While I am traveling through Western Europe on my way to Tbilisi Georgia to work on the puppet and doll museum I have been thinking about the project ahead of me in the next few years. And one reminder of that task is that I have the stunning new book of the Tbilisi Dolls and Toys Museum (თბილისის სათამაშოები და თოჯინების მუზეუმი). This is a large chunk of the collection I will be working with when I eventually start my job. And it is a curious eye view into the world of Georgian tojinebi (plural of tojina which can mean dolls or puppets) The book is a fascinating look at the history and art of Georgia tojinebi.
Interestingly Georgia doesn’t have a deep historical tradition of popular dolls the way France or England does. And just as intriguingly Georgian dolls have not descended into the overly cute and sweet commercial playthings that have developed in the West. Not that bad baby dolls can’t be found in bargain shops. Or that Barbies are nowhere to be found. In fact it was the Soviet Union, in one of their rare enlightened decrees, who decided that Georgia needed dolls. And so the museum collection was started in 1937 by Tinatin Tumanishvili (1892-1966)
Tumanishvili in her role as secretary of (in typical soviet speak) The Children’s Toy Committee of the People’s Commissariat of Education who originated The Children’s Toy Museum. At this point there was no official style of popular doll that came from the Georgian traditions so, like puppetry in various corners of the Soviet Empire, dolls were decreed into existence. And so Tina Tumanishvili began an ethnographic search through the country to seek inspiration. And then she commissioned several dolls to be created by artists.
And for me the most startlingly unique dolls are also the most primitive. The most traditional folk dolls, called fork and spindle dolls, traditionally were made simply and beautifully with sticks, cloth and sometimes corn silk or even human hair. The dolls had an unusual aura to them, with the face made abstractly out of cloth, buttons, and thread or yarn with an X or a cross for a face. Often the cloth for the figure was embroidered with designs. The faces alone are enough to give the puppeteer in me many ideas for figures not yet imagined.
These primitive tojinebi also connect back to a not so distant past where these figures were used in rain making ceremonies. There was one ritual of making the doll, or is it a puppet since these were also moved with simple strings at times, in the form of the biblical Lazarus. Getting the doll wet was an important part of the various rituals. And Lazarus was beseeched ‘Humidify and wet us.’ During the Gonjaoba festival a figure called the Gonja was thrown into the water, while saying ‘We do not want hard dried clods of earth anymore. God, give us the mud.’ More fearfully there was another festival the Berikaoba, which is still occasionally celebrated, with strange masks that used to be made from animal skins, particularly pig faces which were particularly used to offend the various Muslim overlords. There was also a ritual of a person or figure riding a donkey backwards who was then thrown into a river at flood stage. A form of this can be seen in Tengiz Abuladze’s film The Wishing Tree, where a very symbolic figure is seen riding a donkey backwards. And it isn’t a good thing. These festivals, like Mardi Gras end at the beginning of Lent.
(Click to Enlarge)
There is another folk style involving stitching a simple expression on tightly pulled cloth. This technique as well as its extensions in design become through Tumanishvili and her artists, especially Nino Brailashvili, eventually become the inspiration and beginnings of serious doll making in Georgia. Thus Georgian doll making moves also most instantly from primitive ritualistic images straight to art, skipping the centuries of popular doll making in between. There is another worthwhile, and quite hard to find west of Russia, (in Russian and English) book featuring some of these primitive dolls and lavishly illustrated Nino Brailashvili, from her journeys into Georgia villages. It is called Ethnography In Georgia. It is well worth seeking out.
Inevitably Georgia costume design also holds an important place in the art of the tojina. Embroidery, thread and yarn all capture the elaborate patterns to be found in Georgian traditional dresses. The texture and detail of the fabric is just as important as the materials used to make the dolls. And again almost instantly created small works of art out of the tojina, blurring the line between the private fantasy of the doll and the storytelling skills of the puppet. And book of the museum’s collection shows this over and over again.
As far as tojinebi makers in the catalogue go (and there are many newer doll makers not in the catalogue) Irma Kaadze is the real discovery here. Her work figures quite strongly in unusual textures of natural cloth and fabric as well as various papier maché techniques. Her work is filled ornate designs in fabric ranging traditional figures that have faces with expressions like Byzantine mosaics. She also makes angels again with archaic faces. And an absolute gem of a puppet of a bedouin on a camel with more texture and creativity than seems legally possible. (Puppeteers take note.)
