Galleries more

Videos more

Dictionary more

Art and Popular Culture – a Talk by Lindsey Collen


Lindsey Collen has given us the notes she spoke to at a talk she gave to students doing a 6-week course at the African Leadership University in Pamplemousses, with some responses from her in square brackets. It was on Wednesday 11 July at 3:00 pm. She did an interview with one of the students before the talk. Lindsey says the University is beautifully built, in the middle of cane and potato plantations, with different parts named after different African cultures historically speaking, and individual lecture rooms named after well-known African individuals. Of the 400-odd students, some 13 are Mauritian. Although, like most universities in Mauritius, it is clearly very business-oriented, it has a lively atmosphere that the students and staff have created.

Here is the talk, as outlined in Lindsey’s notes:

I’m giving this talk in times when there are seismic shifts in culture – because of a technological revolution of immense proportions – and where it is important to share some historical and some structural common ground. I would like a show of hands, for my own interest, on who has read Raymond William’s essay “Culture in Ordinary”? [Two people raised hands, at least one was a lecturer] and “Structures of Feeling”? Again two.] So, I will start by recommending Raymond Williams – for all of his work – and these two essays, as a good place to start in these times when our experience of time and space have gone through and are still going through such sudden changes that they affect our own “structures of feeling” and have become part of “culture is ordinary” culture.

So, I think there are three aspects to the title I’ve been given for today, three that look like two:

Art – and popular culture – meaning high art/high craft and what people enjoy as mass “culture”. I’ll deal with these two together, as they are juxtaposed in the title. And then I’ll finish with one aspect of this second half – the culture-is-ordinary part of popular culture. You know, like people eat a dhal puri while standing up in a way that is very culturally specific. [I imitated the way, especially men stand to eat a dhal puri; they put one foot up on a wall behind them, lean into it allowing their head to bend forward gracefully, and then they can eat the dhal puri without the sauces running down their arms or out of the dhal puri.] Culture like this is not only “ordinary”, but a good part of it is unconscious. People do not know that they have a particular way of eating dhal puri. And have you noticed no-one walks or sits in the seaward side of the very nice-looking Plaine Verte Gardens? Why? Nobody knows, when you ask them. But everyone avoids it. Culture can be unconscious. It is the place where slaves were beheaded in public. People no longer know that. They no longer know why they avoid that bit of garden, but they do. Ratsitatane the Madagascan prince taken into slavery was beheaded there for his part in a rebellion.

Anyway, its 50 years this year, as you know, that Mauritius became Independent, after a conscious struggle that we can date to January, 1936 – when at a working class protest gathering in Port Louis about problems about water supplies, a resolution for Independence was voted. So, we are looking at art and culture in a moment that makes us remember colonization and the need for continued decolonization, even as we avoid new forms of recolonization.

Mauritius is a society where the lower classes are, at the same time, extremely repressed by the State and the ruling class, and also very undaunted and unconvinced of the legitimacy of the State or its ruling class, thus very rebellious.

This situation is probably due to the absence of a long, pre-colonial history that might give other oppressed people hints of past happy days before colonization to fall back on. This lack of a long “past” is a weakness and a strength. It’s probably why all political parties in Mauritius, as you may have noticed, are “socialist”, all are against the capitalists, all are against privatization, all are in favour of the Palestinian struggle, all address the people at a public meeting as “comrades”, “comrade labourers” and “comrade skilled workers” – even the “right-wing ones” parties. If you don’t know this, it’s hard to understand what’s going on. At the same time, while the discourse is radical left, these same parties when they get hold of the State apparatus through elections, run it on the old colonial, repressive lines – making for a huge gap between words and deeds.

So, where do art and popular culture fit in?


It would be fair to say that “art” was seen in Mauritius – by all classes of people – as something rather useless indulged in by eccentric sections of the upper classes and also by a small urban intelligentsia known as “Bann Ward IV” in Port Louis, and around the Beau Bassin and Rose-Hill petty-bourgeoisies. It was often backward-and-upward looking to the good old days of pre-British rule, when the French ruling class and its “universal” culture held sway – with the most sought-after balls and high art concerts and opera in the whole colonial world in Port Louis. So, there is a sort-of nostalgia in art for an epoch of a better sort of colonization before British!

