Placing the Manas epic into the Contemporary World (2012)

In 2012, the Aigine CRC planned to implement following activities related to the Manas epic a) video shooting of the second part of the epic trilogy, the Semetei epic; b) continuation of the school for young manaschys;, and c) conducting an international conference on Living Epics and Contemporary Epic Reciters on the shore of Lake Issyk-Kul. However, at the end of March, we conducted one unplanned event, presentation of the first and full video compilation of the Manas epic at National Center for Youth, Seitek. All abovementioned project activities were directed to solve certain urgent issues related to preserving and supporting epic heritage and bearers of epic knowledge, as well as, ensuring its further sustainable development.

In the course of our extensive research in the field of traditional knowledge, close cooperation with the bearers and practitioners and proactive participatory observation, the Aigine CRC identified peculiarities, achievements and challenges that stipulate the current state of epic heritage and epic bearers in Kyrgyz society and made certain attempts to address them.

In the years since independence, the importance and value of epic knowledge became paramount in the midst of an ardent quest for a new ideology and an ongoing political struggle. However, it is quite sad to acknowledge that in the face of such quest most often we stop paying attention to those processes happening with the bearers of traditional knowledge and changes happening in the minds of local people and in their relationship towards each other. Breakdown of the Soviet system, state independence followed by a shift to market economy and struggle for survival placed the cultural and spiritual values into the back seat. Traditional synergies in society preserving traditional knowledge and values were lost. In particular, a gap between the general public and bearers of traditional epic knowledge grew immensely. Physical and, most importantly,spiritual bonds between them was lost, which become one of the main challenges in preserving and developing the oral epic heritage. Manaschys of the previous generation would travel from village to village reciting the epic and enchanting the listeners from kids to grown-ups, who could listen for hours and hours. However, the situation today is quite different, epic reciters are not always able to travel from one place to another on a regular basis and the listeners are not always willing to listen for a long time. There are more than a dozen manaschys today; however, not all of them are known to general public, except for a few, who are regularly broadcasted on TV. It is not a surprise that in today’s society, advancement of technology and communication has replaced face-to-face interaction. Therefore, the initiative of creating the first and full video compilation of the Manas epic with participation of contemporary epic reciters became one of the main options to restore the gap between the audience and manaschys. The video discs were accompanied with a small brochure containing information on each manaschy. The video compilation is unique and effective because it accomplishes several tasks at the same – safeguarding and propagation of epic knowledge; as well as, using it for educational, healing and recreation purposes and for conducting research. We have been receiving many comments, feedback, gratitude letters and criticism both, from local people, and international scholars.

In the video compilation, we were able to present almost all the active and recognized epic reciters in Kyrgyzstan today and establish recitation of all the core episodes of the epic. Unfortunately, we didn’t manage to record two powerful manaschys of older generation, Urkash Mambetaliev and Asankan Jumanaliev, for they passed away one after another in the summer of 2011; although they agreed and were happy to be part of the video compilation. This vividly demonstrates how important it is to do certain things on time, while it’s not too late. Therefore, the Aigine CRC is trying to record and bring together all the existing manaschys in the country.  Thus, the video compilation became first and complete video compilation of its kind ever created in Kyrgyzstan. All 12 manaschys were able to recite several episodes of their choosing and to present their own recitation style and manner, as well as, their own version of the episode. Difference in recitation styles and manner between manaschys, demonstrates diversity of reciters and the epic itself, that there isn’t one general and accepted style and manner, that everyone is unique, precisely, with their own style.

The video compilation was released and successfully presented on March 31, 2012.  The Aigine CRC is happy to state that we had an overcrowded hall during the presentation. Our collaboration with the Ministry of Education proved to be fruitful as we had a great representation of schools from all the four raions of Bishkek. Local university students and teachers were also present during the event. However, it was a pity that not everyone was able to attend the presentation, for the number of people greatly exceeded the number of available seats and free space between the aisles. The presentation was conducted in cooperation with the ElTRand Ministry of Education and Science of the Kyrgyz Republic. A short video announcement on upcoming presentation was broadcasted on ElTR, free of charge several times per day one week prior to the presentation. Also the Aigine CRC conducted official press conference at Akipress News Agency and announced the release of the Manas epic’s video version. Thus, we were able to reach out and inform the general public on release of the video version. The help of the Ministry of Education and Science was invaluable in terms of disseminating the information through their network of schools and universities, since the video version was intended to be disseminated among all the state educational institutions of the country. Also the Ministry, as means of financial support, gave us an opportunity to use the building of the National Center for Youth Seitek free of charge. The choice of the venue for presentation had several important reasons – because of its name and function. Seitek was Manas’s grandson; therefore, it had a symbolic meaning and direct connection to the project. Secondly, it is the National Center for Youth, and since the main target group of the video version is youth, it was essential to make the presentation in a place imbued with atmosphere and mood of “youth”.