The work of Tamar Kvesitadze are also miniature statuary in a melange of materials, creating, as Kaadze does, miniature tableau vivant.
Besides the Georgian tojinebi the catalogue features mechanical toys, an automaton that blows bubbles, unknown dolls from Germany, a gift of dolls from Japan and other fragments of Georgian creative history. Also included in the book is artwork from the collection by such important Georgian artists as Elene Akhvlediani, Lado Gudiashvili, Natela Iankoshvili and others.
Tinatin Tumanishvili started with a toy collection and created a haven for tojinebi as well. The Tbilisi Dolls and Toys Museum has been housed in several locations before being packed away from its last location near the Gabriadze Theatre and packed away securely at the Union of Museums offices on Agmashenabeli in Tbilisi. And they will lie in boxes until a new home is constructed for them. Which is where I come into the picture. (But that will be another story altogether and the immovable tojinebi will find new movable companions when that happens!)
Oh by the way a word about this book: It is a large gorgeously printed 288 page tome. Only 500 were made. It is predominantly written in the beautiful but indecipherable Georgian script yet with plenty of English to give one a very intelligent idea of what the book is about. A reader of this essay might find themselves desperate for a copy. Getting one sent to you will not be an easy thing, but… it is possible. The actual cost of the book is mercifully not that much. But shipping? It weighs a couple of kilos (a few pounds). That will cost you more dearly. If you are one of those people curious to own it you can contact Nini Sanadiradze at the Union of Museums in Tbilisi. She can tell you how to obtain one. It cannot be found in any country other than Georgia.
You can go to this page.
At the bottom of that page there is a place to send email massages. Do so. And you should be able to get the information you need. The Union of Museums also has a Facebook page.
Well next time we discuss life at the International Institute of Puppetry in Charleville-Mézières France. But for now we’ll just say Au revoir and Nachwamdis.
I had been watching Erisioni practice their singing and dancing for nearly two months, taking photos, shooting video, when Otari Bluashvili, the company manager, invited me to travel with them on a short tour into the nearby rolling mountains to watch them perform a partial show at a retreat center called Bioli. This would be a chance to see them in full costume, which thus far I had not had a chance to witness. The date, March 24th, the last weekend of my three month sojourn in Georgia, it would be a good final event to end my stay in Tbilisi.
I arrived in the early afternoon at the Erisioni studios on Rustaveli Avenue. Dancers, singers and musicians were milling around. There was good natured vibe to the milling crowd. But not everyone was there. Several dancers were not needed because the performance area was not that large and the show only half as long. A car had arrived and the performers were taking the traditional Georgian garments and carefully placing them in it, especially the women’s dresses. As I looked around I noted Irakli the dancer and Irakli the garmoni (Georgian accordion) player, Toko and Lasha, a couple of the very high voiced tenors, the dancers Nina, Gvantsa, Neolina and Mari were there. Also present was Levan the male choreographer, Eka the women’s choreographer, Shermandi the choirmaster, Otar the manager and Jemal the Chief Conductor, who was really the head of the organization, whom I remembered from the original Georgian Legend DVD, where I first learned of Erisioni.
Eventually a massive white modern bus pulled up and we entered, all forty or so folks. Several dancers and musicians had to stay back since it was a small show, otherwise the number would be over fifty. I sat near the front and looked back on the troupe, took a few photos and we drove up into the rolling mountains south of Tbilisi to Bioli a ‘Medical Wellness Resort’. The mood on the bus was like a high school field trip. They hadn’t done a show for a while so it was a chance to get out into the world again. The journey covered about 15 kilometers and took about a half an hour, all up hill, as we ascended from Tbilisi’s 450 to 760 meters (1,500-,2,500 ft) to Bioli’s 1,200 meters (3,930 ft). At last the sign for Bioli emerged along the road and we drove down their dirt road to a rather futurist looking set of structures.
The Erisioni folk seemed to know where they were going so I tagged along. The women were give a large golf cart vehicle to travel in. I entered the domed main building. Evidently tonight’s performance was to be punctuation for a business awards ceremony of some sort that I never did fully comprehend. But I wasn’t there for the proceedings, except as it pertained to the Erisioni troupe. Before changing into their costumes they practiced briefly in order to ascertain their ability to move. The performance space was actually small considering the expansiveness of the dances. Sophiko Khachidze and Tornike Gelashvili danced gracefully in their street clothes. Others moved around them. It was tight but it would work.
