What's Behind the Carnival Masks?

It's Alice here.

Whether the residents of Notting Hill liked it or not, their streets were taken over last August bank holiday weekend for the 50th Notting Hill Carnival. Unfortunately I was unable to go but I loved seeing the colourful photos of people and floats parading and dancing throughout the streets. Notting Hill Carnival is Europe’s biggest street festival and is an impressive celebration of Caribbean culture that was brought to the UK in the late 1940s and has survived in London since the 1960s.

The Kathakali- Heritage Project aims to explore both Kathakali and Carnival costume whilst celebrating their lasting tradition of bringing colour and music to peoples’ lives. Carnival means different things to different people and different cultures. There are many possible sources of the Carnival tradition. One origin is the Catholic festive season that occurs before Lent. The very meaning of the festival comes from the Latin expression carne vale, meaning “farewell to meat” signifying the approaching fast season during which no meat is consumed. The masks, costumes and excessive eating and drinking that characterised Carnival season marked a reversal ritual in which social norms can be broken and people could enjoy excess before beginning their strict feasting during lent. The costumes also represented the tradition of the upper class “dressing down” (i.e. playing at being poor), while the proletariat dressed in costumes ridiculing the upper class, e.g the pierrot grenade (a pierrot costume made of strips of torn material, thus presenting a tramp – like version of the popular upper class costume of the aforementioned Italian festival).

 The earliest carnival style festivals go back 6,000 years to the kingdom of Kemet, in the upper Nile region, when the year consisted of 360 normal days and five days outside of “normal time”. During these fie days the rulers dressed as beggars and a “king” was appointed from the beggar group, to be

King for the five days outside of “normal” time. He was feted and given anything he wished during those five days. Unfortunately the beggar king was then sacrificed at the end of the “holiday”. All cultures have something like carnival, from Divali in India to Chinese New Year and all are to do with some kind of regeneration and re-birth after the ‘dead” period of winter or hard times.

Anthropologically, carnival originated as a rite of passage from darkness to light, occurring after winter when food stores from winter were used and eaten before they rotted. Traditions such as parading and masquerading were first recorded in medieval Italy at the carnival of Venice, from where they spread to France, Portugal and Spain. Then with the spread by European empires and carnival took root in Latin America, Africa and the Caribbean. Mardi Gras, celebrated in Louisiana derives from the same tradition. The carnivals in the colonies gained their own meaning, often used by slaves as a means to symbolically fight against their oppression. For example, the use of masks in Trinidad carnivals gained new importance. African slaves were banned from the masked balls held by their French masters. Instead the slaves would hold their own festivals in their backyards involving their own African rituals but imitating their masters’ behaviour at their masked balls.

Clearly original roots have diversified and spread to such an extent that their original meaning has been transformed, rewritten and sometimes forgotten. Carnival has therefore gained a richer and more elaborate texture. The carnivals in the Caribbean are held before Lent as originally intended. Yet, although West Indians brought this tradition with them to the UK when they migrated in the 1950s, Notting Hill Carnival and Leeds Carnival have now lost their original religious meaning and have become a secular event held in the summer months. Since Notting Hill Carnival is so renown, I mistakenly believed that all carnival were fundamentally Caribbean inspired. However, Barbara has been busy researching the origins of Titchfield and Hedge End Carnival and discovered that most local carnivals come from very different roots and therefore hold different meanings.  The Isle of Wight has nine carnivals annually and all have slightly different origins.

Titchfield Carnival is said to date back to the reformation of the church. The reformation’s influence is evident in the fact that the carnival still includes an effigy of the pope. Other carnivals such as Hedge End Carnival began more recently. Hedge End Carnival was born in 1921 and aimed to bring people together, have a good time and raise money for local causes such as medical charities. The origins of Southampton Carnival are more difficult to trace; the carnival tradition ended in 2001. I have heard that it was stopped due to lack of funding as well as to health and safety reasons. I am sure that if Health and Safety had existed in mid 15th century Italy, there would never have been riderless horse races in the streets of Rome during carnival season. Barbara will be talking to people from Hedge End and Titchfield Carnival to discover more about their experiences as well as the history of these local festivals.

I am sure that many people spectate or take part in carnivals unaware of their origins and of the great efforts that have been made to bring the traditions alive in different places and throughout the years. Wearing masks and costumes not only intend to amuse and entertain but also allow people to either lose their sense of individuality or claim their sense of identity. When attending a carnival, you cannot help but be caught up in the sense of unity and social cohesion created by the costumes music, parades and joviality. Moreover, It is important to ask questions about where the carnival traditions come from and who brought them here. It is equally important to explore the challenges to these traditions. For hundreds of years, carnivals have served multiple purposes and I am excited to explore their meanings and legacies in this exciting heritage project. 


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