Comparative recitation – rading the epic Khan Geser by Manas chanters, 2009

Date: March 19, 2009
Place: Aigine Research Center

The objective of the experiment was to see how the Kyrgyz Manaschi (practiced “Manas” reciters) would react to a foreign epic tale, “The Epic of King Geser” of the Buryat people (an ethnic minority from the Mongol group, mostly located in the Buryat Repulic in the Siberian part of Russian federation).

The incentive came from Petr Ajunow, a Buryat historian interested in the revival of their epic tale in its traditional form of oral recitation. The Buryat epic was also a part of Mongolian and Tibetan culture (as the Buryat tribe are a Mongol-Tibetan peoples). However currently the Mongolians more focus on their Chengis Chan traditions, whereas the Buddhist, Dalai-lama tradition is predominant in Tibet. As for the Buryat people “The Epic of King Geser” is the stronghold of their culture, since it is directly related to the idea of ethnic identity. The Geser legend is present everywhere and Geser is honoured in every home (people have the book in Buryat and Russian, small figures of the Geser and pictures at home). However in the Soviet Union historical folklore of indigenous peoples was prohibited and tellers and researches of the epic were persecuted. Because of this the Buryat “baistvo” tradition ( the tradition of rich people) dies out.

The epic is no longer part of the oral tradition and so has lost some of the sacred and mystical position it should hold in folk culture. It survives in the written form (written down in 1906 by the Buryat historian Jan Sorano, sent by his people to be educated in St. Petersburg, he later returned to his native land to promulgate Buryat tradition) and its’ recitation is an art. The Gesery (artists who recite the “Geser”) learn the text by heart. However it is not handed down by word of mouth and does not have the same spiritual quality as the Kyrgyz epic the “Manas”.

There is a strong folk concept in Kyrgyzstan that certain people are chosen for a spiritual mission, such as healing, guarding sacred sites, mediating in different ways between this world and the otherworld, and that their health and well being are directly affected by their acceptance or rejection of this spiritual mission. Only those who have accepted their spiritual mission can live a fair and healthy life, with the social approval of others. Otherwise, they are likely to suffer long-term illnesses and die early. An authentic Manaschi is a person who is chosen for the life mission to recite the epic “Manas”. He is in contact with the spirits of the main heroes of the epic and therefore is a spiritual messenger.

In the experiment three Manschi were confronted with written form of the Geser epic in order to see how they confront such a text emotionally.

The ethno-pedagogical traditions of the Buryat have been researched in the past couple of years. The “Geser” has been compared with other epics. However this experiment is the first comparison of the “Geser” and the “Manas”.

The ulmimate goal of the comparative project is seach for the possibilities of resurgence of Geser’ spiritual recitation. .

The hypothesis is that the Manas and Geser epics come from the same family of Jenisei epic tales and are similar to one another, therefore their recitation may have been quite alike. According to Petr Ajunow the Buryat and Kyrgyz people have common roots and the Kyrgyz people now living in Hakasia used to live in Siberia around the Jenisei river.
They are analogous on certain levels.
Historical: there are similarities between the texts of the Central Asian and Siberian nomadic peoples’ tales. There is a theory that traditional story telling started in the Jenisei area, the original homeland of the Altai, Kyrgyz, Kazakh and Buryat peoples
Context: similar story outline. The plot of most tales follows the adventures of the King of a nation, (the Khan of a clan) chosen by the gods to save his nation. For the Kyrgyz this is Hero Manas, for the Buryats’ King Geser.
Construction and vocabulary: The tales of the Central Asian and Siberian people have a similar construction and melody. The verses have from 4-6 syllables. The epics are not in the same language, but there are certain common words and phrases that can be sung in a similar intonation. The familiar vocabulary includes the names of people and geographical sites.
Both epics were chanted for a very long time, and the chanters falled into trance.
The comparison was aimed at finding the similarities and differences between the two texts, primarily in the rhythm and melody, but also in the context and vocabulary of the texts.

The experiment was conducted by three different Manaschi. They were asked to read certain fragments of “The Epic of King Geser” text recorded in 1906. The text was in The Cyrillic alphabet. The Manaschi had never seen the “Geser” before and were told to read the unknown epic in the way they found most natural.

Kyrgyz manaschi were: Talantaali Bakchiev, Doolot Sydykov, Ulan Ismailov.

Each performance was different.

