Bollywood and my mother's bhajans were the background music of my childhood. Growing up in New Jersey in the 1980s, any and all yearning for lost homelands was set to the score of Love Story, Dostana, Silsila. Hindi film music was the approved soundtrack of our nostalgia. Arguably, since I am an Indian roughly a century out of India, born in Guyana, chutney should have been.

Chutney is Indo-Caribbean dance music that evolved from the Bhojpuri folk songs taken by indentured immigrants to British Guiana, Trinidad, Jamaica and elsewhere in the West Indies. Like the sugar cane blossoming out of muck and mud on the Demerara Coast, the music was a thing original to India that then was grafted into the Caribbean landscape. Both cane and chutney grew on plantations where Indians replaced Africans as coerced labor, their sweat and their blood extracted in successive measure, distrustful of each other despite that fact, and susceptible to each other's cultural influence despite themselves.

The music is a hybrid, percussive, anchored in the gyrations of hips liberated because the feet have been shackled. It is more than a bit wild. It did, after all, grow at least partly from the jesting, suggestive songs that Indian indentured women sang for each other, among themselves, on the night before a wedding and its consummation.

As a respectable girl from a respectable family, chutney was not supposed to be my anthem. I associate it with my mother's disapproval. I associate it with dance floors at diaspora weddings in New York and Toronto, South Florida and London, where "de people getting on bad" but in a socially permitted way—aunts and uncles, cousins and grandmothers "wining up their waist", next to each other. I associate chutney with transgression.

I also associate it with Creolese, the English dialect that evolved from plantation pidgin in the West Indies, which was also the English spoken in my immigrant home in the United States, distinct from the proper English I spoke outside it. The joy of the music, separate from the pleasures of transgression, is the joy of hearing the secret language of my private world spoken out loud in a public space, among people who come from the same history. (The lyrics can be in Creolese, Bhojpuri or a combination of the two.)

In form and content, chutney is the music of indenture and migration: stubbornly surviving, heartbroken and raw, its own mutt thing rejecting purity, celebrating its roots but unafraid to transplant them, glorying in syncretic new grafts. Neither Bollywood nor bhajans, warm as they are under my skin, provide me with the thrill of that particular, local intimacy.

Here are seven tracks that I like or think are canonical.

1. Ham na Jaibe

Ham na Jaibe is descended from a Bhojpuri folk song about a new bride's anxieties about going to her in-laws, where she fears an alcoholic father-in-law and an abusive mother-in-law. The folk songs which were the starting point for chutney became an important alternate source for me in recovering and imagining the experiences of indentured women, since they did not leave behind letters, diaries or other written traces of themselves.

The track above is an audio snippet from Sundar Popo, the Trinidadian chutney king. And here's a video of a Bihari version:

The Indian husband-and-wife team Kanchan and Babla recorded many chutney standards, including this one, and popularised the genre in the subcontinent. I'm not sure whether this Bihari version survived in India on a parallel track as the chutney version or circled back to India, via Kanchan and Babla's recordings of chutneys by Trinidadian and Guyanese artists.

2. Mr. Bissessar (Roll up de Tassa)

Mr. Bissessar (Roll up de Tassa), a chart-topping, crossover hit across the Caribbean in 1988, was chutney queen Drupatee Ramgoonai's biggest success. It also garnered her lots of criticism, from conservatives who argued that she and her music were a disgrace to Indian culture. She was especially targeted for shame as a woman publicly performing highly sexualised music.

The song is an example of a a hybrid of a hybrid: chutney soca, which is itself a Caribbean fusion, of SO(ul)+CA(lypso).

3. Nanda Baba

Nanda Baba, by Anand Yankarran, is one my favorite chutneys. It never fails to move me or to make me move. The song, a more traditional chutney based on bhajans, without Creolese lyrics, is about Krishna's mischievous childhood exploits. Nand Baba is Krishna's father. When performing live, Yankarran dedicates the song to his own father, Isaac, a legendary Trinidadian musician. Songs about Krishna and about Ram and Sita are an essential part of the repertoire of devotional music in the West Indies (most of the indentured were Vaishnavite Hindus) and were as important to the development of chutney as women's folk songs about births and weddings.

4. Scorpion Gyal

In the classic Scorpion Gyal, laced with the sadness of societies that constantly lose their people to migration, Sundar Popo pleads: "Tell me the number of yuh plane, me darling. When we go meet up again?" There has been an enormous exodus of Trinidadians and, much more so, Guyanese to New York, Toronto and London in the last four decades.

5. Jahaji Bhai

In Jahaji Bhai, the Trinidadian calypsonian Brother Marvin sings about his own mixed race background. (He is both Indian and African.) But in this 1995 chutney-soca, he also articulates a vision of these two communities, so often in tension in the West Indies, joined in brotherhood. A "jahaji bhai" in Hindi signifies a ship brother, someone who made the journey from India in the same ship; but Marvin gives the term another, broader meaning. He argues that both blacks and Indians, both the enslaved and the indentured, were forged in the bellies of boats, during coerced migrations to colonial plantations. "There was no more Mother Africa, no more Mother India, just Mother Trini," he sings.

6. O Maninga

The under-appreciated chutney singer Nisha Benjamin first recorded the rhyme song, O Maninga, a folk anthem which emerged from the sugar estates of Guyana. It's a plea to the plantation manager about low rates of pay for cutting cane and high cost of living in the countryside: "Oh Maninja! Oh Maninja/ Cane ah cut and price nah pay at all/ Rice and flour dear a' shop/ A wha you mean at all?" Benjamin's recording of the song is rare and difficult to find, but Kanchan & Babla have recorded and performed the song.

7. Lotayla

Lotayla, by Sonny Mann, was perhaps the most popular chutney song in the mid-nineties and is still a standard at Indo-Caribbean parties and weddings the world over. The song is about a sister-in-law who is sexually transgressive and who is beaten by her husband as a result, stock figures and a stock plot from Indo-Caribbean history. As is so often the case with chutney, details that unnerve and break the heart are treated with irreverent humor that aims to leaven the tragedy.

Read about Gaiutra Bahadur's book at