Portrait Of An Unsung Singer

Sagar Sookraj

Munilal Sagar Sookraj was a veritable storehouse of knowledge on East Indian music in Trinidad and the Caribbean. He was a singer, percussionist and composer of Indian folk melodies, including the chatak songs popularly referred to as Chutneys in the Caribbean and its diaspora.

Performing as soloist and in group work he graced many stages in the Caribbean North America, Europe and South America. He taught, performed, demonstrated, and was an excellent source of information for researchers.

The Early Years

Born on June 20 1945 in the village of Campo in Cunupia in the heartland of central Trinidad, to Sookraj and Patia, children of indentured immigrants, he was registered as Munilal. His early home with his parents was on a small parcel of land purchased by his father Sookraj. His grandparents had come from Gorakpur in Uttar Pradesh, the heart of the Bhojpur region and culture. Munilal was the fifth of two brothers and six sisters: Jasodra, Lakpatia, Bissoon, Munilal Sagar, Rajdaye, Rani, Rakhi, and Bharatdaye, popularly known as Polly.

Munilal Sagar Sookraj attended the nearby Warrenville Presbyterian School, At the age of six he had already begun to receive formal music training from his father, learning to play the harmonium and the percussion instruments of tabla and dholak. He learnt the techniques of rendering several varieties of rhythmic patterns on the dholak, performing for indigenous Indo-classical singing, semi classical such as Gazals and Thumris, and the range of light folk melodies such as chautaal, ulara, biraha, jhoomar plus the religious songs of Bhajans and Qawalis.

Sagar learnt the technicalities of making, preparing and covering drums with goat skins, giving the drum its resonance when struck with the open hands, a technique that he perfected in later years.

By the age of twelve Sagar was already accompanying his father and their troupe of performers in the dance dramas of Harischand, Indarsabha and Sarwan Kumar. As a regular member of the troupe and musical accompanists for other types of Indian music he performed throughout the country at weddings and other public occasions for the Indian community.

Later he received additional training from Ahmad Khan, then popularly referred to as Chook Cham. Having gained tremendous accolades for his performances in Gulshan Bahar in 1943 and Naya Zamana in 1944, Chook Cham had become a household name in the Indo-Trinidadian community. With his new guru, Sagar, in the 1950s, developed additional techniques in playing the harmonium and accordion, so much so that in 1962, playing his accordion, he accompanied the then famous Trinidadian Indian Classical singer, Jhagroo Khawal at the Port of Spain Town Hall for the national celebrations of Trinidad and Tobago’s Independence.

Sagar began singing publicly in the 1950s. His range of vocal renditions represented the wide repertoire of Indian folk music in the Trinidad of that time. The songs were in Bhojpuri, the popular dialect of the descendants of the Indians who had come to the island as indentured labourers. His mother was particularly instrumental in guiding his technique of singing and composing music and lyrics of the folk melodies in Bhojpuri language.

From his family, especially his father, mother, and brother Bissoon, and other singers with whom he associated and performed, Sagar learned the art of singing the entire repertoire of local Indian Classical music, including Dhurpat (Dhrupad), Kimta, Bhairavi, Tillana and Ghazal, and the folk melodies such as Kajri, Sohar, Jhumar, Ulara, Chautaal and Biraha. His contribution to the music of Trinidad and Tobago, the Caribbean and its diaspora is significant. He sung the range of Trinidad’s Indian Classical, folk melodies and Chutney with the same intensity and gusto as he did the modern film songs, bhajans, kirtans and Geets.

Sagar made sterling contribution to upholding the initial intent and purpose of the genre of music called Chutney. Chutney and chatak entertainment is traced back to India and to the sub caste of Doms, one group who were part of the proponents of this form of entertainment. Essayist and historian Abdul Halim Sharer, (1860-1920), in his socio-anthropological and historical account of Lucknow, the Capital city of then Avadh, and now Uttar Pradesh, entitled, Lucknow: The Last phase of an Oriental Culture, identified various groups of performers; bhands, doms and dharis, mirasans and jagnis said:

