Sunday, December 26, 2010


In my last blog post, I wrote about a couple theater traditions that are on UNESCO's list of elements of intangible cultural heritage. Today, I'm spotlighting a couple oral traditions that figure on the organization's list -- the Gesar Epic, and the Meddah tradition of public storytellers.


The video above is about the performance of the epic of King Gesar, by the Tibetan, Mongolian and Tu peoples in northern and western China. Parts of the epic are performed as entertainment, for ceremonial purposes at weddings and other such events, and as a way of communicating with the gods. The epic is just over a thousand years old, with manuscripts traced back as far as the 14th century. The complete epic contains over a million poetic lines, and, while most storytellers and singers are illiterate, they know thousands or even hundreds of thousands of lines. It's an oral tradition that, even in the age of print, has survived largely orally -- by going mouth to mouth.

In Turkey, there's a tradition of "Meddah" public storytellers that goes back 1500 years. These storytellers educate and entertain, and, at one time, would perform at inns along caravan routes. Nowadays, their function and their popularity has changed as the mass media have become more prominent -- and television sets tell stories in cafes and other public spaces where the Meddah used to predominate. While there may be fewer Meddah storytellers, and those who remain are less valued by the culture, I would imagine that the cultural current of storytelling has found other media (or mediums) through which to flow. Perhaps those television sets are transmitting compelling stories. How to safeguard such a tradition, if it merits being preserved? Certainly, an agency like UNESCO can help protect it against external forces such as a bad economy, high rent for Meddah storytellers, and so on. But another way to survive is to adapt. Would the Meddah tradition survive if the storytellers performed on television? Or if they told stories that appealed more to young people? Or if they paired with school teachers to train young storytellers?

Transforming the tradition in this way might dilute it -- or it may just be another way in which, as UNESCO acknowledges, "intangible cultural heritage ... is constantly recreated by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature and their history."

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