Profiles of Caribbean Artistry
Maseelal Pollard: ‘King of the Sitar’
By Dr. Vibert C. Cambridge
The Guyana Quintet:
From left, Maseelal Pollard, Keith Waithe,
Roy Geddes, Etwaru Kishore and Keith Joseph
(Photo courtesy of Ken Corsbie)
The story of music in Guyana has many dimensions. It is a story about
ancestral origins. It is a story about identity. It is a story about
The instruments that we use to make our music - the flute, the shak shak, the
fiddle, the drums, the piano, the violin, the clarinet, the saxophone, the
banjo, the quarto, the rajao, the danthal, the harmonium, the sitar, and the
steel pan are part of the wonderful stories of arrival.
The music we have made with these instruments and our voices have served many
functions, including the cultivation of national identity and a vehicle for
The work of Maseelal Pollard helps to demonstrate this interesting
intersection of stories of origin, national identity, and diplomacy.
I have memories of Maseelal Pollard from Queenstown. I went to Comenius
Moravian with his children, and I was aware that among his neighbours was the
Jagan family - Cheddi, Janet, and their children. I was also aware that Mr.
Pollard operated a tailor’s shop at the curve of Third and Cummings Streets near
to Graham’s Bakery.
Painting of an Indo-African fusion performance in the Catholic Hall,
Paramaribo, Suriname during the 1960s.
From left, Maseelal Pollard on the sitar, Etwaru Kishore on tabla,
Keith Waithe on flute, and Roy Geddes on steel pans.
(Photo courtesy of Roy Geddes)
Mr. Pollard was one of those community parents who helped to raise my
generation. A word from Mr. Pollard to my mother about my “cangalang” behaviour
could have painful results. In the culturally inquisitive times of the Itabo (a
club on Murray Street with a Beatnik atmosphere) in the early 1960s, I was also
aware that Mr. Pollard had a national reputation for playing a distinctive
musical instrument - the sitar.
In an interview he gave to the Guyana Graphic in 1969, Maseelal, then
fifty-seven years old, said that he started playing the sitar at the age of 11.
His first teacher was his father Lalta Persaud, and the instrument that he was
trained on was brought to British Guiana by his grandfather who had come as an
Some controversy still surrounds the origins of the sitar. The current
position among scholars is “that the sitar developed in the Indo-Pakistan
subcontinent not at the beginning, but at the end of the Mogul era.” Further,
there is emerging consensus that the sitar “was likely influenced by or evolved
from the Persian lutes played in the Mogul courts.” The sitar is a member of the
chordophone family. Other members of that family include the popular West
African instrument, the Kora.
By the late 1930s, Maseelal was enjoying national popularity, and this was
facilitated by radio. Along with his brother, a tabla player, he performed on
British Guiana pioneering radio stations VP3BG and VP3MR.
The sitar is a versatile instrument and is associated with many genres of
Indian classical music. These musical styles tend to be very devotional and
introspective. Maseelal was an expert at many of these genres, and his expertise
provided cross-over appeal. So, he was even invited to perform in Christian
Maseelal was very popular on the concert circuit and even performed for
several governors and Indian high commissioners.
By 1967, Maseelal was one of Guyana’s cultural ambassadors, representing
Guyana at Expo 67 in Montreal, Canada. In 1969, he represented Guyana at Grenada
Expo and created a stir. “The Grenadians were spellbound [by his performance].
They had never seen or heard anything like it before and it was quite a hit,”
said a Grenadian official.
Clearly, Maseelal’s performance shone a light on Guyana’s cultural diversity.
