Dedication Ritual of a Buryat Shaman in Siberia
by Virlana Tkacz
With Sayan Zhambalov, Wanda Phipps and Dashinima Dugarov
Photographs by Alexander Khantaev
Parabola Books 192 pp. $39.95
When the Yara Arts Group began working with actors from the small country of Buryat-located at the crossroads of Siberia, China and Mongolia-their purpose was to create modern theater pieces of the remaining fragments of traditional Buryatian culture that managed to survive Soviet persecution. As author Virlana Tkacz explained at the New York book launch this March, it wasn't until after their return from documenting a shanar, the re-initiation ceremony of an elderly shaman, that the authors considered compiling the information into a text.
Understanding other cultures requires transversion from the written page. The sort of cultural taxidermy that distills social interaction into a catalogue of ritualistic offerings and objects ignores the entanglements that constitute human culture-which is exactly why an attempt at written ethnography should be more than an afterthought.
As Tkacz narrates, members of the Yara Arts Group first met with actors from the Buryat National Theatre in order to: "create a new theater inspired by and infused by traditional music, song, and legend." After befriending shaman Bayir Rinchinov, the artists were invited to be some of the only outsiders to ever witness-and record-a shanar. The book includes an explanatory text, samplings of chants, dialogue between the shamans and large color photographs.
Attempting sensitivity towards the Buryat, the authors refrained from including any of the chants involved in the ceremony that were considered sacred, instead composing chants of their own they considered to be in the same vein. Tkacz only mentioned this at the launch and not in the text itself-nor did she mention that each traditional chant included in the text passed through the hands of three different translators before reaching press.
There is no clear explanation of any methodology. Shanar, consequently, can't be considered a contribution to academia. All that is left to characterize the work-which is written primarily in the observer's voice, then-is a case of cultural tourism or an attempt at atonement. Either approach seems wrong-headed; the intention to "preserve" another culture within our own annals is rooted in the same arrogance that allows us to consume the "other".
In a picture fit for any slideshow, the back of the book jacket shows Tkacz sitting beside an unidentified shoreline, seemingly lost in reminiscence. If this photo doesn't make the point of cultural subversion, the author lays out her role clearly in her text:
"During the ritual I had become more aware of the powerful forces that surrounded us... By coming to the ceremony we had stepped out of the daily routine our lives and entered into a dialogue not only with each other, but with forces far beyond ourselves."
It sounds more like an advertisement for a yoga retreat than a narration of a cross-cultural experience. The advertisement on the cover of the Parabola catalog offers readers the same engagement with spiritual exoticism: "Explore a rare initiation ritual of a little known culture. Step Out of the routine of daily life. Witness extraordinary forces."
The dominance of the tourist's perspective in the text seems particularly off-putting when the Buryat are finally allowed to speak in their own voice. The shamans' skill as storytellers, their command of the humor and social nuance is the only enjoyable part of the book. One story about the orgay, or shaman headdress, reads thusly:
"I don't remember who told me this, but one young man from around here climbed up to the top of Red Mountain. He opened a bottle of vodka and sprinkled one glass to the spirits. Then he felt someone put an orgay on his head, give him a glass of vodka and say: 'Now, go home.' He went home with the orgay ringing so beautifully within his head he'd hear, 'ring, ring, ring.' He walked right past the head of the collective farm. He walked into his home and said: 'Look, ma,' as he moved his head, and all the metal rang and rang. His mother took one look, picked up the broom, and started beating him. "Take it back!" she yelled. Suddenly, he came to and saw himself put the orgay in its place. Then he saw Regsel Boo holding a huge knife as he jumped up and down in the mist. He was unconscious for three days. But every time he moved his head he heard such a beautiful ringing sound, 'ring, ring, ring.'"
The Buryat are equally gifted in their powers of divination. The ceremony beginning, the ancestors send forth their warning, which Tkacz unwittingly relates:
"As we retreated to sleep, we were warned not to walk alone at night. Bayir told us that many spirits and animals would be drawn to this area. True enough, at dawn a woman saw a wolf running from the southeast toward the west just beyond the boundary of the sacred grounds. A night guard was set up to make sure no one stole the shanar. A spirit warned the shamans to watch this shanar without blinking, since someone had an eye on it."
The problem here seems to be that no matter how well meaning the observers were, nothing can be more wolf-like than the Western appetite for exotic flesh.
Virlana Tkacz Responds:
Ms. Jennifer Curry,
I was very surprised to read the review of our book Shanar yesterday on the web -- and request that you forward this note to the author. Ms Curry seems to have misunderstood/misheard? a basic fact about our book -- all the chants in the book are not written by us but are transcripts of the recorded chants at the ceremony. When we were asked at the book launch about our theatre pieces we answered that we do not use real chants then, but certainly in the book we did not make up or write any of the chants or quoted conversations. The three authors have been working as a team of translators on Buryat texts for 8 years, not sequentially as Ms Curry implies but together "out loud" to help create the sense of spoken word. The book was not an afterthought, or an attempt to contribute to academia -- rather the shaman requested that we write the book and we listened. Shame on you Miss Curry for not paying attention to what was actually said at the book launch at least before reviewing the book.
Jennifer Curry Responds:
I appreciate your response, and am quite disconcerted to learn there is a "factual error" in my piece; I take such issues seriously. I must point out, however, that the presentation at the book launch made it appear as if the stage presentation and text were produced in conjunction with each other, and no clear distinction was made between the translation process for either. A gentleman in the audience asked, without referring specifically to the text or performance, whether there was any compunction over reproducing the sacred chants of the Buryat. According to my notes, the panel responded that they were careful to not use any sacred chants and composed works in a similar style in their stead. It was not clear to me that this was only the case for the works in the live performance.
Whether or not the chants were the "original" chants isn't the point; the point is, what are the methods involved? Had there been a clearer explanation of your methods in the text itself, such confusion could have been avoided. It does not seem to me that I imply the translators worked sequentially or otherwise. That you worked the chants through "out loud", contradicts your statement at the launch that, according to Buryat cosmology, reciting chants aloud calls forth powerful spirits and consequently must be handled with the utmost respect.
I do appreciate your attempt to document this dwindling culture. Such an endeavor is worthy, but demands awareness of the complexities involved in transmission.