Indian Mas in Trinidad & Tobago
Indian Mas, Carnival 2009
Calypsonian, researcher, Dr. Hollis “Chalkdust” Liverpool explains in his book* that while some mas forms emulated the elite, some were a means of mocking them, and many expressed rebellion. In conversations with masqueraders for his doctoral research, they explained that “Red Indians” represented the persecution perpetuated on tribes by colonizers. Mas was not simply for escape, it depicted the suffering of other oppressed groups, and was a statement of solidarity with the Native Americans, and defiance toward their oppression by Americans and the Spanish. This is true for typical African masquerade of the time as well, such as playing Masai, Zulus, Watusi. In an interview on Carnival Tuesday 2011, I heard a masquerader in Indian Mas convey the same idea. He said he has always played Indian mas and it began in solidarity with Native Americans who suffered in the Americas. Interestingly enough, many people know by now that Indian mas is not germane to Trinidad and Tobago carnival. It is an institution in New Orleans Mardi Gras, which boasts a remarkable history of intricately designed native costumes created by Africans in North America – Black Indians – who inter-married and made alliances with native tribes during and after slavery.
Indian Mas today seems much more revelry, and less defiance and rebellion to me. Moreover, the invention and availability of imported materials and the general trend towards huge costumes means Indian mas is not just personal and small, but grand large scale costumes drawn on wheels, such as last year’s national titleholder’s costume. When asked what carnival means to her, Queen of Carnival, Rosemarie Jaggesar, a veteran Indian mas player said i meant freedom. In that way I believe the mas has transcended the historical background of our ritual, borne out of struggle and oppression, fueled by defiance, rebellion and innovation, and ultimately a celebration of our freedom. But that comment I heard on the broadcast made it clear, we still remember.
Rosemarie Kuru Jaggesar, Queen of Carnival 2010 portraying Waka-Nisha, The Sacred Water Carrier