The presentation was divided into three parts, spiritual part – introduction to the epic, official part – speeches by honorable guests and the concert – performances by distinguished national singers and musicians, as well as, national youth dance group. The spiritual part, which has begun with sound of drums mixed with an Australian aboriginal didgeridoo followed by a koshok -traditional mourning song, kindling juniper branches, new-born baby cry and the epic recitation on birth of the hero Manas, without any doubt, set the atmosphere and tuned the audience into the mysterious world of the epic. Another important element was the live epic recitation by all the manaschys who took part in compilation of the video version. They recited one by one, briefly covering the story line of the Manas epic. It is significant to mention the connection that was established between the manaschys and the audience during the recitation, tranquility and attentiveness of everyone in the hall was mysteriously magical, taking into consideration that the majority was elementary, middle and high school students. According to the opinion of some guests, the recitation by each manachy was truly enchanting and enabled listeners to immerse into the state of meditation and contemplation. This, in our opinion, shows the profound connection between the Manas epic and Kyrgyz people and how they are mutually dependent, i.e. no epic recitation without audience and vice versa.

The video compilation is being distributed to all the educational institutions throughout the country free of charge. However, the aspect of distribution became one of the main challenges. It became quite difficult to reach every single school in the country and present the disc, especially in the regions. Almost all the schools, colleges and universities in the capital received their copies and it didn’t pose much difficulty, but to reach the other mountainous regions is a great challenge. We have learned that the distribution process should be implemented as a separate activity within the project.

As for the video shooting of the second part of the Manas trilogy, the Semetei epic, we have completed the filming process and the discs are being manufactured at the moment. There are 11 manaschys reciting theSemetei epic, in total 39 core episodes with duration of 26 hours. We are excited and pleased that we were able to film several reciters who were not included in the first part. The video compilation of the Semetei is of paramount importance because not every manaschy is able to recite episodes from Semetei, except for a few well-known ones. Therefore, recording all the core episodes of Semetei, recited by the contemporary manaschys– is a priceless heritage for the young generation and is a perfect way of capturing the current state of the epic. However, process of manufacturing discs became one of the main challenges due to absence of necessary disc production technical equipment in Kyrgyzstan. The Aigine CRC had quite an unpleasant experience with a representative of a fake disc manufacturing company in Bishkek last year. After a long showdown, we learned that there is no high-quality disc manufacturing technology in Kyrgyzstan and even Kazakhstan. There is a Chinese company based in Beijing, but represented in Urumqi for Central Asian countries. Therefore, the Aigine CRC had to enter into negotiations with the Chinese company, have an official meeting with the representative in Urumqi and sign a contract. Thus, the manufacture process faced certain energy and time-consuming challenges, but the discs are being produced at the moment and, most importantly, we were able to build a cooperation with the Chinese company for our future endeavours. We are planning to officially release the discs and make a presentation in early spring 2013.

The Aigine CRC believes that digitizing the epic is one of the efficient ways for conservation, development and transmission of epic knowledge, as well as raising awareness of younger generation and introducing the core of Kyrgyz traditional wisdom. The contemporary life style requires contemporary approaches in reaching out to general public and application of ancient knowledge. Therefore, digitizing the epic heritage is innovational and meets today’s standards of formal and informal education.

