Kamaluddin Mohammed is being honoured Saturday (May 10,2008) by the Trinidad and Tobago chapter of the Global Organization of People of Indian Origin (GOPIO) for his contribution to the nation and to the advancement of culture over six decades. Jai Parasram interviewed Kamal last year for a magazine article and wrote this tribute to “Charch”.
It takes commitment and dedication to be up at four in the morning. And it says a lot about a man who, at 81, does it in order to follow a religious discipline he learned as a boy. The man is Kamaluddin Mohammed.
“It’s a part of my life,” he says, explaining that he wakes before dawn to say Namaz, a routine that enriches his life and prepares him to face the day. “We need faith in our lives,” he told me. “Too many people are so busy they forget to make room for God. That’s why our society is in its current state of dismay.”
Kamal’s obligation to duty has characterized both his public and private life. He has met kings and commoners and mingled with the world’s most powerful men and women. At home he helped define our society and mould and shape our national institutions. Yet he remains, as always, a simple, humble man who lives in the community that nurtured him and spends much of his time these days “attending to family matters.”
“When I am finished with my prayers I have time to tend to the plants and read the papers. Then I attend to chores, mostly social and religious,” he said.
It’s interesting that that’s his focus today. It’s as if he has come full circle because it was Kamal’s religious and social activities that propelled him to prominence and made him a household name in Trinidad and Tobago. His success, he says, is due to hard work, and a passion and dedication to every project he tackles.
First Impressions – lasting impressions
Sixty one years ago he made history when, at age 20, he became the colony’s first ethnic broadcaster. Less than a decade later he was sitting in the cabinet, an equal among the most influential leaders of the time. Today in retirement he maintains the same enthusiasm that I felt the very first time I met him many years ago when I was a young reporter and he was the Minister of Health.
To my great surprise he introduced himself to me, not that he needed an introduction, and invited me to drop in at his office “at any time”. It was a brilliant public relations stroke for a senior government minister who understood the value of good media relations better than most of his colleagues, including his friend and political mentor, the late Dr Eric Williams.
It was that understanding of communication that took Kamal from obscurity to the national and international stage. He understood his environment, blended in and always had time to listen to what people were saying. It earned him respect and admiration and opened doors that would otherwise have remained shut.
Kamal was born on April 19, 1927 at El Socorro not far from where he lives today in Mohammedville, surrounded by the Mohammed clan, the fifth of a family of 13 that included well-known cultural icons in their own right, Sham and Moen. Their parents, Fazal Mohammed and Khajiman Kartoum, were the children of Indian indentured labourers.
From his childhood, Kamal was surrounded by religion and culture, which he credits for the sound family values, discipline and respect for authority that he has passed on to his children and his extended family.
At an early age he became versed in Islamic teachings and was fluent in Arabic, Hindi, Farsi and Urdu. By 1947, at age 20, he became Imam at the Mosque at Queen Street, Port of Spain after impressing skeptics with his brilliance as a theologian.
Jahaji or akhi challenge
A tribute to Kamal in 1974 by the late Noor Ghany described him as a champion of the cause of unity among the Muslims of Trinidad and Tobago. “His is the life of a man who cannot and does not allow parochialism and insularity to dominate his thinking,” wrote Ghany.
Those who know Kamal would consider that an understatement. He devoted his entire life not only to uniting Muslims, but to embracing culture to build bridges between Hindus and Muslims at a time when religious strife was tearing the Indian subcontinent apart in the post-Independence period that saw the creation of Pakistan and India as two separate sovereign states.
Kamal remembers being involved in satsang in the community and also joining his Hindu brothers, encouraging them to follow Dharma, and to let their own scriptures guide their lives and enrich the community. His passion for unity sometimes brought him into conflict with extremists in his own faith.
He remembers one incident in 1975 when he spoke at a Ramayan Yagna in his neighbourhood. He focused on the importance of worship, praised the Hindu community for its devotion and sang a bhajan with the congregation. He told them to make room in their lives for prayer, doing it with “purity of heart and sincerity of purpose.” He spoke of the need to “surrender ourselves to the Divine will, and dedicate our day, our lives, our actions, in fact everything we do, as an offering to God.”
His speech offended the publishers of the Muslim Standard. The paper chastised him for identifying himself with “Hindu aspirations” and questioned whether he was fit to continue to occupy positions of “trust and authority in the Muslim community.” The general Muslim population did not share that view and Kamal remained a leader and influential figure in the community. But the incident bothered him because it demonstrated the kind of destructive extremism that had always rejected.