“Lucknow society was more affected by domnis (female entertainers)¦. In towns of all sizes, from time immemorial, mirasans and jagnis have attended weddings as singers. Their performances never vary. The domnis on the other hand were great innovators. Giving up dhols they adopted tablas, sarangis and cymbals, as was the practice with male and courtesan musicians. .. They became the most important feature of all wedding celebrations and so fascinated the ladies of wealthy families that there was no household which did not employ a troupe of domnis. As they were unequalled at dancing and singing, female celebrations became much more lively and interesting than those of men. Their witticisms and innovations were so entrancing that most men had a strong desire to get some chance of witnessing their performances – but the domnis were themselves averse to dancing and singing before a male audience.”
Those who witnessed the female entertainment of Matikor, Chatti, Barahi and wedding nights in Hindu weddings in Trinidad could easily identify with the writings of Sharar in 1875. Authors Laurence (1944:114); (Klass 1961:61); and Manuel (2000); have actually documented the fact that many Doms came to Trinidad as part of the Indentureship period. Sagar Sookraj’s family were living examples of this fact. Munilal ‘Sagar’ Sookraj belonged to that clan of Doms. His great grand grandfather on his maternal side (parnana) was a Dom and was actually called Doman in the community and by his peers. Sagar recalled that Doman had a bhuiya sarge, a musical ensemble that performed, sitting flat on the ground on jute bags (p?l). They performed extensively throughout the country. Doman’s wife, Sagar’s parnani, also sang during chatti, barahi, bhatwan and on other Hindu celebratory occasions. Sagar’s grandmother (nani), Phulbasiya, and his mother, also continued the family traditional of musical entertainment within the Indian community. [v] This sub-caste of doms and domnis, with the other immigrants, brought and continued this type of chatak (spicy) entertainment. The folk entertainment was perpetuated in several ways as chatak music and chatak nautch, spicy song and dance, now popularly referred to as Chutney. It is from this category (of Doms) that Sagar and the rest of his family received the training and early experience that would allow them to maintain the rich legacy and traditions of the old country, in the new land of their birth.

Chutney is really a pop hybrid of Indo-Trini and Caribbean folk music, the offspring of the East Indian folk melodies brought to Trinidad. Sagar’s family carried the tradition, as was the norm then, of lifting or recreating some of its melodies, rhythms and rhythmic structure (within these rhythms) from some of the folk music brought: These include biraha (extempore composition), jhoomar, sohar (songs associated with childbirth), lavni (a fisher folk song), hori (sung during Phagwa season), chaiti (spring melody) chaut?l (call and response) and ulara; work related songs of pisouny or jats?r (sung when grinding rice or corn); ropani (planting) or nar?i (working in the rice fields). It also included the entire categories of songs performed for some samskaras (milestone rituals) in the life of the Indo Trinidadian: notably for birth of a baby, the Chatti (6th day), barahi (12th day after birth) and biyah (Bhojpuri) orvivaha (Hindi) marriage. Melodies performed during the 3-days wedding period include the haldi and matikor (a ritual performed by ladies two days before the actual Hindu marriage ceremony); at bhatwan, (the night preceding the actual (Hindu -wedding day); and on the wedding day beginning with haldi, then lawa and during the actual marriage ceremony itself. The matikor and lawa are all separate and distinct sub-sets of, but yet integral to the overall marriage ritual. Most of these songs were performed to a strictly female audience, based on tradition. Some were festive and were rendered to mixed audiences, as the occasion dictated, for instance those rendered during the marriage rituals. Possibly the first public Chutney stage performance in Trinidad was in a clash of the Sookraj family with Suriname’s Sister Drupatee in the late 1960s, organised by impresario Moean Mohammed.

Sagar was also an excellent Biraha singer. With tabla, dholak, daff, mangeera, jhanjh, kartaal and dhantaal, sometimes lota and coins and bottle and spoon; they sung their melodies, spontaneously, extemporaneously, introducing satire, and providing commentaries on issues of the day. That was the art of Biraha singing. In similar fashion, in 1972, after the test cricket series of India in the West Indies where Gavaskar made his grand debut and punished the bowling of pace bowler Uton Dowe, thereby establishing himself as a formidable opening batsman, Sagar composed a song titled Wadekar, a tribute to Ajit Wadekar, captain of the Indian team:

Chorus: Wadekar chalay agay agay
Sobers going behind, Kanhai drinking white one Durani drinking wine
The song was an instant hit with the Caribbean Indians and their diaspora in North America.

The Teacher

Sagar was a very generous individual both in his public and private life as amply reflected in his approach to the arts. With a ready wit and lots of anecdotes, he imparted his knowledge, whether it was in teaching the young students at the various primary schools particularly at St Helena, Aranguez, Tunapuna or Endeavour Hindu Schools for the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha, or at the University of the West Indies Creative Arts Centre, St Augustine and the Tobago House of Assembly.

