Home Commentaries & Articles India-Jamaica Relations: Evaluating the Cultural Dimensions of the Ties

India-Jamaica Relations: Evaluating the Cultural Dimensions of the Ties

An appraisal of India and Jamaica’s cultural linkages on the eve of sixty years of the establishment of diplomatic relations reflects multifaceted engagements: at the level of popular culture, sports, cuisine and diasporic connection. While cricket, Indian Cinema and Reggae music have heightened popularity among common people, the diaspora of Indian origin people in Jamaica and their cultural expressions provide a clearer expression of cultural interactions that can enhance the relations between the countries. The focus on cultural relations in diplomacy allows for countries to promote people-to-people exchange and consolidate their respective soft powers. In cases where bilateral ties revolve around the diaspora as in the case of India and Jamaica, Track II Diplomacy involving private citizens and organisations plays a pivotal role in adding more avenues to the engagements.   

The Historical Connection and the Culture of Indo Jamaicans

India accorded diplomatic recognition to Jamaica a few days after the latter declared Independence in 1962, but India’s links date back to the 1840s when the British colonial policy of indentured labour brought thousands of Indians to Jamaica. Hailing primarily from the provinces of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, 37000 Indians crossed the oceans on ships from Calcutta and Madras to Jamaica between 1845 and 1917 when the indentured system was discontinued. Jamaica received the third largest population, after Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago, and by 1929, only 38% had returned. Indian settlements developed near plantations and some of their cultural expressions gradually were incorporated into the wider national culture. Most widely noted has been food, in which Indian-influenced goat curry and callaloo with roti have become national dishes. Additionally, tarkaris (vegetable curries), roti and curry bhat (curry rice) remain staple food choices for present Indo-Jamaicans. Indian settlers also introduced various vegetables and fruits like mango, coriander, jackfruits, tamarind and eggplant among others and developed cuisine styles that used coconut milk and garam masala that grew popular.  Among the Indo-Jamaicans, the majority were Hindus and their descendants continue grand celebrations during Diwali, Shivratri and Janmashthami. Hindu religious organisations like “Prema Satsang and Sri Sathya Sai Baba Organisation” are also active in the cities. Additionally, Muslims celebrate Eid and their Tazia processions during Muharram to attract the largest crowds with both Hindus and Muslims participating. In the late 1900s and 2000s, many skilled Indian professionals in the health, IT and education sectors went to Jamaica which enhanced people-to-people contact. The Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India (2018) notes the presence of four Indian Associations that are based in large cities and are noted for their contribution to the economy. The extension of the Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) card to the diaspora has consolidated the sense of the connection of the Indo-Jamaicans towards India whereby many undertake tours to the places of their ancestors’ origin. 

Indian folk music commands immense popularity to this day and the earliest Indo-Jamaicans introduced various musical instruments like Dholak, Mridanga, Ektara, Sarangi and subsequently, Tabla. The performance of folk music and devotional music like Bhajans and Kirtans during occasions like Phagwa, childbirth and weddings are popular. Folk dances in Jamaica have notable exponents like Jaipal Chamar (Naach), Muneshwar Shankar and Ram Baran (Janghia), Ajiban and Najiban (Paturia), Winston Nehru (Kathghora), Carol Singh (Raas Lila) and Devon Singh. Marcia Singh gained official and international recognition as an exponent of many of these dances. From the 1970s onwards the Jamaican School of Dancing commenced classes on Indian dances, with courses on Indian Classical dances as well. As Indians are preeminent in the jewellery industry, many traditional designs and art styles in the pieces are seen. Rastafarianism that gained prominence in the 1930s had roots in Jamaica. The movement’s religious character was influenced by Hinduism in its early stages where Hindu worship of ethnic Gods like Krishna led one of the influential founders of Rastafarianism, Leonard P Howell to conceptualise an Ethnic God to break the divisions within the movement. Rastafarian ideology and movement gained global recognition with reggae musician Bob Marley who was called Tuff Gong, where “Gong” is derived from “Gangunguru” which means great king in Hindi. 

The retention and celebration of cultural roots for Indo-Jamaicans is an expression of asserting their cultural identity. While subsequent generations have assimilated and adopted a more Caribbean life, cultural markers from the Indian subcontinent gradually were incorporated as demonstrated in the wider culture of Jamaica. This has been acknowledged in recent times by India through the extension of OCI cards, the celebration of Pravasi Diwas and President Ram Nath Kovind addressing a gathering of the diaspora in 2022 during his visit.  

In contemporary times, reggae music has become popular with collaborations between Indian artists like Taru Dalmia and Jamaican musicians. Reggae music is reaching the Indian masses through large concerts and music festivals over the years. Cricket provides another point of convergence where West Indian greats like Chris Gayle have been greatly admired. With cricketers acting as ambassadors of their culture, tours of the West Indies and India attract the audience of the respective countries as visitors. Cricket being recognised as a point of cultural connection was reflected in Indian President Kovind’s presentation of cricket kits to the Jamaican Cricket Association. Finally, Indian cinema finds a large audience in Jamaica and adds another point to the cultural relations. 

Enhancing Engagement Through the Governments 

Cooperation between India and Jamaica at the cultural level was facilitated through n MoU in 1996. The diplomatic missions in both countries organise seminars, workshops and cultural programmes with locals for their outreach. Indian mission’s outreach takes the form of studies on Indian philosophy, Gandhi Studies in Universities where chairs on the subject have been created and Indian academics are sent on deputations. This also extends to the involvement of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations in installing statues of Mahatma Gandhi on university campuses. Similarly, studies on Yoga as a discipline in universities of Jamaica have been initiated and World Yoga Day has been organised in colleges and stadiums of the country with ample support from the Indian High Commission. To expand the scope of such relations, India and Jamaica are exploring options for educational exchange beyond scientific and technical institutes. This was discussed in the recently concluded visit by President Kovind in May 2022, with the possibility of an Indian educational institute being hosted in Jamaica. During this visit, he inaugurated the India Jamaica Friendship Garden, located within the Hope Royal Botanical Gardens at St. Andrews. Three sandalwood saplings gifted by the Indian President were planted with a renovated gazebo and a plaque commemorating the occasion. Illustrating the role the common people play in cultural relations, an Indian immigrant family settled in Jamaica aided in the renovation and will maintain the garden.

Expanding the Cultural Dimension in Relations

 Governmental and informal collaboration can create Cultural Exchange Platforms which can increase local and international involvement. Unlike many other countries in the region where the language barrier inhibits relations among people, India and Jamaica’s informal exchanges have the potential to expand with English being a common medium. Such platforms with formal and informal mechanisms and the presence of non-official, local functionaries and immigrants can supplement active outreach measures of the government. 

India can leverage the popularity of its cinema and allied industry to build on its soft power and Jamaica can offer collaboration through production sites, helped by a young, qualified English-speaking section. As mentioned before, education can be another point of convergence with Indian and Jamaican institutes being hosted and students being encouraged to travel. Through endowments on Diaspora Studies, research by graduate students who will undertake field trips can bolster newer insights. 

With an involved diaspora and Indian professional immigrant population in Jamaica, both Jamaica and India can nurture its soft power potential and diversify its bilateral relations. The similarities across Jamaican and Indian cultures are an axis to strengthen the bilateral relations. Linked to this, Indian influence in the wider Jamaican culture as in the case of Rastafarianism to cuisine offers plenty of potential sources to further build bridges.