In 2011, the Aigine CRC together with manaschys has chosen 12 young and talented epic reciters for the school. However, in the beginning of 2012 only of them were chosen to continue their apprenticeship. The Aigine CRC together with manaschys made a decision to give a chance to those dedicated students who have been experiencing certain internal and external difficulties to continue their mentor-apprentice training in the framework of the school. There were main mentors and additionally invited manaschys who worked with the students. Therefore, the work of the school during all three sessions (spring, summer and fall) was aimed at conducting individual work with each student; enhance their recitation style and manner, as well as address certain internal difficulties each of them have been facing. In the course of their apprenticeship, we have observed that there is a strong conflict between kyrgyzchylyk and musulmanchylyk in understanding and perception of children. One of our participants, 17-year old girl from Chatkal suffered the most in this respect. From early childhood, she was raised in a religious surrounding where a slightest indication of believing in anything other than Allah was considered sinful and dangerous. She was deeply imbued with religion, however, internally she had an urge to read different books on epics, chant some verses and write poetry. When the team of manaschys and Aigine staff members met her in Chatkal during the recruitment phase, Akylai started sharing dreams she often sees about epic heroes and how she is interested in reciting the epic lines. However, as the seminars went further on, Akylai started to be torn apart between her Islamic and traditional belief system based on the epic knowledge. Her religious surrounding grew intolerant and non-understanding of her new interest and started pressuring her. The older manaschys tried to explain that these two belief systems don’t oppose, on the contrary complement each other. However, we have observed how difficult it was for her to syncretise these views, therefore, by mutual decision she was excluded from the school for her own safety. If the conflict of kyrgyzchylyk and musulmanchylyk was internal in case of Akylai, then in case of Dastan from Talas, it was external. Local mullah, who lives in the same village as Dastan, started disapproving and discouraging him from reciting the epic. Dastan became quite frightened that he even started having nightmares about the mullah and his words. The case of Saikal, originally from Talas but studying in Bishkek, is an example of patriarchal and traditional attitude towards women’s role in society. As she studies at the specialized music school, Saikal masterfully plays on komuz and is a member of youth ensemble. However, she also feels strong about epic recitation and finds much joy in it, but in her komuz teacher’s opinion, women cannot become “genuine” manaschys and that she has to stop fantasizing about being a reciter.

Becoming a manaschy, by itself, is a difficult spiritual process. In addition to this, there are few examples of intolerance and non-acceptance in society, which in turn discourage, mislead and bring physiological trauma to young children. In our series of seminars in 2012, together with the older manaschys we have tried to address these and other issues and support children. In order to diversify the children’s experience, we have tried to invite different manaschys of different age and regions, so they can have multi-faceted experience and support. During these two years, in the framework of the seminar, the Aigine CRC tried to involve youngmanaschys in different events and interact with different audiences to share their experience and talent, including meetings with the representatives of the UNESCO and international seminar of epic tellers and scholars. At the end of our fall session, we can state with assurance that 5 out of 12 children, chosen for the school, completed the two-year seminar with good results and, most importantly, have built confidence in their chosen path.

We have encountered challenges not only with apprentices, but also with mentors – the older manaschys. We have worked with six different epic reciters and not all of them were able to build mentor-apprentice relationship and find an appropriate way of transmitting their knowledge. The reason to this, in our view, is that these manaschys didn’t have mentors when they were young, therefore, they weren’t able to absorb and experience traditional mentorship system, which is essential in transmitting ones knowledge and interacting with children. Majority of contemporary manaschys (comparatively young ones) lack this spiritual bond with an apprentice that older-generation manaschys had. The traditional mentor-apprentice system of transmitting epic knowledge has almost fallen into oblivion. The only example and bearer of this knowledge can be Kamil Mamadaliev, manaschy from Talas, who have experienced a “genuine” mentor-apprentice relationship with such great manaschys as Kaaba Atabekov and Shaadabai Azizov. Thus, his way of interacting with young manaschys greatly differs from the others. Therefore, at this stage, it is essential to make an attempt to restore and revitalize the traditional mentorship system among our contemporary manaschys. Today none of the manaschys, except for Kamil, have their own apprentice outside of the school organized by the Aigine CRC, which is an alarming fact to acknowledge. We are on the verge of losing the tradition of passing oral epic heritage and raising new generation of authentic Manas epic chanters. One of the possible ways to address this issue, according to manaschys themselves, is to build a strong spiritual bond and build a bridge of acceptance and understanding among them.

In summer 2012, Aigine CRC organized and conducted an international conference on Living Epics and Contemporary Epic Reciters. The seminar was simultaneously held with the Interdisciplinary Symposium on Traditional Religious Practices in Contemporary World in the memory of V.I. Basilov, jointly organized by the Russian Academy of Science. The rationale behind the seminar was to bring together reciters of living epics of different nations, since epic heritage of any nation is a unique source of traditional knowledge important and necessary during the spiritual and systematic crisis of modern societies.  The long term goal of the seminar is to revive forgotten epics and ways of its recitation and transmission together with bearers of epic knowledge, scholars and researchers. During the first meeting we aimed to establish a platform for communication of all parties and review the current state of living epics in the world. The seminar was attended by epic reciters, researchers, elders and keepers of epic knowledge from Russia: Altai, Bashkiriya and Yakutiya; Guatemala, Kyrgyzstan, USA, and Japan.

