The Forgotten Indian Coolie Woman
This painting tells the dark and traumatic story of the coolies of India, who were once happy and lived a life of freedom in the villages of West Bengal, India and grew poppies as an herbal cure for ailments. The painting depicts their life of freedom via a green and happy village scene of West Bengal and the gorgeous sunlit poppy fields. Grayed out poppy fields, gloomy skies and the black stormy waters (aka kala pani) in the painting cry out the pain of separation of Indian coolies from their homeland who were taken as indentured workers to work in more than a dozen colonies of the British empire during 1838-1917 replacing the African slaves after emancipation. This painting aims to remind viewers of the forgotten Indian coolie woman who was exploited not only for her ability to work in the sugarcane fields but also for her sexual labor and all that it represented.
I met Jeanette Bissoon from Waterloo, Ontario who is of Indo-Caribbean lineage. Her great great great grandparents were taken from India as coolies (aka slaves). I was really moved by her story and decided to create an artwork that could tell the story of Indian Coolies, especially women. Jeannette was in tears to know that I would create such an art piece and there is a possibility it could be displayed at public places. I read the book ‘Sea of poppies’ by Amitav Ghosh; and portions of the book “Coolie Woman - The Odyssey of Indenture” by Gaiutra Bahadur. I researched the topic online and spoke to a few people of this background. I have tried to capture the story, sentiments, a forgotten past and the painful truth of Indian Coolies, especially women who were used as sex laborers.