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Making Indian mas’ unforgettable

By Lara Pickford-Gordon


Photos by Elmo Griffith


Lionel Jagessar

The late Lionel Jagessar made his mark on Trinidad and Tobago’s Carnival for more than 40 years. Now his son, also named Lionel (Jnr), and other family members are executing the mas’ man’s designs for Carnival 2023.

Jagessar Costumes Ltd’s presentation is ‘Unforgettable’ in his honour. Jagessar Snr died September 10, 2022 at the age of 72.

“He was unforgettable, and his work is unforgettable,” Jagessar Jnr told the Catholic News Friday, January 3. Jagessar was at the Queen’s Park Savannah where he and Carlos Peters performed before pre-school children and secondary students visiting the John Cupid Carnival Village, Port of Spain.

Jagessar readily admits it isn’t easy filling his father’s shoes: “It is a daunting task. More than once for the day, I feel that I want to give up but [I stay]  because of the amount of work that my dad and my other family did; dad took the initiative to stay in fancy Indian and make it pretty and make it conventional for people to like it.”

He had the support of his mother, whom the elder Jagessar described as his “right hand” and family members who prefer to remain in the background working hard behind the scenes in the mas’ camp to bring the band to life. “Because of the rest of my family, I don’t think I’ll give up; and the respect I have for the work dad did. I feel if I stop…I feel I will be wasting what he did. I want his work to carry on.”

He disclosed that his brother, sisters, their spouses and his girlfriend give input in costume designs and colour schemes. Asked how his father came up with ideas for costumes, Jagessar said his father had “a million ideas”, some of which have not found expression yet.

“He was really obsessed with mas’; he really love it so much that he had ideas for 100 years, I know he left here without doing all that he wanted to do but when you ask him to draw a mas’ or ‘what you’re gonna play next?’, he always know the next one, and ten.”

Jagessar Snr was approached to design costumes for traditional individual costumes—devils, bats, and conventional individual costumes—Vikings, zodiac. “As soon as you ask him to draw  it, it there, just flowing coming out.”


Coming to Port of Spain

Jagessar Costumes Ltd are collaborating with Jam the Band, Woodbrook, to bring out a band in Port of Spain (PoS). This was a “family decision”.

He explained that it was about bringing their mas beyond San Fernando. He said there was an appreciation for traditional mas’ and fancy Indian so expanding was a “natural evolution”. Another factor in this business decision was waning participation by masqueraders in San Fernando.

Jagessar highlighted the emphasis by the media, and the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and the Arts, on showcasing PoS as the place for Carnival even while several communities host events and are funded by the State. The national parade is in Port of Spain even as a national Carnival is promoted.

“Carnival is everywhere in Trinidad but if you see an image or you hear the name of a band or a place that has accommodation, they always tell you to stay in Port of Spain. We don’t say Port of Spain Carnival but when you show and image it’s only showing Port of Spain Carnival.”

The Jagessar’s band and another band may get a photograph in the newspapers but mainly images of PoS bands are visible. Jagessar said the high-quality mas outside the capital is not promoted.

Jagessar said less and less funding has been invested into regional Carnivals. Although San Fernando is a city, it is considered under “regional Carnival”. There are 54 regions apart from PoS.

Corporate sponsorship from the private sector in San Fernando and the State has reduced. “To run the business and depend on a little bonus from the prize money and not all the money from selling the costumes, it is very hard to sustain a business that way,” he said.


Bridging tradition and new

Jagessar believes there is still interest in Indian mas’, “because of dad and how pretty the mas’ is and how much work we do to remind people that it is still here. Somebody will see you and they will appreciate the work you do; they will want to look like that in a costume.”

Jagessar said Jagessar Costumes Ltd is one of the biggest traditional bands in the country and this came about because it “bridged” traditional and fancy Indian mas’.

“You could recognise you playing a fancy Indian but you can feel like you playing the modern bikini mas and not be too revealing. We find that bridge; that is our niche market.” He added that the band provides all the amenities associated with the all-inclusive experience.

Fancy Indian mas’ of all the traditional mas’ portrayals has withstood time. The costumes designed by his father “will be presented exactly as he wanted it”. As he fulfils his father’s final designs, Jagessar stated that he will have new goals to aspire for, reaching different places.


Inspired by US Native Peoples but our mas’

For anyone suggesting cultural appropriation— using the symbols, artifacts, genres, rituals, or technologies by members of another culture, was taking place, Jagessar said, “we do not do this with any kind of blasphemy towards this culture. Native American culture is a living culture still. And the real Native Americans still live, and they have their traditions.”

There is respect and adoration for these native peoples. “What I portray is totally Trinidadian. We take the base and the history of a Native American but the way we construct the costume and the way we perform is totally Trinidadian.”

The language used is a combination of Amerindian, and ‘Black Indian’. “Black Indian mas’ honours and celebrates the coming together of Amerindians and Africans over centuries of colonisation and through the costumes worn also mocked the early Spanish conquistadores” (blackindianmas.com).

Jagessar said, “when they had trade on the sea ports, Venezuelans would come over and talk to the native Amerindians in Trinidad. They made up that language. It has some Hindi words in there, some African, there are Dutch words, indigenous to our region.” He emphasised that there is total respect for the culture from which the portrayals were inspired.

The cost of a Carnival costume today makes it seem like a luxury item. It may be difficult for many to play, but he is resolute that mas’ and steelpan offer the chance for wide public participation.

“A lot of people can play pan so between pan and mas’, I think is the easiest way to contribute and be part of your cultural experience…for us it is a necessity in our family,” Jagessar said.