The seminar started with a trip to spiritual and cultural center Manas Ordo in Talas, which is also one of the well-known sacred sites in Kyrgyzstan. This sacred site is a complex of natural and human-made shrines dedicated to Manas, the greatest hero who ones upon a time united 40 scattered Kyrgyz tribes into one nation

One of the most interesting subjects of discussions was around manaschys recitation experience and personal stories. Thus, three Kyrgyz epic tellers have shared their observations and personal opinions with other participants. Kuban Almabekov, 4th generation manaschy, from Tyup village of Issyk-Kul province, who received his degree in medicine during the Soviet period, was reminiscent of epic tellers’ state during the Soviet Union. A speech by Rysbai Isakov, manaschy from Bishkek, on Disappearance of Dinosaurs or the State of Epic Tellers in Contemporary Society raised a turbulent discussion. Another manaschy from Talas, Kamil Mamadaliev, shared his experience of “entering” the Manas epic world through ayan – message from spirits and key figures of the epic.

The questions on the role of women in preserving and transmitting epic heritage and identifying criteria on “accuracy” and “inaccuracy” of newly emerging epic versions were raised during the discussion in an attempt to establish a common purport of understanding.

As a result of intensive and dynamic course of the seminar, we achieved establishment of an initiative group of epic tellers, traditional practitioners and scholars willing to cooperate in order to reconstruct various comprehensive aspects and links of Turkic epics and, in a long-term perspective, other world epics. The epic tellers emphasized the importance of regular meetings, specialized seminars and trainings for bearers of different epics for spiritual and professional experience sharing. The seminar participants also pointed out the importance of transboundary trips aimed at getting acquainted with not only epic heritage, but also with cultural and spiritual heritage of other nations. Combining academic lectures and epic tellers’ personal stories and experience proved as an efficient way of working. On the basis of which, we were able to establish effective and dynamic platform of interaction and discussion between practitioners and theoreticians.

The seminar gave a unique chance for the Manas reciters, as they were able to share and exchange with their own understanding, ideas and view of the Kyrgyz epic heritage. They were able to freely express themselves and listen to others. In this respect, the platform for open communication between manaschys was established, which, we hope, later will lead to acceptance of diversity among them. Also, manaschys were able to enrich their knowledge on epics of other nations and, most importantly, organizers and the participants were able to bring different epics in a traditional context – in performing various rituals, bonding with nature, enjoying music, reciting  and listening, thus plunging into the sacred world of the epics. The seminar participants also had a unique chance to communicate and build social bonds with participants of the Interdisciplinary Symposium and establish comprehensive and multi-faceted discussion on current state of the epics. It is important to point out that all the differences notwithstanding, participants of both events came to a common conclusion that it’s a high time to identify and preserve one bonding “core identity” that will unify all the people in the world.

The fall of 2012 was highlighted by heated discussions around Byby Mariam Musa kyzy’s series of books Aikol Manas. Researchers and epic experts of the Kyrgyz Academy of Science have been opposing and disregarding her work in a most brutal fashion. The phenomenon of a woman receiving spiritual messages related to theManas epic and publishing them as series of books became a target for an attack. The Aigine CRC couldn’t stand aside and Gulnara Aitpaeva in her interview to a state newspaper Erkin Too on March 27, 2012, and in a public discussion at the First National TV Channel presented position of the center in regard to the situation around Aikol Manas.

In the course of the last two years, with all the challenges and difficulties, the Aigine CRC has successfully completed all the project components and, at the same time, identified and revealed the following significant epic related issues: a) losing of traditional mentor-apprentice system; b) presence of patriarchal andtraditional stereotypes in society; c) conflict between kyrgyzchylyk and musulmanchylyk that greatly affects young generation of manaschys; d) absence of appropriate paradigms among  academicians at the Academy of Science to understand and interpret new ongoing phases of epic development; e) serious gender challenges in epic recitation or transmission; f) scarcity of devoted epic listeners, who replenish the energy of reciters with their meticulous attention. These are the urgent issues and challenges to be addressed. The Aigine CRC is aiming to take necessary efforts and attempts to address above mentioned issues through its project activities in 2013-2014.

As tangible results of our activities we have the following:

  • Full video version of the Manas epic and its distribution to state educational institutions;
  • In the process of releasing video version of the Semetei epic;
  • Nurturing five out of nine young epic reciters over the last two years;
  • Successful organization of the conference on Living Epics and Contemporary Epic Reciters;
  • Building a network of reciters and bearers of epic knowledge and putting a cornerstone for future cooperation;
  • Building a bridge between young and older manaschys;
  • Identifying urgent issues and challenges in regard to revitalizing, conserving and developing the epic heritage and recitation.