Creative Director , LOST TRIBE
From showing exceptional stagecraft on high days, to participating in mundane activities that ensure the survival of the tribe, Valmiki Maharaj’s life is in many ways symbolic of the experience of the quintessential tribesman.
Valmiki moves through the world being at once the curious boy who enjoyed the watchful nurturing of his mother and other elders, and the man who has triumphed the inevitable and bitter-sweet passage into manhood. He has embraced his life assignment with enthusiasm and hewed a sure-footed path to self-expression that is not only transforming his own life but leaving an immeasurable mark on the culture of his people.
His job title is Creative Director of “Lost Tribe”, but you do not get a sense that he is concerned too much with titles. Instead, he focuses on the shared and humbling privilege of etching the story of the country’s annual ‘Greatest Show On Earth’ on the psyche of the masquerader and the droves of spectators who catch a glimpse of his inspiration crafted in a spirit of honour and gratitude.
EP: Most creatives can pinpoint somewhere in their childhood when they demonstrated or discovered the passion and path of their life’s work. Was this also true for you?
VM: I have always shown an interest in a creative side; in the arts.
For as long as I can remember I have always been drawing and painting. My mother encouraged me from a very young age and that then encouraged me to pursue art academically at high school. In terms of it being a profession that was a whole other kettle of fish – you only discover where your heart lies or where you want to go when you get to the Form 5 stage to choose your subjects to go to University. That was the age when I said to myself ‘this is where I want to go’; to much objection from my mother.
EP: So even though your mother supported your artistic ability she objected to you developing it as a career?
VM: Oh yes. From the time I entered Form 5 my mother only wanted to hear about me being a Doctor, Lawyer or Accountant, so when I said ‘Mummy I want to be an artist’, in her mind automatically she is thinking starving artist – so with the best of intentions she said ‘no, you’re not spending the rest of your life doing a hobby’. So in my adolescent years, as a student of Queens Royal College, I had to make a decision based on a couple of factors, a huge one being that I wanted to remain living in Trinidad – I was born here but spent my formative years in Canada and by a stroke of faith came back to Trinidad when I was seven – and I wanted to spend my time here exploring the creative industries, and owning my own business. So I decided to go to business school. When I started University I started making connections with people in the creative industry and became good friends with people like Diane Hunt and Peter Elias who really supported me at that time.
EP: Did you pursue formal studies or training in any genre of design?
VM: I studied business at the School of Business and Computer Science because my mother insisted I was not going to fashion school. I did London School of Economics and Political Sciences and BSc Honours, Management. All my training in the arts came from my experience in the industry.
EP: So when and how did you get into the mas business?
VM: I knew that I wanted to do this mas thing when I was in University. I was inspired by all Minshall was doing. So I took my A’ Level Art Portfolio and went walking around Woodbrook to visit mas camps. Attending QRC, Harts was right in my backyard, so naturally I went to Harts, and Gerald Hart couldn’t allow me to design, but he offered me the opportunity to work in the mas camp. He also told me ‘Val, never give up’ which was one of the most pivotal points for me. I also visited Tribe. Back then it was a new band and much smaller than it is now. I also went to Trini Revellers and they put me to work with one of their section leaders. I had stayed in touch with the people at Tribe, and then one day I got a voicemail saying ‘could you come, we need some work done’. That year they played ‘Birds of a Feather’.
“I knew that I wanted to do this mas thing when I was in University”
EP: Where do you find inspiration?
VM: From everything.
I try to see beauty in the world so everything from the trees around to fashion trends, to traveling; everything impacts me in different ways.But my biggest source of inspiration is the masqueraders, because our art and our canvas is not the wall, it’s not clay, it’s people, so we need to remember we are designing for people. In fact we create living, moving art. So I listen to them every year and we use their feedback to create that living, moving art to complement their energy and they remain at the centre of our designing. And sometimes it’s the stories around you that inspires you, and the energy sometimes comes from the national environment.
EP: After you’ve done your part as creator, do you ever have a specific way you want the masquerader to interpret or use your creation?
VM: I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and I always remember something Minshall said on this in an interview – that as a designer of a band you will make all your designs and plans, and then on Carnival Saturday you realize that you just need to leave it to the Carnival gods to do what they will with it. At that time he was speaking about his portrayal, ‘River’; the mas included a colourful dye for the masquerades to spray themselves when they got to the Savannah stage, but somehow, someone rang the bell earlier than they should on Charlotte Street and by the time they got to the Savannah stage every man Jack was already drenched. But it caused so much euphoria and happiness in the band, that it became something better than he could have ever imagined. And I understood exactly what he meant because I had seen and experienced it myself in Carnival. You can design a stunning costume, but until you see a woman jump up on a wall with it, you do not know how that costume is going to look. That being said, every person enjoys their costume differently because there would be women who would be euphoric without jumping on a wall and wining. I feel like designers create a body, which is the costume, and the masqueraders breathe life into it.
“I feel like designers create a body, which is the costume, and the masqueraders breathe life into it.”
EP: What was your experience moving from designer of a specific set of costumes within a band, to the responsibility and privilege of having creative direction for an entire band?
VM: I’ll describe it like this. Someone in a huge river sees the river and thinks it’s the biggest thing in the world, and then that tributary turns into a main channel and then you’re like ‘Oh my God it’s a much bigger space’! And then you move from that river into the ocean, and then the world of possibilities is more than you could have ever imagined. Your perspective is widened and the world becomes more open to you; it’s almost like you’re given a new pair of wings, altogether. It was a lovely experience which I didn`t anticipate.
EP: One hundred years from now when the electronic ‘Book of T&T’s Carnival History’ is opened in a Form 5 classroom on Mars, what do you want those students to be reading about the work of Valmiki Maharaj in the section titled ‘T&T’s Millennial Mas Makers’?
VM: If you’re asking anything about legacy, I’d say certain things have happened in my life and I did start to think about the difference between living a life and building a legacy. By a legacy I don’t mean something that you will to someone or an estate, but an impact you have left on an industry and a people and more than that leaving a place better than you have met it. What I would like to do is to introduce a generation to something they want, but they don’t yet know they want it.
“What I would like to do is to introduce a generation to something they want, but they don’t yet know they want it.”
EP: What makes you Extraordinary?
VM: I don’t think that I’m extraordinary. I think I am me, whatever that is, and I think everybody will experience me differently. But just how I would like to leave a space I’d occupied better than I met it, I would like that after interacting with somebody that I leave them in a better mood; meaning I would like to contribute positively to any situation I am a part of.
View Lost Tribe`s 2017 presentation : Lost Tribe 2017
ALL PHOTOS Courtesy Mark Gellineau of Gellineau Creative