By Dr. Gabrielle Hosein
This article was originally published in the Trinidad and Tobago Newsday. An updated version is republished below with permission.
Renella Alfred comes from the Alfred family from Couva [in central Trinidad] who are famous for playing Jab Jab, a form of martial arts involving traditional, pretty mas and whips of plaited hemp seen in Trinidad and Tobago Carnival. Recent photos of her, self-titled the Whip Princess, catch her sticking out her tongue as part of her portrayal. However, this banal description fails to convey what Renella brings to town through her mas, which is her invocation of the Hindu goddess Kali Mai or Mother Kali.
This is easy to miss unless you are thinking about Indianness in the Caribbean, and how it is being practiced beyond the Sanskritization of Hindu life as authorised by religious texts and authorities. It speaks to how Indian women in Trinidad and Tobago take up mas in ways that breathe life into post-indenture feminist legacies.
When Indians arrived in the Caribbean, they brought an eclectic range of cultural and religious customs, and a pantheon of goddesses whose spiritual ascendence confronted European patriarchal belief systems where God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit and disciples were conceived of as male. African religious traditions with, for example, a pantheon of female orishas such as Yemaya, Oshun and Oya, similarly offered an alternative cosmology of feminine divinity and energy.
Stereotypically, Hinduism and Carnival are cast as oppositional. One is associated with purity and the other with sin. However, mas-making among Indians in Trinidad and Tobago tells a different story of mas being played to express a sense of spirituality, reverence for ancestry, devotion to discipline and respect for aesthetic forms of connection.
Among traditional mas makers, mas is a deeply sacred moral universe full of ritual, which is not opposed to being Indian or Hindu. In fact, mas-making in the lives of Indo-Caribbeans weaves together all of these, creatively defining the afterlife of indenture, and redefining creolization.
For Hindus who understand how village youth can play the revered roles of Rama and Sita for Ramleela, mas becomes another stage for a “leela” (or play) about an epic journey and experience of exile and morality as it confronts the demonic, gender and sexual tensions, and legacies of Indian presence in the Caribbean.
The concept of “post-indenture feminist legacies” refers to the spiritual and cultural traditions, artefacts, myths, symbols and imagined possibilities brought from India in jahaji and jahajin bundles (creolised as “Georgie/jahji bundle”) which, today, are being drawn on by women, and not just Indian women, to express feminine power and feminisms.
As Lisa Outar and I describe in the edited collection, Indo-Caribbean Feminist Thought, such woman-centered world-making articulates “a feminist praxis where Indian gendered experiences in the Caribbean are not marginal, while being understood in ways centered in a politics of solidarity across ethnicity, class, gender, sexualities, and nation.” Praxis describes more than action. It means action, portrayal or performance grounded in considered thought and reflection.
Such praxis is a profoundly philosophical contribution and, in the Caribbean, we don’t just do philosophy through lyrics and music. We do it through the sacred, and the clashing and combining of belief systems or cosmologies; through gender and sexuality, which has long been defined by struggle against authorities that demarcate the good, holy and respectable from the polluting, profane and improper; and through embodiment, or the pleasures of how we assert our right to exist, and affirm the value and joy of our sovereign selves, with our bodies.
Photos also show Renella wearing a “nath” or nose ring with a chain connected to her hair. The nath is associated with bridehood and childbirth, and goddess Parvati, but also with Parvati’s incarnations as Durga, a warrior goddess, and goddess Kali, who emerges from within Durga to destroy the demonic with her dance of destruction. The nath is also a symbol of Indian femininity, hardly seen outside of weddings and Diwali, or in mas.
By naming herself the “Whip Princess,” Renella has elevated her royal status in mas “lore” as above that of secular “law,” challenging what political scientists describe as the modern nation-state’s monopoly over violence.
While she is bringing a diasporic consciousness of Jab Jab mas as descended from India, she is also defying indenture-descended, male religious prerogative over when and how she can be Indian, woman and Hindu.
Finally, she is douglarising Carnival, continuing an Indian presence that has shaped “sokah” itself. As outlined by Ras Shorty I, the “so” in soca comes from calypso and the “ca” comes from “ka,” the first consonant of the Indian alphabet.
Similarly, the African-Creole, spiritual space of Carnival can be re-envisioned, as Renella is doing, to enact spiritual connection to the divine feminine and ancestral connection to India.
All this and more is in Renella Alfred’s sacred invocation of Kali Mai through mas, and through her pre-Carnival fasting from meat and alcohol, which is part of Hindu preparation for puja or prayer. Her family also combines Kali worship with the use of plants to prepare their bodies for battle on the road and on stage. This is spiritually Hindu as much as it is a form of Carnival spirituality.
Many of our ancestors were brought to plantations to be violently exploited and dehumanized in what was meant to be a labour and conversion factory. Yet, out of indenture and in mas, is painstaking crafting of a society of beautiful, sacred, equal, and free human beings.
How a younger, contemporary generation of Indian women participate in such aesthetics inevitably draws on and traverses ideas of women’s rights and independence introduced by Caribbean feminisms over past decades. Renella’s Kali mas, therefore, represents such feminist navigation of post-indenture aesthetics brilliantly.
As a fearsome goddess, Kali Mai is sometimes treated with ambivalence and disavowal by mainstream, upper-caste Sanatanist Hinduism just as the jamette/stickfighter is rejected by upper-class patriarchal moral authority in Trinidad.
Renella’s darker skin, strong body and South Indian lineage only partly explain her lifelong sense of affiliation with the undefeatable, black divine mother. Her Jab Jab whip also parallels the whip in Kali ecstatic veneration. Even more, her family’s preparations to play Jab Jab include devotions to goddess Kali.
When an Indian woman opens her jahajin bundle to find all that has travelled and remains, however transformed, those contents are available to her to counter the subordination of womanhood and marginalization of Indianness that accompanies ethnic and national belonging. Such indenture legacies cannot be contained.
Renella’s embodiment of Kali is an expression of remembering and devotion taken outside of temple worship, just as it occurs in Manzanilla, Marianne River, Phagwa grounds, and in the food-producing “gardens,” bush and forests of rural areas.
In mas, Kali is making a crossing that mimics that from India to the Caribbean, which was seen to bring pollution, immorality and loss of authenticity. Yet, Hinduism survived by sanctifying new ground in the new world. So too, today.
Like indentured women before her, who may also have been bonded to Mother Kali, this Jab Jab daughter is charting new crossings and her own journey.