, and finding it to be a cultural oasis. At that home, I would meet Martin Carter, Marc Matthews, Gordon Carreaga, Ivan Forrester, Doris Harper-Wills, Sheik Sadeek, Phillip Moore, Victor Forsythe and many others from all racial, religious and colour communities, and we would visualize a new Guyana now that the "Days of the Sahib were over."
Rajkumari was very passionate about the place of the arts in the creation of post-independence Guyana society. She clearly understood that one of the challenges facing the new nation was the mutual ignorance of our collective histories. She held the view that the arts provided a vehicle to find the similarities and the opportunities to explore new possibilities. So, it was not surprising when she joined the Guyana National Service at its start in 1972.
She was severely criticized for doing this. For some members of the Indo-Guyanese community, this was a betrayal of her race. Some argued that joining the GNS led to "the stagnation of her creativity." I wish to suggest that such positions were harsh.
Under Rajkumari's leadership, the GNS Culture Corps helped Guyanese of African ancestry to demystify the aesthetics of Guyanese of Indian ancestry. No longer were the dhantal, dolak, sitar and harmonium the instruments of the 'other.' They were instruments that could be incorporated in the nation's musical pantheon to make a glorious sound.
Through barrack-room conversations and other educational moments, pioneers, staff, and officers explored the similarities among Kali, Cumfa, and Novenas. Explorations of Guyanese history brought to our attention the solidarity that had existed between recently emancipated Africans and newly arrived indentured Indians on the Essequibo Coast during the 1840s.
Under Rajkumari's leadership, a wave of exciting creativity emerged from the Guyana National Service. Music spoke about aspiration and demonstrated fusion.
Rajkumari was a tireless defender of the members of the Culture Corps. She fought to make the GNS a better place and to have it live up to its founding ideals.
Rajkumari's creativity soared to new heights. She demonstrated the importance of participatory organization for social change. She demonstrated that internal criticism was a valid strategy for bringing about social change. Rajkumari was also aware that being an internal critic could bring tough sanctions. She understood this and faced the challenge.
Like so much of Guyana's history, there is need for much more work on Rajkumari's legacy.
As Marina Taitt is keeping the flame of Dorothy Taitt alive, so is Pritha Singh, the Executive and Artistic Director of the Rajkumari Cultural Center, located in Richmond Hill, New York, performing the same service for Rajkumari. The centre integrates the performing arts and service. Like the visions of her grandparents and her mother, the centre executes a wider vision catering for the Indo-Caribbean populations in New York. What Pritha and her siblings are doing in New York is clearly attributable to what their mother instilled in them.
Rajkumari Singh is a Guyanese cultural hero. She called to our attention the mutual ignorance we have of our collective histories. So, although it is necessary and important to understand and celebrate the histories of the individual racial and ethnic communities that comprise Guyana, it is necessary to begin to explore the history of solidarity and fusion.
For her contribution to Guyanese cultural life, Rajkumari Singh was one of the first Guyanese to receive the Wordsworth MacAndrew Award when it was introduced in 2002. She received Guyana's Arrow of Achievement in 1970.
Posted: June 5, 2004
First Published: Stabroek News