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A Gifted Son - Gordon Rohlehr

Monday, October 8th 2007

BOTH in physical and in intellectual terms, the towering figure of Guyanese-born literature professor Gordon Rohlehr retired from active duty at the University of the West Indies. A fixture at the St Augustine campus since the late 1960s, Prof Rohlehr demonstrated from his earliest days what a true scholar was.

In paying tribute to the colossal contributions he has made to West Indian scholarship, to the intellectual and cultural traditions of the people of this region, it is important also to note a major fact of the personality with which he was imbued.

Absolutely devoid of airs, of professorial perch or of any sense of superiority, he presided over so many of the pursuits with which he was associated, with consummate ease and with unusual humility.

This is one of the many attributes which endeared him to the possibly thousands of students who encountered him over these years. but he was not simply a cloistered academic. He lent his enormous prestige to a wide variety of community and cultural causes, never disdaining to address an audience on almost any subject handed him. In halls and centres high and low, in gatherings large and small, high-brow equally as low, he would enrich an audience's understanding of issues related to West Indian society and politics, art and culture, life and letters.

But it was perhaps his professional dedication to the deconstruction and the greater understanding of calypso that the people of Trinidad and Tobago most importantly owe him a debt of gratitude that can never really be repaid. Prof Rohlehr pioneered the academic and the intellectual study of calypso and the calypsonian, tracing its history over several centuries, and surveying the enormous material produced by generations of West Indians from one territory to the other.

He made otherwise unknown connections between the calypsonians in his native Guyana with those in Trinidad and Tobago, Grenada and Jamaica, among others. He revealed in more than a few contexts, the extent to which the calypsonian expressed the soul of the peoples over the years. He documented the movements from one genre to another, from one age to the other, from one part of the region to another.

And he kept making those crucial connections, refusing to romanticise any particular era over another, putting the same intellectual rigour and the intellectual's penetrating insights to the soca and the ragga, as he would have done with what he had described as the bhaji and the mento rhythms. For giving calypso such a respected place in the world of academia and intellectual understanding, and for placing it right alongside the other elements of the West Indian literary traditions, Prof Rohlehr himself deserves the region's highest accolades.

But for so much more than that, his place has already been assured as one of the region's best and its brightest, as well as one of its most human and humane of gifted sons.

Source: Trinidad Express
Posted: February 2008

 

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