Wednesday, March 24, 2010


‘Līlā (Leela) is a Sanskrit noun meaning “sport” or “play”. It has been the central term in the Hindu elaboration of the idea that God in his creating and governing of the world is moved not by need or necessity but by a free and joyous creativity that is integral to his own nature. He acts in a state of rapt absorption comparable to that of an artist possessed by his creative vision or to that of a child caught up in the delight of a game played for its own sake…[i]

After the British Slave Emancipation Act was passed in 1833, many African ex-slaves moved off of plantations, leaving a deficit of labour in a still thriving sugar industry. The British colonials brought indentured servants to the Caribbean who were paid wages and contractually obligated to stay a minimum of 5 years in the Caribbean. A range of different races were brought to the Caribbean including Chinese, Portuguese, Madeirans and free Africans from the United States[ii]. The largest racial group of indentured labourers to stay in the English speaking Caribbean islands were Indians from Utar Pradesh, Bihar and Tamil Nadu (called “coolies”, though the term is now considered derogatory). They spoke Bhojpuri-Hindi, a dialect common to Uttar Pradesh and lived on the plantations in conditions that were little improved since the end of slavery. The Indians arrived on a ship called the Fateh Rozack[iii] which departed from Calcutta in 1845, travelling across the kelapani[iv] (black waters) to Trinidad. Between 1845 and 1917, a total of 25 to 30 000 East Indians of both Muslim and Hindu faiths travelled to the Caribbean[v]. Thousands of Indians also went to Jamaica, Suriname and Guyana. Today, descendents of indentured Indian labourers constitute 40% of Trinidad’s population, while the rest of the population is 37.5% African, 20.5% mixed race and 2% unspecified[vi]. When Indians came to the Caribbean they brought their language, their religious customs and even plants and herbs. The fusion of different cultures in Trinidad therefore can be seen in culinary flavours, the tone of Trinidadian dialect, artistic expression and national festivals. Some of the most prolific Indian festivals in Trinidad are Divali (Festival of Lights), Phagwa (derived from India’s Holi) and Hosay (derived from a Shiite Islamic festival).

Before considering the physical manifestations of Indian iconography in the Caribbean, we must first consider the basic underlying principle of Hindu religious thought: that of Līlā (leela). This guiding concept of sacred play underscores the day to day life and festivities of Hindu practitioners. Leela also refers to divine theatre, where mythological stories are ritualistically acted out.
“The entire cosmos is a leela, a dance of energy, a drama staged by Brahman, the Absolute. Leelas are also specific celebrations, the most important in Trinidad being Ramlila , the story of Ram (Rama), the god-warrior-king as told in Valmiki’s Sanskrit Ramayana…” [vii]

These plays are presented through dances, drama and songs of narrative poetry[viii]. As is the case of Ramleela in Trinidad, this re-enactment of sacred text becomes a public spectacle which represents communities. Like Carnival, the leela is a way of reinstating sacred narratives in a profane world. The ludic nature of Carnival may indeed be the most formative condition of Hindu thinking that has been translated into Carnival and Trinidadian culture at large. Although a sense of playful buffoonery is reminiscent of the Feast of Fools, leela suggests a depth of purpose through ludic masquerade characters that might lead to a kind of transcendence. The divine theatre and the festival are two of the strongest ways in which this sense of leela is communicated in the broader community. The proliferation of Indian festivals throughout Trinidad has surely contributed to a nationalistic impulse to reclaim public space through festival. This is perhaps why Carnival is so fiercely upheld each year as a cosmogonic re-telling of the nation’s identity.

There are two Indian festivals that are practiced in Trinidad which are strongly reminiscent of Carnival. The first is Phagwa (a Hindu celebration) and the second is Hosay (an Islamic celebration). Phagwa is the Bhojpuri word for Holī, which is a vernal festival that is celebrated throughout India. This practice came to Trinidad with Indentured labourers, regaining popularity in the 1980’s particularly. Holi in India takes place before the spring harvest. In an article on the practice of Holi in India, Crooke considers that:
‘We have seen that the festival marks not only the close of one of the seasons, but also the end of the year in its older form. It is thus a crisis, a No Man’s time, a rite de passage, as M. van Gennep terms it. It is at such times for instance, during intercalary months, that festivals in the nature of the Saturnalia, accompanied by ribaldry and obscene rites, very commonly occur… On the principles of mimetic magic, orgiastic rites are supposed to recruit and re-invigorate the exhausted energies of the year that has passed, and to promote fresh and healthy activity in the coming season.’