Art, in the half-century before independence, was an activity conducted on the fringes of social clubs of the elites of different social rankings, and in Cercles Litteraires.  All was thoroughly occidental. All was thoroughly Francophone. All was thoroughly Francophile. So, it was novels in French set on a sugar estate mansion – written by, say, an unmarried lady from a bourgeois family, or very wordy French poetry produced by men writers from the intelligentsia. It was light theatre or light operetta in French, it was paintings of the romantic kind – often as decoration or as a status symbol, portraits and sculpture of important men, showing them as imposing. Within this general reality, some good work, of course, emerged. Malcolm de Chazal. Robert Edward Hart. And many others.

Parallel to this, from about a decade before Independence, there was the emergence of a kind of stilted English literature, too, produced by an emerging petty bourgeoisie that was Anglophone and Anglophile, often written by journalists or teachers. It was also classical music played by small circles in small circles. And this went on until, I’d say for theatre until the late 1970s, for the plastic arts until the 1980s, and for literature until as late as the 1990s. (Obviously with the odd precursors.)  

There were two exceptions: One was sega: or rather one strand in the sega tradition. There were two strands, one playing for the bosses (you could not use language, for example, that might embarrass the boss’s young daughters, Ti-Frere the famous segatier once said on radio) and you were paid for performances, and given drink. The other, completely different strand, and this is the kind I’m referring to was totally independent of the bosses, and maybe a precursor of “popular culture as art-form” – music and dancing, with the musicians existing for the dancers and the dancers existing for the musicians. Fan-Fan fits more into this tradition, a tradition that was strong in the Mahebourg area and in Black River.

The other exception was the women’s all-night singing and dancing parties in rural areas, which existed only for women, and open to all women in the neighbourhood, with men being literally banned, even those resident in the house where the party was held. These, like sega, were also mainly for singers to praise dancers, and dancers to praise singers.

So, both forms were experiential, the here and now total art-form. (In the case of the women’s singing-dancing, it began early in the evening with a praise to gods, and ended with bawdy, humoristic sex education of a very explicit kind for unmarried girls).

I would say these were the two most advanced forms of popular culture that were also art-forms. They do not survive much – factory work needing sleep, bright lighting spoiling the atmosphere, mobile phone cameras making things rather narcissistic for the first time, and so on – and have largely been turned into shows “for” tourists, somewhat exoticised even sexualized.

 Both were, and still are, characterized by a linguistic independence, as well obviously as economic independence from the upper classes, from the State, from colonial repression. One was mainly Kreol language, with big Bhojpuri input. The other mainly Mauritian Bhojpuri, with Kreol input. I mention the language issue because we will come to that in the culture-is-ordinary section towards the end of my talk.


Immediately after Independence, there was a state of emergency, first because of the “race wars” stoked by the anti-Independence forces, then because of class uprisings in 1970-71. And as soon as the emergency laws were lifted, the democratization of art and the development of popular culture began in a big way: music in the streets and on street corners, writers cyclostyling poetry and plays, Kreol language being written all over the place, artists beginning to create sculpture and later paintings outside the old colonial straight-jackets.

This democratization of art and emerging popular culture was nurtured by some institutions: in particular the Mahatma Gandhi Institute from 1976 when it was inaugurated, and Municipalities that ran art courses and held drama festivals from 1977, when the MMM was first elected in all five Municipalities.

However, the French Embassy ran courses at the Centre Culturelle Charles Baudelaire. And second, the Indian Embassy, especially in more recent times is also a cultural “leader”. And these two embassies still end up often being the ones to take the imitative in art and culture. That is not “their” fault, as it were, but a sign of the remaining colonial ethos.

But in general, Mauritian art production and popular culture, the minute formalized, has found itself under attack from two sides in Mauritius itself:

1) The Mauritian State’s “multi-culturism” pushing people  back into kind of cultural “Bantustans”, and then trying to block them there. Not just “Indian”, for example, but around an array of regional languages: Hindi, Urdu, Arabic, Tamil, Mandarin, Telegu, Marathi – literature, music, dance – as well as African culture, Chinese culture, Islamic culture. Not anything for “Mauritian culture”. Not anything much for Mauritian languages – you speak Kreol, the state promotes English and French, you speak Bhojpuri, the State promotes Hindi and other Indian languages for you, you speak Hakka, the State promotes Mandarin for you. This is very stultifying for culture.

