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The shadow puppetry of Karagoz.

The shadow puppetry of Karagoz

 To the eye of the uninitiated,
 this curtain produces
 only shadows.

 But to him who knows the signs
 --Symbols of the Truth--

 It is a show of subtlety, intended
 for the enlightened to understand
 its finer points.

 When the candle goes out,
 at once the shadows vanish

 Symbols of the world's
 brief passing.

THE POEM OF THE CURTAIN, from the Karagoz play, The Muddleheaded Night Watchman.

When the lights go out and the curtain screen begins to glow, on come the first characters, and the music begins. Travel back a century, and this would have been the prelude to one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the Ottoman Empire: The shadow-puppet play Karagoz.

Literally meaning 'dark eye', for centuries its ribald subject matter, street wit and irreverent humour were a fundamental part of Ottoman popular culture; a people's art on show in the empire's coffee houses, from Sarajevo to Baghdad and from the Caucasus to Cairo. Its central stars were Karagoz himself, and Hacivat, his perfect foil.

Karagoz is the common man--sincere and down-to-earth, speaking his mind--and thus often in trouble. Hacivat is the complete opposite; well read, if a little pretentious, and reluctantly dragged into the chaos that surrounds Karagoz's passage through the world.

Alongside them stand a whole host of other characters. Going through their names and professions is like reading a social history of the Ottoman Empire, of an all but vanished world. This was, after all, popular culture, and therefore filled with the people and dilemmas of the Ottoman neighbourhood. We see the circumcisionist, beggars, street vendors, gypsies, travellers and traders from Persia, Arabia, Africa and Europe, Greeks and Jews, slaves and drunks. The stories are of jealousy and unhappy love, money problems and too many late nights at the local meyhane--the taverna.

Now, this old and venerable art form has become the subject of a major exhibition in Istanbul. Featuring videos, discussion forums and an excellently produced guide, Torn is the Curtain, Shattered is the Screen, the Stage all in Ruins tells the story of Karagoz from first to near-last. Helping considerably with this is a collection of Karagoz shadow puppets front the archives of Yapi Kredi Kultur Sanat, the culture and arts arm of Yapi Kredi bank.

The puppets were traditionally made from animal hide--often camel--though in later periods, leather and cardboard were also used. With hide, this thin, translucent material would be cut into the forms of the figures and painted using vegetable dyes. Each character would then be attached to a stick, which the puppeteer would manipulate to make the characters move around. A screen--usually a sheet of cloth--would be placed between the puppeteer and the audience, and back-lighting would titan cast the coloured shadows of the puppets onto this canvas.

Simple materials. Yet the result could be highly complex. While Karagoz plays usually hold to a rigid structure--and revolve around no more than a dozen basic plots--thin that framework, there is a great deal of creative possibility. Humour is key, with particular stress on wordplay, especially puns and double entendre. The vast patchwork of accents and dialects available for mimickery when the Ottoman Empire was at its height--and Istanbul was the Imperial capital--also lends greatly to the comedy, with Karagoz performers (the puppeteer would also do the voices) often experts on the multitudinous dialects of the city's quarters and neighbourhoods.

"There are various theories about the shadow play's original roots," says Yapi Kredi's M. Sabri Koz, who has edited the exhibition book and is the exhibition consultant. "The first root is thought to be in the Far Eastern countries, where there is a strong and ancient tradition of shadow puppetry. Another theory is that it originated with the gypsies, with Karagoz describing himself that way in one of the traditional plays. However, the most widely accepted theory is that it was brought from Egypt to Istanbul in the first half of the 16th century by Sultan Selim I."

Whatever the case, while the tradition of shadow theatre may have come from the Nile valley, the character of Karagoz seems much more homegrown. By the 17th century, the great Ottoman traveller and chronicler Evliya Celebi records the names Karagoz and Hacivat for the first time, while also detailing the names of established Karagoz performers and scripts.

Karagoz has also left its mark on the cultures of many countries that were once part of the Ottoman Empire. In Egypt, there is a shadow puppet theatre known as 'Aragoz' while in Greece it is now seen as a national theatre, known as 'Karaghiozis'. It also continues in Syria and Iraq.

There is also debate over whether or not Karagoz and Hacivat were actual historical figures. The most popular, and possibly apocryphal, tale is that they were both craftsmen employed by Sultan Orhan in the early 14th century to work on building a mosque in Bursa, in north-western Anatolia. They continually distracted the other labourers with their jokes and comic dialogues so much that the Sultan had them both put to death. Later remorseful, he then had them resurrected in puppet form.

Angering the sultan was certainly something shadow puppetry was often wont to do. Some of the earliest references to the art in Egypt come to us through edicts from the authorities banning its performance, and some of the latest references show that few politicians escaped the razor-like satire of Karagoz in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire. Karagoz also challenged religious pieties and norms yet was explicitly tolerated in Islamic fatwas, despite its lampooning of the clergy and the learned sages of the medressas.

Yet that political satire, essential for a vibrant popular art form, perhaps found its nemesis in the modern age. The increasingly tightly censored monitored late empire saw Karagoz begin to fade, as its venues--the neighbourhood kahvehane, or coffee shop (a male-only Turkish version of the cafe/diner and pub all rolled into one)--began to be more closely watched, as the mechanisms of state control became more industrial and comprehensive.

"Even though things were expressed in Karagoz after the constitutional monarchy period began in 1908, and after the republican period began in 1923," says Koz, "Karagoz had lost its status,"

Times, and preferences, changed--as did social structures and the areas within which popular satire could operate. The shadow play moved out of this area, and is nowadays largely a performance reserved for children and occasional, nostalgic revivals. Cinema and TV have also overrun it, with today's kahvehane sporting a TV set, rather than a puppet theatre.

However, there are many who still hope it can return in a more full-blooded form. "It is not true that it has lost its popularity," says Orhan Kurt, one of Turkey's most celebrated puppeteers and a shadow play expert. "It is still very much loved here. Karagoz is a means of communication; it develops according to people's needs." Kurt still gives Karagoz performances in Istanbul to packed audiences.

"Karagoz, if done properly, always has an interior dynamic and structure that can retain this old vitality," says Koz. "This exhibition, we hope, will be one small, internal development in the cultural atmosphere--a move we're 'always wanted."
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Author:Gorvett, Jon
Publication:The Middle East
Article Type:Poem
Date:Aug 1, 2004
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