At his funeral service, Rimini Holass Beepath, one of Trinidad’s leading singers spoke about the pleasure of working with Sagar annually in training primary school students for the SDMS Bal Vikaas Competition. Shanmatee Singh, the principal of Arima Hindu School, remembered him for this total dedication to teaching students from standards one to five, of the St Helena Hindu School for the same annual activity. At the Creative Arts centre, UWI, he provided musical accompaniment and taught many local Indian folk melodies over the last five years of his life, demonstrating the nuances of the various melodic strains and providing research information on the respective genres to enthusiastic students. His last teaching-cum-demonstration session was at UWI in November 2010.

While the music of Sagar’s folk songs remained simple, in the typical Indian folk tradition, he kept the compositions of the melodies within the prescribed rhythms of traditional Indian musical compositions, using the cyclical rhythms, characteristic of Indian music i.e. to time cycles of 6 (Dadra taal), 7 (Roopak taal), 8 (Kaharwa Taal) and sometime 16 (Teen taal) beats per cycle, depending on the melody that was being sung. These songs were, invariably, in Bhojpuri, the lingua franca of the Indian folk song composition in the Trinidadian environment which he imparted with clarity and precision to both students and audiences.

The Performer

Sagar was a very accomplished musician straddling Trinidad’s music divide. As early as the 1960s Sagar was playing the tumba drums (three drums with stick) with the then popular local combo group, Ancil Wyatt. He played dholak and tabla with the Jit Seesahai Melody Makers, with the National Indian Orchestra under musical director Harry Mahabir, Dindial Kanick Indian Orchestra, Naya Zamana Orchestra under the baton of Narsaloo Ramaya, the Gemini Indian Orchestra and the D.Rampersad Indian Art Orchestra for the popular television programme “Mastana Bahar”.

Richly endowed with a booming, resonant, voice that easily reached the high octave (taal saptak) and did not require amplification he was always a favourite of the crowds that flocked to hear him, whether it was chanting Ramayana at yagnas, singing bhajans for wakes, at private chamber (mehfils) concerts or at public performances of local classical or chutney singing . At home he had performed in almost every competition of local Indian Classical music including the National Council of Indian Culture’s (NCIC) annual Local Classical Singing competition. There was hardly a public gathering of Indian artistes where he was not present and performing. To young performers, he was a stabilizing force on stage, providing encouragement. This is what sitarist Mungal Patasar rmost remembers about Sagar as he thinks back to his early years when he, Patasar, went on stage with him as a young mandolin player. Mungal recalled that in November 2010 he, in turn, had to provide that stabilizing quality to Sagar as they performed in Campo village, Sagar’s community. In that concert he noticed that Sagar was distinctly uncomfortable and was sweating profusely on stage. He felt that something was going wrong but did not enquire. Little did he know that this was to be Sagar’s final concert with him.

Classical singer Vishnu Brown recalled that Sagar, the family man, was always game for a good get together with friends, bringiong with him a jovial attitude and an ability to deliver the same repertoire of jokes, each time with the same punch line, as if it was the first time that it was being told.

Music Recordings

Munilal Sagar Sookraj is credited with having his voice on nine long playing (LP) records and dozens of cassettes. Of the nine records, two carry his voice exclusively. (One long playing and one 45 rmp). Seven others, LP records, contain his voice, his music and lyrics. Eight of the LP records were done in Jamaica and produced by his close friend, the businessman and race horse owner, Henry Jagai. One of his greatest and instant hits was the song Wadekar recorded in 1972 in the 45rmp.

With his recordings and overall popularity Sagar Sookraj, has always been an artiste in demand, both at and abroad. He has performed in Canada (Toronto, Scarborough and Montreal); USA (Miami, New York and Maryland); and Holland (Amsterdam and The Hague). The Caribbean was his stomping ground, performing over twelve times each in Jamaica and Suriname; ten times in Guyana; twice each in Guadeloupe and Martinique; Barbados, St Grenada and St Marten, and in six of the Caribbean Festival of Arts, Carifesta. Veteran dancer Rajkumar Krishna Persad recalls his years of association with Sagar.

