Print Edition - 2014-08-10  |  Free the Words

Carnivals and masquerades

  • Newar pageantry provides an interplay between rural comic performance and elaborate satire
- Gérard Toffin
Carnivals and masquerades

Aug 9, 2014-

Carnivals and masked popular performances are a highly appealing subject for at least two reasons. First, they are to be found nearly all over the globe, across cultures and religions, staging the same quintessential characteristics everywhere: dance, dressing up, clownery, music, joyful processions, sometimes theatrical plays, inversion of status, and other upside down features. They express a culture of entertainment, fun and laughter, incarnated mostly by young people. Second, in every particular cultural or geographical zone, these festive enactments have varied considerably over the centuries. In some places, they have been temporally banned by the authorities in power. In others, they have declined for some other, no doubt, economic reason and have suddenly been reborn in new forms and practices. Interestingly, their histories often reflect tension between folk culture and the realm of politics.

The Nepali variety

Such comic, humorous parades occur throughout almost all of Nepal, in mountain areas, in the Pahad and in the Tarai. Teenage boys disguise themselves as females, as supernatural beings or as some sort of beast using plant or animal materials (grass, leaves, straw, foam, feathers). The performances make use of masks, choreography, songs and musical instruments. They embody a secular, extremely popular aspect of culture. In some cases, the influence of Tibetan (Atsara buffoon) and Indian culture (Vidushaka jester) is clearly felt. But more often than not, these elements have been mixed and reformulated to produce autochthonous features.

Scholars have so far neglected local Nepali carnivals and masquerades because these performances supposedly belong to a popular, often scatological, street culture, far removed from highly literate, more prestigious items, which are more suitable for embodying the official culture. Yet, like the shamanistic tradition (jhankri) prevalent in the country, they belong to the immaterial culture of Nepal, which is held in such high esteem nowadays by Unesco. Some are on the way to becoming extinct or to being replaced by more modern forms. It is urgent that they be documented, filmed, photographed and studied. They need to be studied through a local lens, in the search for indigenous terms and endogenous views, rather than by using external concepts. The purpose of this outline is to highlight some of their features through my personal experiences and observations.

Valley of jatras

Let us take, for instance, the Newars of the Kathmandu Valley. These days, they celebrate the Sa Paru and Matyah festivals. Up until Indra Jatra, ie, the full moon of Bhadau (August-September), or in some cases only until Krishnashtami, time is generally devoted to comic, satirical plays and masquerades in urban and rural settlements. Buddhist and Hindu Newars have their own festivities but the barriers between the two communities have fallen over the years. More often than not, both groups now mingle in the streets, parade together and follow the same brass and drum brands. Participants often dress in an extravagant way, some wear variegated masks made out of plastic or fabric.

According to the chronicles, the origin of the Kathmandu Gai Jatra festival derives from the decision of King Pratap Malla who ruled over the present capital in the seventeenth century CE. This sovereign wanted to put a smile on his wife’s face after the death of their son. He ordered all the inhabitants of the city to parade through the streets, passing in front of the Royal Palace, to expunge the queen’s sorrow. He succeeded in his undertaking and, so it is said, the custom of sending some boys of each family disguised as cows originated from that time. This tradition is most probably only partly true. It is possible that urban merchant and craft Newar castes took their inspiration from Maharjan rice farmers, who disguised their youngsters as cows to pull a plough at that very time, even though the reverse process—influence from cities to rural areas—cannot be totally dismissed.

Laughter and satire

Whatever the case may be, among Newars, these comic enactments are traditionally associated with satirical plays called khyalah. The period between Gai and Indra Jatra is precisely the period during which traditionally all sorts of criticism of powerful persons and notabilities were made. The existing order and standards were challenged; oral and ethical inconsistencies were highlighted. It is obviously not mere chance that this ‘anti-structure’ atmosphere falls, according to the Hindu calendar, at a time when Vishnu sleeps at the bottom of the ocean, leaving the earth in a perilous position, subject to disorder and danger. This subversive tradition apparently goes back a long way in Newar culture. It survived more or less clandestinely during the Rana period and has been revived today in a literate form and in increasing sophisticated ways. Dozens of khyalahs, for instance, were published towards the end of the Panchayat period. Some Newari journals even reserve a space in their daily or weekly issues for such subjects.

What is interesting during these pageants is the interplay between an old rural type of comic performance featuring upside down practices, tricks, gags, jokes, and a more elaborate satirical brand of humour targeting social evils as well as political excesses and failures. The first kind of comedy belongs to what is called hansya in Nepali; it is centred around grotesque wit, hypertrophied figures, a parody of religious signs, a violation of official rules and regulations, the mixing of sexes, and scatological jokes. It is mainly based on an oral tradition. The second type, closer to the Nepali byanga, includes more elaborate parodies; it takes the form of dialogues, distancing itself in some ways from farcical and buffoonish carnival elements. Its more elaborate form diverges from the social collective basis to become a more individualistic performance. Within the Kathmandu Valley, these two aspects are not mutually exclusive. Their fusion characterises a culture that combines rural and urban elements.

Toffin is Director of Research at the National Centre for Scientific Research, France.

Published: 10-08-2014 09:49

Next Story

User's Feedback

Click here for your comments

Comment via Facebook

Don't have facebook account? Use this form to comment