The similarities between the Saturnalian Holi or Phagwa and Carnival are quite strong ideologically. Phagwa is a joyous gathering of people where they play and throw brightly coloured dye called abeer at each other. It is a community based festival that is conducted in a mutual public space. Another component of the festival is the pichakaaree competition in which Indian songs are sung, mostly in English. Burton Sankaralli describes these songs as “Indocentric calypsos”[ix] since they are rooted in social commentary. Although there is not a great deal written on the interrelationship between Phagwa and the form of J’ouvert, there are obvious physical similarities between the two in the flinging of paint or mud in a crowd and the joyous revelry of bodies at play. The main difference between the two is that J’ouvert is a procession through the city whereas Phagwa typically occurs in one compound or public square. The similarity between Carnival and Phagwah as saturnalian things is furthered by Hein’s consideration of devotees of the child god Krishna:
‘Their sportiveness has manifested itself in cultic matters that are marginal to social ethics: in the exuberance of their religious assemblies, in the easy emotionality of their pathway of salvation through devotion, in the madcap behaviour that they tolerate in their saints, and in the spirit of abandon that pervades their fairs and pilgrimages and a few saturnalian festivals like the licentious Holī.’[x]
Both Carnival and Phagwa are known for their inherent joy. In both cases that joy and abandon is not confined my masquerade form or religious programme, rather the experience of freedom that they incite arises out of leela; that playful fascination with paint and mud that is exuberant, ecstatic and almost child-like.

[i] Norvin Hein,The Gods at Play, Līlā in South Asia, pg 13
[ii] The Trinidad Carnival, Errol Hill, pg 9
[iii] Freedom, Festivals and Caste in Trinidad After Slavery, Neil A. Sookdeo, pg 11
[iv] Kelapani refers to the Bhojpuri word meaning “black waters” it describes the oceanic voyage from Calcutta to the Caribbean. It is typically insinuated that this was a one way voyage. Indian Presence in Carnival, Burton Sankeralli, pg 77
[v] Indian Presence in Carnival, Burton Sankeralli, pg 76
[vi], information based on 2000 National Census
[vii] Indian Presence in Carnival, Burton Sankeralli, pg 76
[viii] The Gods at Play, Norvin Hein, pg 16
[ix] Indian presence in Carnival, pg 83
[x] Thee Gods at Play, pg19

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Extraordinary City

Although the most tangible experience of Carnival in Port-of-Spain is seen during January and February, a substantial amount of planning, designing and contemplation of Carnival occurs throughout the year. When Ash Wednesday arrives, the passing of Carnival is marked by fetes and a proliferation of magazines and videos of the year’s spectacles. From July to September Trinidadian Mas Camps launch their costumes for the following year while Steelbands prepare their line ups and calypso artists develop their material for the following year. Each years Carnival represents the coming together of artists, mas camps, pan yards, government institutions and independent entrepreneurs, many whose entire lives revolve around the Carnival industry. Similarly, certain sites in the city have also evolved to be dedicated to Carnival. Some pan yards and mas camps for example have been in the same location for many years. Invaders Pan Yard for example, has been situated opposite to the Queens Park Oval since the 1930’s when they were called ‘The Oval Boys’. Its original members were some of the first to experiment with steel drums in the world. Elliot Mannette, for example, working in an iron foundry, was particularly adept at molding the drums and was one of the first to experiment with fifty gallon oil drums, creating six of the nine types of steel pans in existence. Today, Invaders Pan Yard has grown to be an iconic site within the city because of its pivotal role in the development of Trinidad’s Carnival.

Because of the interwoven relationship between the growth of Port-of-Spain and the persistent celebration of Carnival since the city’s inception, the city and the festival have become two intertwined entities. The Ordinary city of Port-of-Spain is the financial capital of the Caribbean while the Extraordinary city represents the hybridization of the varied social, cultural and political influences that have shaped the Caribbean. Carnival is the vehicle of expression that reaches out of the extraordinary city of myth, ritualistically transforming the streets of the city. The Extraordinary city is a living propensity for ecstasy that undulates just below the city’s Ordinary face. Although visible for only two months each year, the Extraordinary city is an ever-present life force that invisibly measures, mocks and occasionally overtakes the year round city. Cuban novelist Antonio Benitez-Rojo states that carnival rhythm is deeply rooted in the Caribbean:

‘…carnival, the great Caribbean celebration…spreads out through the most varied systems of signs: music, song, dance, myth, language, food, dress, body expression. There is something strongly feminine in this extraordinary fiesta: its flux, its diffuse sensuality, its generative force, its capacity to nourish and conserve (juices, spring, pollen, rain, seed, shoot, ritual sacrifice – these are words that come to stay). Think of the dancing flourishes, the rhythms of the conga, the samba, the masks, the hoods, the men dressed and painted as women, the bottles of rum, the sweets, the confetti and coloured streamers, the hubbub, the carousal, the flutes, the drums, the cornet and the trombone, the teasing, the jealousy, the whistles and the faces, the razor that draws blood, death. Life, reality in forward and reverse. Torrents of people who flood the streets, the night lit up like an endless dream, the figure of the centipede that comes together and then breaks up, that winds and stretches beneath the ritual’s rhythm, that flees the rhythm without escaping it, putting off its defeat, stealing off and hiding itself, imbedding itself finally in the rhythm, always in the rhythm, the beat of the chaos of the islands.’ 4