I then followed the performers into the back dressing rooms, which of course were far too small for so many people. But no one was complaining. Every dancer, singer and musician had traditional clothes. This was the first time I had actually seen them wearing them. The clothes were expensive and needed to be protected from excessive wear. So rehearsals were always done in their black dance garments. But now for the first time I was seeing the Georgian finery I had seen in videos and photos. Most of the men wore variations on the chokha, the distinctive coat with cartridge sleeves lined across the front. These now mostly carried ornamental cylinders. Male dancers however usually had several various regional costumes to change into during the course of the evening. The women’s dresses were even more elaborate, often featuring regal caps and flowing veils. They too changed during the evening to represent the regions of Georgia. All in all quite the sartorial spectacle.
Another interesting aspect was the makeup applied by the women to emphasize their eyes, heavy eyelashes and strong cosmetics. This of course was to communicate across the distance from stage to audience under hot lights. And when they did this they became almost unrecognizable transforming into ikons of Georgian culture, as did the men in their way, shaggy wool hats, swords, special boots for jumping on their toes, etc. Fascinating to observe. Before the performance we ate some lobiani, a flat bread filled with beans, a light snack for energy but certainly not a full meal. But soon it was time.
They went through a couple of songs then paused for presentations and awards. This continued through out the evening. Their were several professional photographers and videographers there. I left them to capture video of the show. They were much more aggressive than I. And besides I was interested in something else. I care more about the personalities and their process to become these incredible dancers and singers. And so I turned my camera mostly on the backstage between numbers, the quick changes the tired bodies and the characters of many people who were, even without language becoming friends. All the time I couldn’t help but feel honored to be with them as one of the crew, not merely as this guy from the outside, from another country.
When the entertainment was over I looked down the undulating hills to lights of Tbilisi glowing from a distance. We drove back in the dark, Somewhere in the back a few singers were singing a song together. And everything was good.
In two days on Monday I went into the Erisioni studios on Rustaveli Avenue to say farewell. I wasn’t sure if I would film or not. But I did. There were Turks there who wanted to see them for a tour. So I had a chance to watch the full performance one more time. This may have been the best show I had seen yet. And I was much more able to follow their movements with my camera. Although I am still kicking myself, because although I was able to follow the sword dance perfectly, and thought the footage would be my best. I then looked at the camera, I had forgotten to press record. I shook it off and captured the finale. (Which can be seen here.)
At the end, before everyone left, I asked Otari to allow me to say farewell to the troupe. He spoke and more than fifty pairs of eyes looked at me. And I realized how meaningful this experience had been and how in so many ways I had become close to these musicians, singers and dancers who put so much into their art. I tried to speak but choked up. And they loved that! They burst into applause. I tried to speak again and it proved quite difficult. And again they cheered and clapped loudly. Otar at one moment leaned over to me and said “They think you are one of us.” It was because I had shown deeper emotion. Finally I told them how much it meant to spend time with them and that I was actually going to be moving to Tbilisi within a year. And they applauded rhythmically for some time. I was overcome with joy.
Before leaving I managed to get a few photos of all of us together. And then as they left I received many kisses on the cheeks and not only from the girls. I had gone past being a stranger and was warmly embraced in a farewell gesture that I have never experienced before. I felt privileged to spend time with this incredible collection of musical artists. When they put on their costumes they became mythic representations of their culture. But you know I think I prefer watching them in rehearsals because then I see Tornike Akhalaia spinning like a top and landing on his knees and springing back, Lika Tsipuria practicing her delicate turns over and over and Lika Chikhelidze dancing like a swan, Shota Gongadze effortlessly cool as he struts out to dance and play the drum, the male singers shaking the walls with the force of their sound, choreographer Levan Kublashvili suddenly breaking into a dance just because the music strikes him. I am impressed to see them practice because I see the humans behind the mythic symbols of Georgia and I am amazed to be counted as a friend.
But I was hardly finished with my farewells to my friends in Georgia. I will finish this story next time.