Instead of responding he became more determined to follow his progressive nation-building agenda, showing respect for the country’s diversity and delivering a strong message of unity and harmony among all religions and ethnic groups.
Radio and preservation of culture
Kamal had been an experienced county councilor in 1947 when he got his first big break in the cultural field with the opening of Radio Trinidad. The Muslim representative at the blessing asked Kamal to translate the Arabic and Urdu blessings to English, a performance that so impressed the station’s managers that they invited him to produce and present a show for the Indo-Trinidadian community. That was the birth of “Indian talent on Parade”, the radio show that was the first giant step in national recognition for Indian broadcasting in Trinidad and Tobago.
In 1947, Indians were still a minority in colonial Trinidad and Tobago, with a culture that was generally unknown and misunderstood. Indians were often the objects of derision because of their language, religion and culture. “Indian talent on Parade” became the nation’s first mass media vehicle for the Indians. And Kamal used it to begin creating an understanding and appreciation of the Indian community, its art and culture, as well as its religions.
For the Indians, it was a major step forward, giving them self-confidence and the respectability they deserved. Kamal’s signature “Muday lakh burah cha-hay to kya hota hai, wohi hotay hai jo manzooray Khoda hota hai” (Thousands may wish me harm, but nothing happens unless it is the will of the Almighty) still resounds in Trinidad and Tobago after sixty-one years.
The impact in 1947 was astounding as he began what was in effect an experiment in ethnic broadcasting. “There were no rules. We just had to improvise as we went along,” he said. Kamal’s ingenuity and innovation created a path where none existed. In the process he paved the way for the revolution in Indian media that has taken place today, starting with the first all-Indian radio station, WABC-FM103 in 1993.
He was the driving force behind the formation of Indian orchestras, traveling the country to introduce them at major events, rehearsing with them and hiring taxis to cart them to Maraval Road where they performed live in the studios of Radio Trinidad for the fortunate few who owned radios.
In those days, entire families would cluster around the community radio to hear Kamal’s familiar voice and the mix of culture he offered every week. The first band to perform on Kamal’s “Indian Talent On Parade” was the Naya Zamana Orchestra led by Ostad Nazear Mohammed. The show featured Jhagroo Kawal, Taran Persad and Jang Bahadoor. Over the years Kamal gave exposure to artistes like Yankaran and his sons, Jameer Hosein, Zora Seesahai, Haniff Mohammed, Yusuff Khan, Narsaloo Ramaya, Champa Devi, Toolom Dindial, Harry Mahabir and many, many more. And he embraced anyone who identified with and cared about Indian culture, most notably black artistes like Owen Ali, Sonny Matthews, Roy Cooper and Cecil Fonrose.
Kamal’s work, which he says was inspired by the great Indian film director Mehboob Khan, spread into the communities, creating a new kind of national consciousness. In the cultural renaissance of which he was an integral part, India offered scholarships to artistes like Rajkumar ‘Krishna’ Persad, Harry Mahabir, Mungal Patasar and others who become proficient in song, music and dance in India.
From community to nation building
Kamal’s Dil Bahar restaurant in Port of Spain – and Windsor Stores later – became a cultural mecca. It was also the place where Eric Williams came to visit to discuss a movement that was to transform the politics of Trinidad and Tobago and thrust the young Kamal into a life of national service.
Kamal remembers his first public speech in Penal on a PNM political platform. It was a highly charged political time, with strong ethnic divisions. He walked up to the microphone and surveyed his audience. Penal was part of the Indian heartland. Then he spoke. “Muday lakh burah chahay to kya hota hai…”. Instant rapturous applause broke out and drowned his poetry as the audience identified immediately with the man who had brought them “Indian Talent on Parade.” The cultural icon, the voice behind the revolution in Indian culture was real.
His language skills, the ability to speak the ancestral languages and switch back to English without missing a beat won him admiration and gave him clout. He became one of Eric Williams’ most trusted political lieutenants. Kamal held a variety of cabinet posts, attended major conferences as head of the nation’s delegations, and had the honour to be elected president of the World Health Organization. He acted as prime minister, but was denied the nation’s highest elected office in 1981 when President Ellis Clarke bypassed him and chose George Chambers as the successor to Eric Williams.
Kamal’s politics didn’t hurt his cultural life. In fact he used every opportunity to advance Indian religion and culture. One example was getting cabinet to simplify the cremation process for Hindus.