2) A commercialization of art – and this has been wildly accentuated as neo-liberalism would later take hold from, say 2000, producing music (but also paintings) for tourist consumption, playing music for “while people eat”, or to give them a taste of exoticism, or art sold as a “product” for decoration or investment.

But both strategies – the multi-cultural and the commercialization of art – ended up, willy-nilly training up hundreds of plasticians, musicians, actors and directors, even writers – through institutional training, mini-funding, providing instruments, awarding prizes, and through hotels employing people to play instruments, sing and dance.

The children of the first generation, and then subsequent ones, got the musical instruments lying around in the house, and got going with them.

And there has been a huge blossoming of creativity: despite official policy despite commodification of art.

So, this trend continues. The State persists with its ethno-centric multiculturism, and the private sector funds one-off expensive Port Louis by Light events, literally pasted on to society, or the Eco-Bridge Festival in Tamarin – rather sterile events. Port Louis by Light was designed to wake Port Louis up at night – but the reason for Port Louis closing down at 5 pm was not somnolence, but the race wars “Bagar Rasyal” of 1968 causing people to segregate into communities, on the one hand, and to pull shutters down on all commercial operations, and buckle down at night. A few expensive lights one day a year will not be enough of a Prince’s kiss to bring Port Louis to life. What it used to be like in the 50 years before Independence was what could have been the embryo of popular culture – it was a kind of equivalent of Barcelona’s Las Ramblas. The Eco-Bridge Festival was a rather extreme version of bosses sucking up to authorities in order to get tax cuts for a Smart City project. They succeeded.

Neither are to do with nurturing art or artists – only pretending to do so for money-making reasons.

Under neo-liberalism, there has been a kind of fusion of communal (ethno-centric) art forms and privatized art – so you get private shows of performing arts, and less and less public space. Less public money is spent, there is less public time spent collectively.

But more and more real popular art grows in the interstices, anyway. Art is, lucky that, hardy as weeds.

And of course, there is repression of the most grotesque kind just behind the multi-culturalism and the commerce.

- Take my novel, The Rape of Sita. Say, a small handful of fundamentalists – Hindu in this case – not religious men so much as politicians, the ones who offer up the masses’ votes in exchange for tenders and contracts for themselves and for subsidies for the temples they run – attack me for the title of my second novel. The Prime Minister at the time (Sir Aneerood Jugnauth), stands up in Parliament and sets the Police on me, when I am under death threat and threat of public rape. That is repression for you. I’m in a political party, LALIT, and women’s movement, and my publishers are the Workers’ Education, so I could survive, so I had support, and I could get the book to survive. But other artists cannot be expected to face that kind of violence backed by institutional violence.

- Or when Kaya, the musician who invented a new rhythm (like the Kwela in South Africa associated with Lemmy Mabaso, the Seggae is a new rhythm associated with Kaya) was put in police cells when he refused to deny smoking a joint, he ended up being killed. With no forensic evidence possible – it had gone up in smoke – he was kept in the police cells known here as Alcatraz. This was in 1999. His being beaten to death caused a nation-wide uprising. But Kaya, the artist, had already paid with his life.

- Just to give another aspect of this violence – this time from the intelligentsia. Once in 1998, LPT (the workers education) criticized the Le Mauricien newspaper for running an unsigned article including the phrase – “les Anglais nous ont pris notre système métrique”. LPT said it typified the colonized mind in a mild letter to the editor drawing attention to it. The newspaper editor flew into a rage, accused LPT and one member by name of “sleeping in the bed of the extreme right” and “playing Massenet music at night in smart houses” while “teaching people sega in the day”. LPT and its secretary had no alternative but to sue for defamation – as an Association and as the signatory of the letter. Years later, and about a dozen Court appearances later, the newspaper apologized publicly in Court and printed an apology. But the price in terms of time and effort we had to spend – just for a most mild criticism of the most abject display of a “colonized mind”.