While in Tbilisi I also hunted down puppets in other places. (Puppet = თოჯინა or tojina; plural = თოჯინები or tojinebi; puppetry also = tojinebi.) One of the places I ended up in, which I need to return to, is the Movement Theatre, which was located in Mushtaidi Park near the National Stadium. The Movement Theatre was not a puppet theatre per se but incorporates puppets into its performances. They also mingled dance, electronic music, acrobatics along with puppets into an unusual stew. They had a definite post-apocalyptic patchwork style in their cluttered foyer. Stacks of manikins decorated the lawn. The one show I saw was more of a dance performance in many ways than any sort of traditional play or puppet show. It was definitely an edgier vibe than the other theatres. And will be well worth further exploration.
I also stopped in at the pantomime theatre, which seemed to be in some ways like the black theatre shows in Prague, stylish but low on substance. More for visitors than serious art. About half the show kept my attention.
I mentioned in my last essay that I had run into Nino Namitcheishvili and she had invited me to a puppet performance of Antoine Exupery’s classic Le Petit Prince / The Little Prince. And soon it was time to wander over to the upper room of the Marjanishvili Theatre to watch Nino’s project. Nino gave me access to the light and sound booth so I had a chance to watch the whole performance give in the black box style theatrical space. ‘Black box’ means essentially there is no stage, just a square performance space with chairs usually on one end. Although in this case it was really a white box. White for the desert landscape.
The style was a mixture of live actors and puppets. The prince in particular was played by a young boy. And the denizens of the planets visited were mostly puppets. Lighting and visuals were important for setting the mood, especially in the unforgiving white environment. And the puppets were again, as in Gabriadze and the Tbilisi State Puppet Theatre, a modified Japanese bunraku style. More than one puppeteer moved the puppets from behind with little rods in the puppets. Bunraku would not have the rods. And the puppeteers were clothed in clothing appropriate for the performance, rather than all black. But I had seen variations of this style at The Little Theater in London, in Prague, and at ESNAM, the international puppet school in Charleville France. The puppets were creatively made. And one figure stood out, a woman all dressed in futuristic blank white to blend in with the desert environment was attached to a shiny scaly snake puppet, thus avoiding the use of strings or rods and giving it a much more sinewy movement. Nino had come up with this idea as a way to give more life to the snake. Seductively done. Serpent and Eve in one.
Meanwhile March 21st was approaching. March 21st is World Puppetry Day. An idea that has been around since the year 2000. In Alaska the day would pretty much come and go without fanfare. But here it was taken fairly seriously, at least by the Tbilisi State Puppet Theatre. And one of the things, besides performances of ‘Georgia’, they did was to organize a tojina exhibition. Now I need to tell you one thing that will become more important as this story goes on. In Georgia the word tojina means both ‘doll’ and ‘puppet’. There are many cultures in the world for whom this is the case. And then as in English there are cultures where it is very different. And often when I spoke to people, even puppeteers in Georgia, they didn’t make the rather hard separation between the doll and the puppet that we make. And in fact more than once I did not know which the Georgians were referring to. And so the tojina exhibition turned out to be a doll show.
And what an interesting doll show at that. Dolls in America tend to be of a certain nature. I wouldn’t last very long at an American doll show. It would be like swallowing a cup full of artificial sweetener. Don’t believe me? Search the words ‘doll show’ in English. Then stand back with an insulin injection at the ready. And when the dolls aren’t cute they tend to be kitschy. Or maybe that’s the same thing. Even the ‘creepy’ dolls tend to be postmodern ironic cute. And for a break one gets the big eyed anime dolls. The only interesting trend is the BJD dolls (ball jointed doll), a Japanese idea, that has moved through other cultures, though not without its own issues. There is of course a separate world of genre plastic models and related superhero geek dolls found at comic book and fantasy conventions. And then there are art dolls, but they seem to show up less in the sweet world of the American doll and more in art galleries.
Maia Aladashvili’s detailed Tojinebi (Click for larger images)
But here at the old Silk Factory gallery these dolls were serious art, without trying to be edgy or countercultural. They were dolls as a classical art. And truthfully one could see that dolls being confused with puppets was indeed a very good thing for Georgian doll makers. Because many of the dolls seem to be telling stories. Rather than babies and Barbies these dolls had more character and presence. I was impressed. No mean feat. And indeed one could see a connection between puppets and dolls here. Whereas in America a puppet play made with anything resembling the average American doll would be something done in the worst possible taste, either inadvertently or on purpose to deconstruct the point.