He had developed a reputation as a healer and a bridge builder. He performed at
the concert at Queen’s College in aid of the victims of the January 1969
Maseelal was also an innovator. In 1970 at the Theatre Guild, along with
Etwaru Kishore (tabla), and Keith Waithe (flute), he performed the ‘curtain
raiser’ for My Name is Slave, “an abbreviated historical documentary” written,
produced, and directed by Ken Corsbie to celebrate the new Co-operative Republic
of Guyana. The celebrated Jamaican writer, Andrew Salkey, who attended the
performance, enjoyed the curtain-raiser and concurred that it was an important
innovation because of the deliberate fusion of Indian and African musical
styles. “It was the first we’ve tried that. It worked, I think. The combination
of sitar, tabla, and flute,” said Corsbie. Maseelal, and this knowledge was very
helpful when he later travelled to India.
There is a painting from this period of experimentation that is displayed
proudly at Roy Geddes’s steel band museum in Roxanne Burnham Gardens. The spirit
of creativity that Maseelal encouraged still resonates today. Guyanese are still
experimenting with the sounds of our ancestors. We have tried a lot since
independence - the Bhoom, the Lopi, the Afrugu, Maskee, AfroIni, Chutney,
Dancehall Chutney, and Chutney Hip Hop. One day we will create the great
Guyanese harmony - the best is yet to come. Maseelal was a multi-talented and
versatile instrumentalist, playing the sitar, tabla, and harmonium. He was a
highly respected judge at Indian musical competitions. According to Peter
Manuel, when the harmonium was introduced to British Guiana in the 1930s, it
almost made the sitar and sarangi obsolete and extinct.
That experiment in the blending of the nation’s musical traditions took on
other dimensions in the future. For many members of my generation, the fusion of
sitar, tabla, flute, upright bass, and pan at Carifesta ‘72 reinforced the
feeling that a new and exciting moment had arisen in Guyana’s creative
expression. According to Keith Waithe, the group was known as the Guyana Quintet
and included Maseelal, Roy Geddes, Etwaru Kishore, Keith Joseph and Keith Waithe.
Keith Waithe has very special memories of Maseelal - The Master Sitarist.
“I remember spending several hours at his shop discussing musical ideas and
about experimentation,” said Waithe in a recent e-mail. Waithe also stated that
he learned a lot from Maseelal, and this knowledge was very helpful when he
later travelled to India. There is a painting from this period of
experimentation that is displayed proudly at Roy Geddes’s steel band museum in
Roxanne Burnham Gardens. The spirit of creativity that Maseelal encouraged still
resonates today. Guyanese are still experimenting with the sounds of our
ancestors. We have tried a lot since independence - the Bhoom, the Lopi, the
Afrugu, Maskee, AfroIni, Chutney, Dancehall Chutney, and Chutney Hip-Hop. One
day we will create the great Guyanese harmony - the best is yet to come.
Maseelal was a multi-talented and versatile instrumentalist, playing the
sitar, tabla, and harmonium. He was a highly respected judge at Indian musical
competitions. According to Peter Manuel, when the harmonium was introduced to
British Guiana in the 1930s, it almost made the sitar and sarangi obsolete and
extinct. We must thank Maseelal for helping to keep the instrument alive.
Maseelal Pollard was recognized by the Guyana Folk Festival Committee as a
2003 Wordsworth MacAndrew Awardee. His pioneering work must be remembered and
If you have additional information on Maseelal Pollard, please share it with
me at email@example.com
Sunday Graphic, Maseelal - King of the Sitar, May 18, 1969.
Andrew Salkey, Georgetown Journal: A Caribbean Writer’s Journey from London via
Port of Spain to Georgetown, Guyana 1970. (London : New Beacon, 1972, p.
Keith Michael Austin, What’s our Guyanese rhythm, Guyana Chronicle, Wednesday,
June 28, 1980.
Peter Manuel, East Indian Music in the West Indies: Tan-Singing, Chutney, and
the Making of Indo-Caribbean Culture. (Philadelphia : Temple University Press,
David Courtney, Origins of the Sitar. Available on-line at
http://chandrakantha.com/articles/indian_music/sitar.html. Accessed on March
E-mail from Keith Waithe, March 29, 2004
First published: Stabroek News
Posted April 28, 2004