RAJKUMARI SINGH: CARIBBEAN PIONEER
Writer, Political Activist, Educator, Cultural Leader, Feminist & Broadcaster
In celebration of Guyana Independence Day, we honor Rajkumari Singh, A.A. (1923-1979) who was an innovative Caribbean writer, political activist, educator, cultural leader, feminist and broadcaster. She was a mother and a professional; like many women today in the Americas she worked inside and outside of the home. At the age of six she contracted polio but that did not stop her from achieving greatness in multiple professional fields as an adult.
Polio was common in my mother's generation. My mother had a severe curvature of the spine. The chiropractor who diagnosed her in her 30's was not sure exactly caused her condition. He thought it could have been caused by doing farm chores or by having a mild case of polio. She knew people who had contracted the disease who were greatly effected and many were limited in what they could do with their bodies.
Rajkumari's parents were activists and professionals. Alice Bhagwandai Persad Singh, her mother, was born in Suriname. Her mother's grandfather became Chief Interpreter of Indian languages in Grenada, British Guiana and Nickierie, Suriname. Her father, Dr. Jung Bhadur Singh was born at Goed Fortuin, West Bank Demerara in Guyana. Her parents met on a ship transporting Indian immigrants to the Caribbean. On February 23, 1912 they married in a civil ceremony, followed by Christian and Hindu ceremonies.
In 1929 her mother established the British Guiana Dramatic Society. Her mother belonged to the Red Cross, YWCA and Dharm Shala, besides being a prison visitor. In 1936 her mother founded the Balak Sahaita Mandalee which promoted education and training for low-income East Indian children.
Her father obtained his medical training at Edinburgh University in 1919 and provided medical services for Indian immigrants transported on ships to the Caribbean. He served on the SS Madian and SS Ganges. He traveled to Fiji, Natal, Jamaica, Suriname and Trinidad. He served as President of the British Guiana East Indian Association for six terms. He was also a Legislator for Demerara-Essequibo starting in 1929. He founded and became President of the Maha Sabha from 1935 to 1955.
It was out this environment of activism, leadership, the arts and professionalism that Rajkumari succeeded in becoming one of Guyana's most well respected, multi-talented leaders. She excelled as a broadcaster, producer, director, playwright, poet, educator, songwriter and cultural activist.
Her professional life was varied and interesting. She raised eight children with her husband, Hari Singh. On Radio Demerara and the BBC she was an announcer and creator of Indian cultural programs. This was before many women developed radio, TV and journalistic careers. In the 1980's, in the United States and other countries, I was one of the women, along with many others, who had started these types of careers. Before that time frame, few women entered the profession world-wide.
Rajkumari became a member of the British Guiana Dramatic Society. Her most well-known play was Gitangali. In 1960 she published six stories in A Garland of Stories.
In the 1960's she became a political activist with the People's Progressive Party and served on the Commission of Inquiry on the Wismar Riots. In 1964 Africans were involved with racial violence and destruction of Indian communities during these riots. Many East Indians moved out these areas to other locations in Guyana and world-wide.
In the 1970's she became a broadcaster again. She spoke to both "ethnic and gender issues facing Indo-Caribbean women." World-wide the women's movement came into blossom and she was part of this questioning of the role of the patriarchy in society. Female consciousness raising groups flourished world-wide in these times.
She was an editor of Heritage, a literary booklet, a leader of the Messenger Group and a mentor to many talented people in the arts and cultural spheres: Gora Singh, Madadi Das, Roplal Monar and Gishka Kisson. In 1972 she became a member of the Guyana National Service. She brought different group together to dispel "mutual ignorance of their histories." She promoted the idea that "internal criticism was a valid strategy for bringing social change." Gandhi was a model for many activists world-wide in this regard because he was always questioning his own actions.
This is an execerpt from one of her most celebrated pieces called Days of the Sahib.
Days of the Sahib are over, or should be, Now that our land is free of the overlord's yoke--The overlord whose hard harsh discipline kept the brown man cringing, crawling and grinning in sickening sychophancy!
Over the years she won many awards for her artistic abilities and service to the country of Guyana. Her major award was the Golden Arrowhead of Achievement--Orders of Service of the Cooperative Republic of Guyana--The First Republic Day Honors List for "an outstanding contribution of an exceptional nature, beyond the normal call of duty towards the people of Guyana."
Today her legacy continues under the leadership of her daughter, Pritha Singh, the Executive and Artistic Director of the Rajkumari Center in Richmond Hill, New York. Service and the arts are promoted and fostered at the center. For more information on the center call 718-846-5431 or go to www.rajkumari.weebly.com.
She was a great leader who was a very important activist in the history of Guyana. The 1960's and the 1970's were dramatic times of change in many countries. I grew up during these times and experienced the changes brought in my the ecological, civil rights and women's movements. Some people recall the violence and drugs, but the real changes in society, in the long term, came out of these movements.
The progressive ideas of social change of the People's Progressive Party are very much a part of Guyana's history and present. Human rights for everyone is key to a prosperous future. Recognizing the varied roles of women is also key to this prosperity. Women are the wealth and power in the home and can generated this wealth in creative ways inside and outside the home. The spiritual leader who acknowledges this is part of this prosperous future.
The foundation of the efforts of these great individuals brought social change in Guyana. Be thankful for those foremothers and forefathers who sacrificed so much to bring change. Rajkumari Singh is remembered for her great activism in challenging the status quo. The oppressor left; now we are free! Now, act like we are free!
JAI SHRI RAJKUMARI SINGH! JAI SHRI SOCIAL PROGRESS!