“Sagar and Lutchman Bissoon toured this country, Guyana and Suriname, accompanying me as I introduced Bharata Natyam and other Indian dance forms to the Caribbean students. They were wonderful, memorable days starting from the 1970s”, recalled Krishna.
Sagar worked with several playback musicians of the Indian film industry, accompanying a number of vocalists including C.H. Atma, Hari Om Sharan, and Manna Dey. He even has a collector’s item, a drum given to him by the Indian playback singer Mukesh. He sang and played the harmonium and tabla for Kathak and Orissi dancers Pratap and Priya Pawar while they taught in Trinidad from 1976 to 1980, as well as for Kathak dancer and musician Shri Pradeep Shankar.

The Dramatist

Sagar also distinguished himself as a dramatist, performing in several ballets (Nritya Natika) directed by Sat Balkaransingh such as the Penal Harvest (1991); Krishnayana (2003), the Story of Lord Krishna; and in Shakuntala, a joint production of the then Indian High Commissioner H.E Virendra Gupta and Nrityanjali Theatre.

Singer and musician Reynold Dial, wiping away a lingering tear at Sagar’s funeral said his most poignant memory of Sagar was when, as dramatists together in the ballet Ram Katha in 2000- he as Hanuman and Sagar as Sugriva- hugged on the stage of the Central Bank auditorium. The other productions were all staged at Queen’s Hall. In early November 2010 we began to work on a new production, entitled Dancing Stories for Little Carib Theatre and Creative Arts Centre San Fernando in June 2011.

In the last five to eight years before his passing, while Sagar continued to sing in public and private, he grew more selective about the competitions in which he would appear. He chose those with knowledgeable judges and which promised to maintain high standards of artistic quality. He had grown impatient with bad lyrics, untrained voices, and general poor quality presentations. To support the continued development of Indian music, he kept himself busy, teaching and judging concert in the Indo-Trinidadian genre. This included the Republic Bank’s annual Tassa Taal Competition. In spite of all of this, however, Sagar Sookraj remained a highly under-rated artist.

In late Nov 2010 he complained of feeling unwell and was forced to visit the doctor. Thereafter he went into surgery for a failing kidney. On the operating table he got a heart attack and had to be stabilised. It was only then that it was discovered that he had cancer in an advanced stage. His wife Fareeda (married on 20 October 1976), together with his sisters, nursed and cared for him with the tenderest and greatest of love.

Sagar passed away on Friday May 6 and was cremated on Tuesday May10th on the banks of the Caroni River. Throughout the procession to the cremation ceremony on the banks of the Caroni River, the mike man played on rotation Sagar’s signature tune, Are Mana tirchee.

In his passing, another role model, mentor and one of the few keepers of our swiftly dwindling folk traditions has departed. An era of local Indian music has ended.

  • [i] Abdul Halim Sharar, Lucknow: The Last Phase of An Oriental Culture (India, Oxford University Press, 1975) 144.
  • [ii] Female entertainers who specialized in singing popular tunes.
  • [iii] Hindi, J?gna, to be awake: A troupe of female entertainers whose main function was to keep the female household awake throughout the night during the celebrations.
  • [iv] Peter Manuel, East Indian Music in the West Indies: T?n Singing, Chutney and the making of Indo-Caribbean Culture(Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000) 22.
  • [v] Munilal ‘Sagar’ Sookraj, Personal Interview, 20-23 Apr 2009. Note Doman also sang during ‘Gaddi’, the rituals performed for the shaving and bhandara ceremonies of deceased Hindus.
  • [vi] Discussions with Rampairie Balkaransingh and Belfie Boodramsingh in Chaguanas 1977-78.
  • [vii] Indian folk music received airplay albeit on a limited scale, commencing 1947 with the introduction of Kamaludin Mohammed’s ‘Indian Talent on Parade’ on Radio Trinidad. This is the same year that pan music of Ellie Manette was introduced on the same airwaves of Radio Trinidad by Errol Hill. Refer to Hill (1983), p30.
  • [viii] Sagar Sookraj, Personal Interviews, 1980-2009. Sagar is a musician, Indian folk singer and pioneer of public chutney singing. Also see chapter on Phagwa.
  • [ix] The Bhojpuri terminology is ‘Biyah’.
    [x] The ceremonies associated with the Hindu wedding take place over a three day period; applying saffron to the body to make it clean, which begins on day 1(two days before the actual marriage) and continues on day 2 and day 3- the morning of the actual marriage ceremony. For each aspect of the three day ceremony prayers are chanted and appropriate songs are sung for the occasion. Also on the evening of day 1, the matikor, a ceremony is performed at the site of running water, preferably a river or stream.

Leave a Reply