Speaking of tojinebi, I was searching for a puppet museum. I had already finally gotten into the astounding Puppet Animation Museum of Karlo Sulakauri. (Do read about that here!) But I was also looking for a tojinebi museum that was listed on a map as existing near the Gabriadze Marionette Theatre. I walked to the spot on the map. It was no longer there. In it’s place was an industrial black shiny postmodern box instead. In a conversation with Elene Murjikneli at Budrugana Gagra she told me one day it was simply closed. Soon the building was gone as well. And no one knew what happened to the tojinebi. Ana Sanaia though said she knew. And she gave me an email of a women who could tell me, Nini Sanadiradze, the director of the Union of Tbilisi Museums. (This is not a union as Americans often think of the word. It is more of a civil department.)
I got together with Nini Sanadiradze at her office on Agmashenebeli Avenue. I told her of my documentary project and how I was looking for the missing puppet museum. She said she had the tojinebi in storage, which unfortunately I couldn’t see. But she did have a mock up of a rather exciting book of the collection. As she showed it to me I realized that most of the tojinebi were dolls. Wonderful dolls. Not so many puppets. She also told me of her difficulty in getting good workers in her museums. She said that eventually she wanted to rebuild the tojinebi museum. There was a potential plot of land that she showed me on a map. All very interesting. It was a pleasant two hour visit. She told me to get in touch with her again before I left, she wanted to show me the work she had done on the Nikoloz Baratashvili House Museum.
I contacted her a week and half later and we made an arrangement to meet at the museum. I met her early Sunday afternoon again down near the Gabriadze Theatre. She showed me how she had remodeled the building and redesigned the exhibition. She was proud of what she had done with good reason. We then sat on the veranda and talked for another hour or so. I had thought we might discuss Georgian puppetry more but the conversation turned in a different direction. She said ‘I’d like to offer you a job.’ I was slightly taken aback. ‘Doing what?’ I replied. I didn’t imagine myself simply working in a museum. ‘I’d like you to work with the tojinebi museum.’ ‘But there isn’t one.’ ‘Yes’ she replied calmly. ‘So do you want me to help organize the museum?’ ‘Yes.’ she replied. I was a little skeptical. ‘Well right now you have many more dolls than puppets. Can we get more puppets and have a room for them?’ ‘Of course.’ she replied in the same level voice with just a hint of a smile. So I threw this out. ‘Can we have a performance space?’ ‘Of course.’ she replied again. ‘Can we have a room that is hands on for dolls and puppets and for workshops?’ ‘Of course.’ she replied steadily. I put out a few more questions and then I came to this, thinking of the old tojinebi museum. ‘Look,’ I said ‘When people build new buildings these days they tend to make bad postmodern monstrosities. Can we make a modern building that looks like it belongs in Georgia, with elements of classic Georgian architecture?’ ‘Of course.’ She replied steadily and indeed smiling. Finally I just said ‘Okay you got me.’
I had been thinking about something like this for a while now. I was leaning more and more towards wanting to come back to live. I had made some very good friends. I had made excellent connections. I had been intellectually and creatively stimulated. When I talked with folks about music or puppets I had had rich conversations. When I had told various people about my music collection they suddenly perked up, wanting to hear more. Someone had suggested possibly getting me to lecture over at the state university. And there were many other possibilities. And now this…
Before I left Alaska, having put my life into storage, getting ready to spend six months in Europe and Georgia, more than one friend asked ‘Are you planning to move to Europe? Or Georgia?’ My answer was always the same. ‘I’m not planning to move there? But I’m not planning on NOT moving there either.’ I was simply open. It seemed like a time for considerations of things that had formerly been off the table. There was a moment in France when I briefly considered living there. But it was a passing speculation. But since I had been in Georgia I went from wondering why I was even there, especially during the long holiday season when it seemed like I could barely contact anyone. To finding the scales weighing more and more in favor of coming back to this place to live. And now I would say that everything had gone from 60/40 in favor of coming, to 80/20 before I spoke with Nini, to 98/2 with the 2% uncertainty being simply for the unpredictability of life.