Return to India
In his travels abroad he also wore his cultural hat. One of his more memorable trips was to India as part of a government delegation. His grandfather had come to Trinidad from the Punjab as an indentured labourer. Now Kamal was returning to the homeland in the exalted position of a cabinet minister.
He met Indian Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and spent two days with the Nehru family at their home, where he had an opportunity to chat with Nehru’s daughter, Indira, who was to later become India’s first female prime minister. That relationship worked well in developing strong links between Trinidad and Tobago and India.
Kamal told me he was thrilled to meet the larger-than-life Nehru, who with Mahatma Gandhi and the Congress Party had engaged the British in a non-violent struggle for Indian Independence. But he was humbled at the Punjab legislature where 109 lawmakers gave him a standing ovation and offered him garlands, as a gesture of welcome. “I had to pause ten times to remove the garlands to allow the others to present theirs. Every member offered a garland,” he remembers.
Retirement and reflection
Today in retirement, Kamal has time to reflect on his life in the nation’s service and in culture. He is proud that the work he started sixty years ago has borne fruit, happy that his siblings, his children and nephews and nieces have followed the family tradition and become Indian cultural media icons in their own right.
He is also disappointed with many things. He says he remained dedicated to the party he founded with Williams and a few others until it lost it’s way under the current leadership. But he was not interested in talking politics, except to say that we seem to be “in a downward spiral.”
He was more vocal on cultural issues. He strongly disapproves of some of what passes as Indian culture today. He said, “It’s scandalous and shameful to see our sisters and daughters performing lewd dances in the presence of their elders and calling it culture.” He laments our disdain for learning ancestral languages and for not following the religious traditions our ancestors fought so hard to preserve. “Look at what is happening now with events where people are encouraged to sing religious songs in English,” he said.
For Kamal, culture begins to die when people lose their indigenous languages and religions. “These are the things that define culture,” he said. Kamal accepts that in a plural society some assimilation takes place and cultural patterns change, but he is deeply bothered by the accelerated decline in Indian culture.
I asked him whether the proliferation of Indian radio stations helped make the situation worse. “Yes,” he told me. “I’m saddened by the trend in Indian broadcasting. We had a golden opportunity, but we have squandered it, thinking only of profit.”
Still Kamal is not giving up. He encourages people to dedicate some of their time to community service and he has valuable advice for those who wish to serve: do it for its own sake, not for fame or fortune.
He admitted politics today is no longer attractive, but says people can offer service in other ways. “Get involved in community and citizens groups, go among the people, work with them to make their lives better.” And he urged everyone to make a little time for their languages and the scriptures.
And his final thoughts? “Live with humility, and the world will respect you,” he said.
Tributes to Kamal
Narsaloo Ramaya’s tribute epitomizes Kamal’s impact in the field of culture: “Generations unborn will still remember his work…men will say with justifiable pride, ‘well done, thou good and faithful servant’.”
Tributes to Kamal:
- Hans Hanoomansingh: “His was no doubt a pioneering role in definite terms…he had the background for it spoke fluently, and knew the ancestral languages. He was very familiar with the traditions and had a love for music.”
- Hamilton Maurice, former President of the Senate: “The community owes a great debt to Kamaluddin Mohammed for the contrib
- ution he has made in getting non-Indians to understand and appreciate Indian art and culture, and how wonderfully music and song can unite a people.”
- Narsaloo Ramaya: “Kamal has built an imperishable monument for himself, and his name will long be remembered as one who dedicated his life toward the promotion of Indian music.”
- Dr Wahid Ali, former President of the Senate: “His lifetime of service is derived from a rich family background…Kamal’s chequered career has many important lessons, not only for the people of Trinidad and Tobago, but universally.”
- Errol Mahabir, former cabinet colleague: “Kamaluddin Mohammed has always led a simple life and humility has been one of his attributes. He served his country faithfully and with a great sense of dedication and has left a lasting impression both in the Caribbean region and beyond.”
- Dr Elizabeth and Dr David Quamina: “His obvious enthusiasm for public service did not detract from his devotion to wife and family. He was always at the helm of the family and always keenly interested, indeed involved, in the smallest details of their daily lives.”
- Satnarine Maharaj, Secretary General of the Maha Sabha: “We all owe Kamal for his unstinting dedication to racial harmony…Kamal is a role model for our youth.
Biography – Ghany, Hamid A. Kamal : a lifetime of politics, religion and culture San Juan, Trinidad and Tobago : Kamaluddin Mohammed, 1996 (St. Augustine : Multimedia Production Centre, University of the West Indies)