The proliferation of Carnival throughout the Caribbean and Latin America has arisen from the overlaying of similar threads of history. When analyzing the art and literature that has come out of the Caribbean and Latin America a common thread of Magical Realism dominates these expressions. Magical Realism is a genre of literature that has emerged from these territories being popularized by Latin American authors like Isabel Allende and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Looking at painters like Frida Kahlo and even Trinidadian painter Che Lovelace, a world of dual perception becomes apparent. As a genre of literature, Magical Realism is typified by its hallucinatory imagery and dizzying combination of modern reality in an often animistic world. Stephen Sleman in his essay on Magical Realism as Post Colonial Discourse5 states that history in the magical realist novel, engages in a kind of ‘double vision’ or ‘metaphysical clash’ between notions of imperial history and the view of ‘real’ history based on the ‘marginalised and dispossessed voices’ of the colonial encounter. Kumkum Sangari in Politics of the Possible describes Magical Realism as occupying a liminal space between the reality of physical experience and the mythological underpinnings of a multilayered cultural experience6. Derek Walcott says about the art of the Antilles that:

Break a vase, and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole. The glue that fits the pieces is the sealing of its original shape. It is such a love that reassembles our African and Asiatic fragments, the cracked heirlooms whose restoration shows its white scars. This gathering of broken pieces is the care and pain of the Antilles… Antillean art is this restoration of our shattered histories, our shards of vocabulary, our archipelago becoming a synonym for pieces broken off from the original continent... This is the basis of the Antillean experience, this shipwreck of fragments, these echoes, these shards of a huge tribal vocabulary, these partially remembered customs, and they are not decayed but strong.  They survived the Middle Passage and the Fatel Rozack*...’7

This re-assembly of cultural fragments in a liminal space between physical and mythological is physically represented through Carnival in the Caribbean. The Extraordinary city represents the temporary unity of these fragments. It is a second urban condition within the city of Port-of-Spain that is part of a regional cultural condition. Carnival can in this way be seen as the regions attempt to make sense of its complex history and cultural experience. The effect of Carnival therefore is to create a sense of belonging to the city, re-grounding ones relationship to that space. It is as Mircea Eliade describes, that the power of this masquerade lies in mans need to periodically re-align himself with the sacred in the profane world. Eliade states,

‘The sacred reveals absolute reality and at the same time makes orientation possible; hence it founds the world in the sense that it fixes the limits and establishes the order of the world.’8

The principal way in which the festival makes the city sacred again is thorough the physical pathway that it takes. On Carnival days it is not only the undulating band that shapes the borders of ones experience. The parade route although physically nothing more than a series of barricades and stands which leave the streets free for masqueraders, still dictates the form and order in which thousands of revelers will experience Port-of-Spain. The Carnival route is the melody that moves through the Extraordinary city, reaching a crescendo at the judging points. The morphology of the city also shapes ones experience since sites hold personal memories as well as socio-political ones. Different neighborhoods have different widths or streets and heights of buildings. The masqueraders’ experience of movement, the density of the crowd and the psychogeography of the area are all dictated by the Carnival route. It is the single largest organizational element in the festival, though its significance is largely underestimated.

Monday, March 8, 2010


' I have a premise: Of all possible sociocultural practices, the carnival - or any other equivalent festival - is the one that best expresses the strategies that the people of the Caribbean have for speaking at once of themselves and their relation to the world, with history, with tradition, with nature, with God.' 

The Repeating Island, Antonio Benitez-Rojo, pg 294

Wednesday, March 3, 2010


I had a meeting on Friday past that finalized The List. In order to defend before the end of April, it seems that I must complete all of the items on The List by the end of March. March... ironic that that would be my militant month of working. 

Most importantly though, I figured out how I am going to do my Chapter 3. I ad tried a few things but nothing stuck. The question was - how do I show the ways in which the permanent Extraordinary City expresses itself? How does the spatial form of the city inform Carnival? And inversely, how does Carnival inform city space? The way I've decided to tackle this analysis is to consider the parade route step by step. The way I figure, when you walk through the city (or dance through it), your experience is unavoidably framed by the places you move through. So I am going to use the path on one band I followed in Carnival 2009, from its camp, to each judging point. I will look at the spatial qualities of each neighborhood the route passes through and consider the relationships between each judging point and their immediate environment and the historical events which have shaped those spaces into the urban artifacts they are today. 

The point of all this is simple. The Carnival route evolved from the interconnection of different competitions. In a sense the route itself is a true hybrid between the French tradition of pageantry and the African street masquerades. The route does both and leaves room for both. A simple organisational tool. I think I see some Architecture in this after all...