Epic at Altargana

During June and July this year, on fieldworld for my PhD, I was lucky enough to be in Ulaan Üde in the Russian Federation for the biennial folk festival of the Buryat Mongols, Altargana. Since 2002 Altargana has been held in various locations in Russia, Mongolia and China because of the liminal nature of the diverse ethnicities that identify as Buryat. It is perhaps the only opportunity Buryats as a whole have to come together and engage in the traditional pursuits of Mongolic communal gatherings – competitive sports, dancing and musical performances.

A young performer accompanied by his sister on Morin Khuur. Epic among the Buryats is traditionally a male pursuit (Photo copyright of the author).

The recent rebirth of epic performance among young Buryat reciters is quite an amazing phenomenon, bolstered because of Altargana’s clever grassroots encouragement and arrangement of semi-finals in regional areas to popularise the events and traditions over the past fourteen years. During the Soviet era, increased Russification of Siberian Buryats and the discouraging of the old tales of epic heroes, lead to the breaking of the traditional paths of knowledge transfer between generations. This means that today’s young reciters, most of whom have no reciters in the family, have had to reincarnate their traditions from whatever they have available. Most often this is derived from publications of epics transcribed by historians and anthropologists during the Soviet period. In the tradition of oral epics everywhere, the reciters modify the material they have learned and then fit it to their own skills, style of performance and according to the kind of audience as an improvised art form. Some sing, others declaim, some play the traditional Morin khuur (horse-head fiddle) as they do so, while others are unaccompanied. The results are diverse and the event is no mere showcase. It is a competition as much as sporting events like wrestling, which also form part of the Altargana. The audience know whether what they are viewing is good or bad and can get quite antsy when someone is awarded with a prize when they think the performer should not have been.

Most notable was a performance by sixteen-year-old Rodion Shantanov from rural Irkutsk, whose parents are only thirty two. Seated on a pelt and dressed in a massive fur hat in forty-degree weather, Rodion had the whole audience of the small, Soviet-era concert hall captivated as he conjured up wondrous images of heroes rescuing their horses from a thieving titanic mangadkhai (monster). This is a typical theme in Buryat epic, very much familiar to me from books, but breathtaking to hear and see delivered in person by a talented storyteller. Rodion, who wants to be a theatre director when he leaves school, has performed in a number of Russian dance productions in Moscow and even in Spain. Yet during his whole life, so he told me, he had wanted to come to Ulaan Üde. A very strange dream perhaps, compared with Moscow and Barcelona, or so it seemed to me at the time, until he explained that it is because in Irkutsk Buryats are much rarer than in Buryatia. Ulaan Üde, especially during the throes of an international Buryat cultural festival, felt like a kind of homecoming.

Everything on show as part of the competition was traditional epic. Here a boy and girl take it in turns to tell a folktale while puppeteers act scenes out behind them (Photo copyright of the author).

Rodion holds the audience in this thrall (Photo copyright of the author).

Rodion explained to me that at home his family often switch between Buryat and Russian, as bilingual people often do, a kind of mercurial game perfect for raising a young performance poet. Yet, many in rural Irkutsk no longer have such a luxury because the Western Buryat languages are, as UNESCO has been saying since the early 1990s “nearly extinct”. Among the educated elites in Ulaan Üde it is increasingly common these days to meet bright young metropolitan and well-travelled Buryats who speak English and Chinese fabulously, but not their own language. A Buryat friend of mine who came to Altargana with me was incessantly asked if she spoke Buryat or even Khalkha Mongolian, only to have to embarrassingly answer each time that she did not. Not a jot. The old Soviet program of Korenizatsia (Indigination) from the 1920s onwards made the creation of minority language print and radio media compulsory, encouraging the transcription, study and printing of Buryat oral epics. However, the irony is that for Siberian Buryats, Russian, as the academic and literary language of art and science became the gateway to perceived social mobility. Attempts since the fall of the USSR to rekindle interest in adult learning of the language have not made a great deal of impact and most children know that to get ahead there is little point in treating the local language as seriously as one would do with Russian.

Yet these young reciters, as much as they are dependant upon old texts, are not from this world of Buryat academia. A lot of them are from the countryside, for whom seeing something like a public performance of epic in a local town hall can be a life-changing event. If there is a creative outlet for performing in language like Altargana, this can only be a good thing.

Winners for the three age groups of Altargana 2016’s üligershedei konkurs (competition of epic reciters) (Photo copyright of the author).

Jonathan Ratcliffe is a PhD candidate in Asian History at The Australian National University, Canberra, Australia.

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