INTERNATIONAL SEMINAR “CURRENT EPICS AND CONTEMPORARY STORYTELLERS”

Date: June 24 – July 3, 2012

Place: Talas, Bishkek and Cholpon-Ata, Kyrgyzstan

Working languages: Kyrgyz, Russian, English

The section “current epics and contemporary storytellers” is an independent seminar, organized by Aigine CRC with financial support from the Christensen Fund (California, USA). The seminar began on June 24 in Talas, continued at Issyk-Kul as part of the general conference in memoriam of V.N. Vasilov, and ended on July 2 in Bishkek. The basis of this seminar is the idea that the epic heritage of any nation is a unique source of traditional knowledge that can be drawn upon in a situation of systemic crisis of contemporary societies.

The long-term goal of the seminar is to revive forgotten knowledge of epics, ways of expression and transmission on the basis of cooperation between all involved parties: experts and holders of epics, scholars, administrators and others.

The objective of the first meeting was to a) provide a platform for interaction between all interested parties, peoples and cultures and to b) review the present status of existing epics.

The seminar brought together researchers on epic heritage of different nations, storytellers of epics and elders- the keepers of epics and traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples of Yakutia, Altai, Bashkortostan, Guatemala, Japan, Nepal, USA and Kyrgyzstan.

A special feature of the seminar was the fact that it was able to harmoniously combine components that are typically not joined: the academic sessions included traditional rituals and performances of excerpts from epics, as well as komuz melodies, which were interspersed with reports and studies of scholars as well as personal stories from practitioners and holders. Elders, scholars and experienced and novice storytellers all set together to discuss problematic issues.

The seminar began with a trip to the spiritual and cultural center “Manas Ordo”- one of the most famous holy places of Kyrgyzstan. Manas Ordo is a complex of natural and man-made shrines dedicated to Manas- the great hero who once united 40 separate Kyrgyz tribes into one nation.

At Issyk-Kul, within the conference in memoriam of V.N. Basilov, the seminar focused around three main topics: why does a modern society need epics? The preservation and development of epics: new versions and formats. Storytelling as a spiritual path, executing and transferring epic knowledge. Presented at the seminar were the Mayan epic “Popol Vuh”, the Okinawan epics of Japan, Yakut “Olonho” epics, Altai epics, the Bashir epic “Ural-Baatyr” and the Kyrgyz “Manas” epic. Experts and storytellers performed excerpts from epics; in particular, the Manas Epos sounded from the voices of young and recognized manaschys; the Altai throat singer Alexey Kalkin performed Kai; Yakut throat singer Nikandr Timofeev sang in the style of Kylgah; and the scientist and doctor of philology, Rosalia Sultangareeva, demonstrated a performance of the living tradition “Ural Baatyr”, a Bashkir epic.

Of particular interest were the speeches, which were based on the storytellers’ personal experiences. For example, three Kyrgyz manaschys shared their observations and reflections. The manaschy Kuban Almabekov from the village of Tyupa, Issyk-Kul region, who is a storyteller in the fourth generation and who received a medical degree in the Soviet era, recalled the situation for storytellers at that time. The report by Bishkek native Ryspay Isakov, “The disappearance of the dinosaurs- or the state of storytellers in modern society” caused a heated debate. The manaschy Mamadaliev Kamil from Talas shared his experience of entering the world of epics through Ayan- leading the ancestral spirits and actors of the epic.

Throughout the presentations and discussions, a general issue started to emerge: the severe loss of epic knowledge and the ways of expression and transmission in each of the represented cultures. Many epics ceased development and as a result are almost forgotten or only preserved by a few bearers today. In this context, the narrators and researchers of the Manas epic agreed that although Manas does not hold the same presence that it did 70-120 years ago, in comparison with the other epics presented at the seminar, it is clear that the Kyrgyz epic is still actively developing: there are new variations, educated young storytellers, multiplied by their listeners- Manas is alive! And this fact- that Manas is alive and has the sacred power of “Kasiet”- was sensed by the participants from other countries. They expressed the hope that their epic traditions would also be revived.

As for the preservation and development of the epic knowledge, Aigine CRC presented the work done with novice storytellers and the creating of a video version of the Manas epic. Also of particular interested were the “museum video tutorials on Yakut throat singing”, presented by Aiza Petrovna Reshetnikova, director of the Museum of Music and Folklore of Yakutsk (Yakutsk, Republic of Sakha).

Novice storytellers, manaschys, took part in the seminar, even though they experienced some difficulties with understanding the Russian language, academic terminology, etc. However, from the organizers’ point of view, the contact between novice and experienced holders of the epics of different nations was extremely important for realizing where heritage is preserved or lost, what the prospects for developing epic knowledge could be, and which ways of mutual cooperation exist.

As for the aspects of mutual understanding, questions were raised about the role and place of women in the preservation and transmission of epic heritage, on the criteria of determining the “correct” or “incorrect” emerging versions of the epics.

The spiritual aspect was an integral part of this section. The seminar in Issyk-Kul also began with the origins of the ritual reproduction of the Manas epic. According to oral records and scientific research, Manas began to lament. A battle drum, a komuz, and a koshokchu, or mourner, together with five manaschys, were able to recreate the morning on the lakeshore, marking the beginning of the tragic legend that became known as the great epic of the Kyrgyz people. Representatives from different cultures performed their people’s traditional rituals: the meeting of the sun, the salutation to the lakes, a sacred fire ritual, the remembrance of the dead, and the receiving of the gospel. The manaschys clearly demonstrated and commented on the traditional forms of struggle that were preserved in the epic.

The intense work of the seminar is represented in the following results. An initiative group was formed, consisting of storytellers, practitioners and scholars who are willing to cooperate for the purpose of recreating various aspects and connections of Pan-Turkic epics, and, in the long run, also epics from other nations of the world. The storytellers emphasized the need for regular meetings, even focused workshops and training sessions for the various carriers of the epics, in order to allow mutual exchange of spiritual and professional training. Participants also noted the need for trans-boundary tours to familiarize the people not only with the epic of their people, but also with the legacy of neighboring and distant peoples. Further, as part of the results, the possibility of combining academic papers and life stories of storytellers and carriers became evident. On the basis of this combination, an efficient and live interaction platform of practitioners and theorists was established.