- The streets of Mauritius used, in the 1970s and 80s to be Children’s Royal School of Music. But, the late Inspector Raddhoa and others, in their “cleaning up” of the cities, killed the music that was forever being born on street corners, played by youngsters in all poor areas. But more ubiquitous, even than the CID, the traffic makes it impossible to play music on street corners – it’s so loud, so intrusive, so heavy. Only once a year is it not illegal to play music in public places and in the streets – music day, 21st June! Then the banning of alcohol in public had the unintended consequence of banning the formation of embryonic music. And the World Trade Organization – tourism services were offered for international investment by the Mauritian state – thus killed off all street life, and tavern life, and the music it made with it. The idea behind the WTO logic is that beer cannot be sold cheaper off license and then consumed in public – it is not a level playing field to investors like Hilton and Holiday Inn!

But, in the interstices again, there has been and still is fantastic creativity in music. Formal yet informal places like Banana in Grand Bay, Lari Bluz in Curepipe, Le Sapin in Camp Le Vieux and Kenzi Bar in Flic-en-Flac have all contributed to creativity in jazz and fusion music. But they are fragile.

In literature there has also been a massive burst of creativity – especially in Kreol. But also in French, in Hindi and even in English. But not much cross-fertilization – not yet a movement of artists. Excellent individual writers have emerged. There is now a lot of literature about working people, the under classes and the middle classes.

It is the same for artists and sculptors, where the MGI annual Salon de Mai has been seminal. And LPT twice brought together artists of all kinds for multi-facetted events:

LPT: Artists Against the War, for Peace in 2004 – was an art exhibition, with poetry-theatre, music in the art-space.

A few years later, Artists Against Repression, for Freedom did the same thing.

Salim Currimjee’s Institute for Contemporary Art in the Indian Ocean has had good exhibitions that last for a few months. The first was on African art. Material Matters – New Art from Africa Nicolas Hlobo, Zander Bloom, Zanele Muholi, Lynette Yiadom- Boakye – to give you an idea.

Writer Sedley Assonne has produced a compendium on Segatiers. ABAIM, an association, has a Ravann School, and books on the ravann, and on sega.

Theatre in Mauritius comes from three traditions – two gems of European theatres, proscenium stages, produce/d mainly French plays for the elite; then there is the village tradition of “natak” with sketches in peoples’ houses and village halls; and then the théàtre engagé of the 1970s – breaking the bounds of theatre as a building. The best play, in my view, comes from that time. It is Tras by Henri Favory. Dev Virahsawmy’s plays were also popular as were those produced in the 1970s at Drama Festivals or by the Mauritius Drama League. Stand-up comedy – a series of artists – Micheline Soobraydoo and others – is right now probably one of the most popular parts of “popular culture”:

So there has been a certain democratization of art, but repression is still very strong, especially on popular culture.

One example of “Culture-is-ordinary” culture

In 300 years, the greatest creativity of Mauritius has been the invention of two languages: Mauritian Kreol and Mauritian Sign Language. These creations are both “culture is ordinary” culture in the Raymond Williams sense, and also both were created, and are maintained, unconsciously.

Let’s look at Mauritian Kreol and pose questions? Most languages develop slowly over millennia. How does Kreol develop in one generation? How did it happen? Why is it not appreciated properly? Why even despised? What are the processes blocking its reception in society? What’s the problem?

The genesis of Creole languages is interesting. There are some 80, most related to English, while the biggest languages in terms of numbers are related to French – Haiti, and Mauritius. Creole languages are languages which do not develop slowly over centuries, or even millennia, but are suddenly created – out of necessity. This makes us pose the question “What is language? Human language? From an evolutionary point of view?”

I refer you to a second important person, Derek Bickerton. You can Google him on YouTube and immediately get a 30-minute talk on what human language is, from an evolutionary standpoint, and what Creole languages are, within that.

Anyway this creation of Mauritian Kreol is the most important part of popular culture. It is unconscious. And it is still under massive repression.

And this is happening, even in these times when our concept of time and space is under such massive dislocation – through computers, cellphones, the internet, and social media. And the challenges remain the same: being split into multi-cultural bits (as the logarithms that social media use propel along) and being used commercially (the big firms like Google and FaceBook and others survive by selling data they mine from us.)

So, the times are challenging.


[There was half an hour devoted to questions.]