October 2, 2014

Evolution of Guyanese Phagwah celebrations in U.S.A

By Vishnu Bisram 

Phagwah is officially celebrated after mid-night, as Thursday begins and throughout the day at mandirs across the U. S. It will be celebrated in a grand way on Sunday at public locations in areas where Guyanese are settled in large numbers like Central Florida, South Florida, New Jersey, the Bronx, and Queens New York.

The large influx of Guyanese, beginning in the late 1970s and continuing up until this day, has made it possible for Phagwah to be celebrated in NY similar to Guyana, except for the brutally cold weather which prevents all the other traditions that are experienced in Guyana. The colourful Richmond Hill Parade, started by Guyanese, has been the fulcrum of the Phagwah celebrations since 1990. It brings tens of thousands of celebrants together.

The Phagwah celebrations were not always this large and did not include any of the outdoor festivities of today.

Prior to 1990, Phagwah observances were minimal in the U. S. and took place mostly indoors at public schools or in the temples or their compounds.

Several mandirs including the Arya Spiritual Center (Pandits Ramlall and Satish); Gyan Bhakti Satsangh (Pandits Sukul and Upadhya ); Mahatma Gandhi Satsangh Society (Oumadat); Shiva Temple (Pandit Sat); Brooklyn Hindu Temple (Pandit Viresh Maharaj); Lakshmi Mandir (Pandit Jadonath) and others played Phagwah in or around the compound of their mandirs. At City College which had the largest enrolment of Guyanese in the region, the festival was celebrated by students of the Indo Club, joined with distribution of snacks including jalebi, burfi, mohanbhog.

Phagwah was first celebrated by Guyanese at Calo Hotel on 56th and 8th Avenue in 1970 by the Mahatma Gandhi Satsangh Society which was founded in 1969 by Pandit Oumadatt and others. The temple services moved to Martinique Hotel in 1971. Facing pressure from the hotel management, the services moved to Clark Hotel in 1972 and remained there for a few years before the organisation acquired a building on Pacific Street (near Warwick), where Sunday services and Phagwah were celebrated. Later, the temple moved to Townsend Avenue in the South Bronx where Phagwah was celebrated.

Pandits Gunnar, Walter Misir, and Johnny Dewa were responsible for the service at the temple. Phagwah was celebrated in the temple’s yard on the Sunday before or after the official observance.

In Brooklyn, on Avenue D, near Foster Avenue, the huge basement of a tenement building occupied and owned by Guyanese, served as a makeshift temple where Phagwah was observed. The Arya Samajists also had a temple in the large basement of Vishnu Bandhu’s furniture store in Brooklyn that was used for Phagwah celebrations. During the 1970s and early 1980s, the few temples hosted chowtal singing on weekends and on Phagwah evening with celebrants using talc powder instead of abeer to sprinkle on one another.

Some members of the temples also hosted satsanghs (prayer services) and dinners in their homes accompanied by chowtal singing. As the Guyanese community grew in Queens in the mid 1980s with more migration, Holi Samellan (variety concerts of music and dance) were held annually at public schools (beginning first at Hillcrest) in Jamaica with packed audiences.

Celebrations changed with the launching of the parade in 1990 with people eagerly looking forward for the festival which is now celebrated in grand splendour. It is now a cherished institution in the community that brings so many people together. It has become a wonderful celebration and a debt of gratitude is owed to all those who worked tirelessly to make it a huge success notably pandits Dr Satish and Ramlall and Ramesh Kalicharran. Credit must also be given to Anand Sukul, Bal Naipaul, Pandit Mahendra Doobay, Radharaman Upadhyaya, Pandit N Bisnauth, Pandit Kishore, Pandit Krishna Tiwari, Shri Prakash Gossai, the late Dharmacharya Arjune Doobay and all others who were so closely involved with the first edition of the parade. All the organisers should be applauded for their input and contributions in the parade.

The parade has expanded from Queens to the Bronx and to Jersey City, and up until recently, there was also one in Queens Village and now one in Orlando. The Richmond Hill parade is the largest gathering of Guyanese outside of Guyana. It is also the largest Phagwah parade of its kind outside of India. The parades offer a public avenue to celebrate the joyous spring festival known for its vibrancy of colours.

The parade has come a long way from decorating cars, trucks and flat beds. It has professional floats. It also has political recognition with politicians from the mayor to congressman to state and city legislators. Mayor Bloomberg was Grand Marshall one year. Principals of surrounding schools attend the parade because so many of their students are Guyanese and they want to join in the celebration as well. Politicians issue Phagwah proclamations in recognition of the celebration. TV, radio and major newspapers provide coverage. The parade has been featured in several ethnic and mainstream media.

Congrats are in order to the initiators, founders, members, planners and organisers of the annual parade. Everyone who played a role in starting the celebration and those who subsequently came on board in the planning and organising of the annual festivities should be recognised and applauded for their contributions, because they have helped to cement an important aspect of the Guyanese culture in NY.