BACKTRACKS: Shankar’s passion for religious songs

Saras Chand ( Son of Sadhu Gauri Shankar) singing bhajan with the Mandali, including his dad (Sadhu Gauri Shankar). Picture: SUPPLIED

Sadhu Gauri Shankar’s musical journey in the dry and dusty back roads of Mulomulo, Nadi, is a tale of passion and commitment.

The 98-year-old was influenced by his father, a girmitya who was a mere 18 years old when he arrived in Fiji from India.

Shankar said he grew up surrounded by music and began singing from when he was about 15 years old.

He said he was unaware of his talent until the events that unfolded at a musical gathering.

“Mallu, who was the son of a very famous bhajan singer called Devi, started singing a bhajan at a gathering in Mulomulo,” Shankar said.

“My friends and mandali members egged me to sing alongside him and after some time, he had no replies to my bhajan.

“I sang a bhajan on the Lanka Kand that day and when I finished singing the bhajan, I overheard him discussing with another person that he couldn’t grasp the details of the bhajan I had just sung and he won’t be able to sing along the same lines.

“Mallu then started to sing on his own, and I started to sing on my own.

“I was around 40 years of age when this happened, and there must have been a gathering of at least 25 people.”

Shankar said during Ramlila religious events, he used to reprise the role of Ravana, the mythical demon king of Lanka.

“I used to keep long moustaches at that time because I usually re-enacted the role of Ravana back then.”

The nonagenarian said bhajan and the people who performed them were held in high regard in the ‘40s and ‘50s and religion played a big role in people’s lives.

He said it was sad to see this had changed as Fiji progressed into a more modern nation.

Along with the decline in interest by young people in the things of the past, there was also a shift in attitudes towards traditional Hindi music.

Shankar said in the ‘40s right up to the ‘90s, bhajan gatherings were focused on the singing rather than the kava drinking.

Unfortunately, he said, this had changed.

“In those days, for eight people to finish a bowl of kava would have taken a long time because their focus used to be on the bhajan, unlike now, it is on kava.”

He also reminisced about his siblings, caste and about his parents as well.

“My mother must have been 14 years old when she got married, and she had 12 children altogether.

“My dad belonged to the Manihar caste, they were traditionally engaged in selling bangles and jewellery.”

Shankar said although British numbers had declined significantly as he came of age, he remembered that his family used to live in bungalows at various cane growing sectors.

“The British were still around in the vicinity of the various sugarcane sectors, and they used to live in the bungalows and made labourers work.”

He said his dad used to tell him a lot of stories about India, but now, he only remembered some of them.

“My dad used to tell me about how he grew up in India and during his teen years he went to Calcutta where he heard about a job opportunity in Fiji.

“He said they were told they would be able to farm on sugarcane plantations and make a lot of money.

“My father, like many others, was lured by this offer.

“And it all turned out to be a lie because they were made to work for countless hours in sugarcane fields.”

Shankar said his dad died when he was 90 and his mother passed away when she was 102 years old.

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