Talantaali Bakchiev sang the text very strongly, loudly and clearly. Because of this he also read the text slowly. He emphasized certain words and phrases. On request he followed the reading of the “Geser” by a recitation of a part of the “Manas” that he wanted to sing while reciting the “Geser”. He used similar intonation and rhythm in both the recitations, and he put similar emphasis into certain verses.
Doolot Sydykov. confronted the Geser text with a certain degree of shyness, at first testing the rhythm of the text. He soon slipped into the melody of the text, and then read the whole text to the same rhythm. He compared the rhythm not to the “Manas”, but to a different Kyrgyz traditional tale, the “Kurmanbek”, which is a shorter Kyrgyz tale about King Kurmanbek. However the foreign text was not natural for him.
Ulan Ismailov read the “Geser” as a foreign text. It seemed difficult for him to break the barrier of written text, (as a Manaschi is not necessarily accustomed to traditional texts in the literary form). However he also recited the text using the traditional forms and melody of the “Manas” recitation.

After their recital the Manaschi were asked questions:
How did you feel reciting the “Geser”?
Talantaali Bakchiev: It’s definitely a very strong text. I can see the emotion and spiritual vibe that you get from the strength of the text. It is foreign to me and I cannot understand it, but there were verses in which I felt the spirit of the text and the spiritual uplift in the melody. I had the feeling of the spirit of the text. Its obvious that one should feel its magical and mystical force. Its wuite similar to the “Manas”, I think it has the same atmosphere and that’s why I felt like reciting the “Manas” but I couldn’t because I was reading something else. I felt like reciting a part of the “Manas” when Manas’ father Jakyp appeals to his son. Here Petr Ajunow said that the Manaschi are actually reading the part of the “Geser” when God appeals to Geser and according to the epic, Geser is the son of God.
Doolot Sydykov: I felt like I was on a plain, I mean I had the feeling of flat ground. As if I was riding a horse on a plain but I could not speed up (because I was reading a text I did not know). I felt a different rhythmn to the “Manas” which for me is more mountainous. The way I recited the text is like a different Kyrgyz song the “Kurmanbek”, which has a different rhythm.
Ulan Ismailov: I didn’t feel a lot during the reading, but I had the same kind of feeling in my head and my soul that I get when I begin to recite the Manas. I would have to get used to the text and melody to be able to recite this with confidence.
What words in the text are familiar to you?
T.B.:There are a couple of similar phrases, Tengere, Bai, Geser, Ulan. And there is the word … that has the same intonation as the “Manas”. It seems its in the same place (geographically) as the “Manas”.
D.: There are similar words, Tengere, Geser, tetsup, too.
U.I.: Tengere, Han-Urma, there are some.
What musical instruments do you think match the text? You can suggest any instrument, not necessarily traditional Kyrgyz instruments.
T.B.: The Komuz, a Kyrgyz three string traditional instrument.
D: The Komuz
U.I.: I think a drum.

Conclusions of the experiment:
The Manaschi have their own personal way of reciting the “Manas” and this was obvious in the way each of them confronted the “Geser”. They read the text in the same way they recite the “Manas”. Talantaali Bakchiev read it loudly and strongly in and open manner, Doolot read the text shyly but gained confidence and melody during the recitation, Ulan Ismailov was a more introvertic recitor and so his reading was more closed in.
The Manaschi have their own style of reciting, but they do not necessarily adapt the “Manas” rhythm to the text, firstly because they are reading the text and not reciting, secondly because the rhythm of the text may require different intonation (as was the case for Doolot)
The texts can be read to a similar rhythm as the Kyrgyz epic tales and the spiritual atmosphere can felt in the text. Each Manaschi had a different way of feeling the newly confronted text and felt a different level of emotion, which seems to be natural when confronted with the “Manas” or a traditional epic.
“The Epic of King Geser” can be read by the Manaschi, it was concluded that if the Manaschi were more familiar with the text it would be easier to recite the text in its own rhythm.
Doolot suggested that the melody of the “Geser” is closer to the “Kurmanbek” than the “Manas” epic. The “Kurmanbek” and the “Geser” are both shorter than the “Manas” and it is possible that the shorter traditional epics have a similar melody of recitation, that is not characteristic for the “Manas”.

Prospects: Comparing recitation of epic tales should be a means of reviving lost traditions. If a series of experiments could be conducted and filmed, the material could be used to inspire the traditional Buryat practitioners and tellers of tales and so to revitalize a very important part of the folk culture of this ethnic minority.
The Buryats are now striving to maintain their traditional ways of living and self-identity withing “strong Russia”.