A Journey Into European Puppetry


The Beauty Of Shadows And Light

Isn't It A Lovely Day

Fingers as Animals in Isn’t This A Lovely Day?

Light and dark. Illumination and shadow. These are the most primal elements of visual experience. Everything we see reflects this. Even colors are essentially shadow shows with degrees on a spectrum of light and how they are reflected back to us by different materials. But black and white is the key. And black and white are the primary images in shadow puppetry. And the most basic of all entertaining shadows is silhouette of the hand. Hands and figures are the elemental tools. The shadows cast upon a wall by a light source creating rabbits or birds or perhaps just the shape and personality of the human hand itself. Thus making the hand the original puppet. And from that simplicity comes the complex artistry of Budrugana Gagra in Tbilisi, Georgia.

‘Budrugana’ is a Georgian word that means a carriage, particularly the kind of carriage that might open up in a small village in the Caucasus Mountains and produce a puppet show. ‘Gagra’ is the name of a town now cordoned off from Georgia in the breakaway region of Abkhazia. There was strife in the 1990s in Abkhazia. There was bloodshed. There were refugees. Hundreds of thousands. Most of them were Mingrelian Georgians (or Megrels, მეგრელები Megrelebi). And they were housed in strange places, like the huge old Soviet Intourist Hotel, now the considerably more swanky Radisson Blu not far from Rustaveli Square.

Gela and Byrne

With ‘Bidza’ Gela Kandelaki at Budrugana Gagra

Budrugana had existed as a hand shadow puppet theatre in a previous incarnation without the word Gagra attached to it. Gela Kandelaki (whose name actually means candle holder in church) a film director, producer, and actor once, wrote and directed უბედურება (Ubedureba) a very realistic film based on a play by David Kldiashvili. Directing work was not steady under the Soviet system. (Tarkovsky only directed 7 films in his fights with the authorities.) And so in the early ’80s Kandelaki came upon the idea of bringing the old art of hand shadows, which was still performed in small villages up in the mountains by parents for their children, into a new form. He created a unique shadow puppet troupe. Kandelaki began working as a director with hand shadows in the 1980s, which was a time of cultural ferment in the loosening grip of the faltering Soviet system. Interestingly enough they practiced in the basement of the Karlo Sulakauri’s house/museum. (See the previous essay.) Budrugana officially came into being in 1991 at the International Festival of Manipulations in Paris. In 1992 they were designated a ‘state theatre’. In 1993 they flew all the way to the International Puppetry Festival in San Francisco.

Meanwhile the situation in Georgia became more unstable as the 1990s continued. Civil War, separatist movements, financial collapse, political uncertainty, electrical failures, along with the growing internal refugee crisis, created a difficult moment for the arts. But as the dust began to settle in the roller coaster of the Georgian ’00s it seemed appropriate to Gela to start the hand shadow theatre again. There were many available Megrelebi with creative talents who needed something to do. Several of the shadow puppeteers are Megrelebi. And so the name Gagra was added to Budrugana as a tribute to the formerly beautiful resort town that was ethnically cleansed of its many Georgian residents.

So Budrugana Gagra under Gela Kandelaki’s directorship has been making hand shadow art for many years in one way or another. When I first noticed their work in 2016 I was impressed by the dedication that the hand shadow puppeteers have to their work. The motions are balletic, which Gela attributes less to any direct influence of dance than to the essence of certain aspects of Georgia folk culture. The movements of the hands are incredibly precise. And they have to be in order to communicate the shapes of animals or the much more subtle waves of the ocean. Kandelaki, who does not perform the actual hand shapes himself, works out the forms with the owners of the hands. And different hands have different suggestions of presence and movement. And these shapes often correspond to the character of the puppeteers. Zuri, with big hands will often play larger or move immovable objects. Shorena and Mariam have the most pliant and supple arms and are used more for the grace and delicacy of there movements. Elene plays the duck in one story and she is more humorous.

Isn't This A Lovely Day?

Giorgi’s Poster for Isn’t This A Lovely Day?

And there are essentially two styles that Budrugana Gagra works with. One is a more accessible comic style with hands making ravens, spiders, giraffes, elephants, ducks and above all bears. And the other is much more abstract and ethereal and often is set to the music of Bach. Most recently they have been working on a multi-part series of abstract vignettes to Bach’s Saint Matthew’s Passion. It will in the end have more than 15 sections and be performed to a recording, complete with orchestra and voices. Yet the way the work is unfolding it is by no means a literal transforming of the Gospel material into directly symbolic forms. There are no hand shadows making crosses for instance. And yet…

One thing has occurred to me as I have watched several performances. Even in the animal based images there is something going on beyond the obvious. In the piece ‘Isn’t This A Lovely Day?’ a hand shadow bear lip-syncs the words of Louis Armstrong from a live performance. (Sadly Louis Armstrong is probably better remembered in Georgia than in America. A live puppet film from back in the Soviet Era, called the Dreams of the Kojori Forest, also features a puppet of dear Louis.) Other animals play musical instruments. Another hand bear becomes the great Jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald. The Louis bear falls in love with the Ella bear and then loses her. In the end he dies. And the sad processional music of a New Orleans jazz funeral creates a moment of sorrow and tension. An angel takes him to heaven. But the joyful jazz marching music of the return journey from the cemetery brings him back in a resurrected form. It is not a simple nor ironic comedy. The Louis Armstrong bear is not a silly cartoon character of the great jazz musician. The disappearance of the Ella bear is a moment of genuine loss. (Louis and Ella never had any sort of romantic relationship in real life.) The death is truly sad. The resurrection genuinely joyful.