I felt I had been in a game of chess with God and now he had me in checkmate. This was the road forward. I would go back to Alaska to finish my commitments for the summer, to say farewell. But Europe now had me.
More next time as we start to say our farewells to Georgia and go out on a small full dress tour with Erisioni.
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I had found the location of Erisioni, the traditional Georgian music and dance troupe as I was walking down Rustaveli Avenue (see this story). I stopped and read the word on the side of a wall where I had a vague idea that they were located. I knew just enough of the Georgian alphabet to slowly read the script. It looked like this: ერისიონი. The official office was closed but I knew that this was the place. And I knew to return someday closer to noon. So at the beginning of February I came back. I readied myself to be misunderstood and to misunderstand as I tried to get passed the language barrier. I entered the darkly lit building and carefully stepped up the paint cracked stairs where I could hear music joyful filling the building. Accordions (called garmoni in Georgian and tuned in a natural state) were releasing the expressive melodies to the pounding of the doli, a handheld Georgian tom-tom drum. Instructors were calling out to dancers from behind an old door in the ornate cavernous building. (For a look inside another section of this incredible structure read this.)
I had been told that the offices were on the 3rd floor by a girl speaking broken English in my first trip. And so I continued on up the aging stairs. One problem, if this was a European reckoning of the floors then the ground floor was the not the first floor. But suddenly I was at the third floor in America and the second floor in Europe. And the stairs ascended no further. And so I stopped at the top. Incredible male voices rang out from behind one massive door. Then there was another old door opposite. I cautiously entered. I said Gamarjoba (Hello, but literally Victory!), then tried to let the woman at the desk know that I spoke English. She then allowed me to enter the heavy dark wood door behind her. And I was greeted in halting English to Jemal Chkuaseli, the venerable Chief Conductor and head of Erisioni, a man I remember seeing on the Erisioni ‘Georgian Legend’ DVD, which had been recorded in 2002. He was pleased to meet me and shake my hand. Soon I was joined by another man Otari Bluashvili, the General Manager of Erisioni, and the man who really handled the day to day affairs of the troupe. Otar spoke English well. And so I explained that while I was currently working on a documentary about puppetry in Europe I had an idea about eventually doing a documentary about Georgian music and dance. They were pleased to hear it. And they graciously gave me open access to the practices and rehearsals.
They immediately walked me across the hall to where 15 or more men were just beginning a second practice session for the day. The men greeted me and then Jemal conducted them in an ancient hymn, a song so profound that I could feel the hairs on my arm raise. Eventually they sang more songs affiliated with the actual show. Jemal let his son the actual choir leader Shermandi Chkuaseli resume his duties. The strength of their voices overwhelmed the emptiness of the large room. It was a sound that physically effected my body as well as my essential being. No performance on a stage could be as powerful. There were no microphones here. Just an oceanic swell of vocal vibrations. It was an excellent introduction to a few of the people who would inhabit my world for the following two months. The next day I would beyond that door hiding the musicians and dancers.
I arrived to meet Otar. I told him that I would not be trying to photograph or film the practice yet. I just wanted to take it in without putting something between myself and the experience. I am appalled when I find people at a concert or some other unique event and they are present yet hidden behind devices to capture poor video of something that they will look at only briefly and then never again. One is only present in reality once. And this is a principle I try to follow as often as possible, even when visiting puppet theatres. Even when I am recording it I try to watch the real show more than the my little screen. Or else what is the point?
Thus I was invited through the door where I would spend many hours in the subsequent two months. The dancers were stretching and and leaping, twirling and jumping in preparation for the rehearsal. Musicians were playing short bursts of well known tunes. They were about to run through a complete hour long version of the show. And I was sitting directly in front of the center of the hall. The nearest dancer would land a less than a meter away. A few other people were also watching this with me. Otar was sitting next me to explain a few things. Soon it was showtime.
The performance was like an explosion of dynamic rhythm and melodious charging sounds. It was a ritual I would watch many times. And eventually I was able to understand the order and rhythm of most of the dances. Though occasionally they would switch one dance for another that I hadn’t seen yet. An official live concert would run to more than an hour and a half. All of the performers would be in traditional dress. The men in chokhas, the women in the many complicated styles of regal dresses with headdress and scarves. But here they were dancing in their black practice clothing.