I asked Gela about the spiritual content of his work. The Saint Matthew’s Passion, though abstract, is loaded with suggestions of pilgrimage, prayer, deep beauty amidst struggle. He confessed in my interview with him that though he also said he was not always the most Christian man, something does come indeed through… I think he was being modest. His work has a depth that is quite hard to ignore. And the more I have spent time watching his unique shadow theatre the more I am inspired to push the boundaries of what can be said and felt through this medium. Especially in the realm of shadows and light.

Budrugana Gagra has in many ways been like a creative home for me here. I feel that I can drop in at any time. And even if the puppeteers present don’t speak English very well I always feel welcomed and accepted. Gela, who is in his late 70s, looks at me as ‘young’ visitor. At one point he told me told call him Bidza Gela, Uncle Gela. An honor indeed. Gela actually stopped me at one point when I mentioned that it my home away from home. He said “No! It’s just your home.” I had told him of what had happened in Alaska. (Click this to read that.) I replied “Then it’s my Georgian home.” He laughed and agreed with that. I will continue to visit my friends at Budrugana Gagra. They play about once a month in the ‘small room’ at the Rustaveli Theatre. If you ever come to Tbilisi, and I highly recommend that you do, then you must seek them out. (Links below.) And then you will understand the beauty and meaning of shadows and light.

Byrne Power

Tbilisi, Georgia

20 / 3 2018

And here is Budrugana Gagra’s website. Go visit them!


And you can read about my first visit with Budrugana Gagra here.


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Shadowy Hands in Tbilisi

Four BEar Seasons

Duck meets Bear on a Deserted Island at Budrugana Gagra

The next day I kept an appointment with filmmaker Tinatin Gurchiani, who directed the documentary The Machine That Makes Everything Disappear. The film asks questions of and sometimes follows various Georgians, mostly below the age of 30. She poetically unfolds their dreams and aspirations living in the Georgia of the moment, along the way hitting notes of the comic and the despairing, the tragic and the hopeful. I consider this documentary essential viewing before a journey to present day Georgia. It does not give the tourism gloss but is made by someone who is not blind to the reality of her country. Tinatin met me at Rezo Gabriadze’s Cafe, located next to the best marionette theatre in Georgia. We were to meet someone who would let us know the possibilities of interviewing the highly respected Gabriadze, whose greatest puppet show was entitled The Battle of Stalingrad. (I need to see that!)

The MAchine That Makes Everything Disappear

Having forgotten to take a photo of Tinatin Gurchiani this will have to do. Look for it.

Tinatin came up carrying her recently birthed baby, Maryam, like a suitcase in a baby basket. (There will be more Maryams to come. The country is full of them; as well as Elenes, I would meet three at once below, Sophos, Ninos, Annas, Ketivans,Tinatins and Tamars among other names.) I volunteered to help carry the precious human luggage and we sat at the cafe, where I proceeded to try a mixture of hot wine and tea. I had contacted Tinatin a couple of years back after being impressed with her documentary. She’d said if you ever need help trying to contact Rezo or others let her know when you come. And so I did. And I was glad I did too.

Rezo's Theatre

The crooked clock tower of Rezo Gabriadze’s marionette theatre.

Tinatin, my second contact in Tbilisi, proved to be able to get me into places I had only imagined. By the time the day was over she had meetings arranged for me with Gela Kandelaki and the Budrugana Gagra hand shadow puppet theatre as well as a meeting at the ballet that might conceivably allow me to meet Nina Ananiashvili, who was the director of the State Ballet of Georgia. But alas Rezo would have to wait, seeing as they were on a small tour. But there was a good chance of seeing him before I left.

Byrne, Sophie, Gela 2

With Gela and Sophie at Budrugana Gagra’s studio.

That Thursday I found myself waiting around the back of the Rustaveli Theatre for someone to meet me. A friendly girl with long dark brown hair named Elene (pronounced like Elena) came out to greet me and take me into the Budrugana Rehearsal space. It was a darkened medium sized room with a partially lighted screen in the back of the room. As soon as I came in the lights came on. I then met long black haired Sophie, who would be my official translator. (I’d better stop mentioning long hair, since Georgia is a sea of girls with long straight dark and black hair.) I was also introduced to another Elene who had very curly dark hair. (How else am I going to keep the Elenes recognizable?) They eventually introduced me to a shorter haired Elene, who provided tea, cookies and shadows. I asked how they identified so many girls with the same name. They said that the first Elene was the smallest. Curly haired Elene was the middle and short haired Elene was the biggest. But then I said “Wait a minute short haired Elene was not taller than ‘small’ Elene. Then they pointed out that they meant youngest to oldest. There were several other players as well, more women and men.

Gela Kandelaki

Actor, Director and Creator of Budrugana Gagra Gela Kandelaki.

And finally there was Gela Kandelaki himself, he reminded one of a large elder Pooh bear. He warmly grasped my handed and welcomed me to see them practice. He was garrulous and was off and explaining many things before I could get my camera out for the interview. I suggested watching some of the rehearsal before the interview so that I could get an idea of what exactly was this art of hand shadows. An excellent idea.

The lights were dimmed and the partial screen glowed in a raised rectangle. It was explained to me that I was about to watch Bach’s Second Violin Sonata done as shadow theatre. And if you are at all sensitive to Baroque music you probably just went as blank as I did wondering what on earth you were about to see.

Bach Hands

Hands in Bach’s 2nd Violin Sonata

Hands. An abstract play of hands following along to Bach’s music. Abstract and yet completely human, a dialogue of motions with the second most expressive part of the human body. And it was utterly fascinating, inspiring thoughts I didn’t know I had. And that was followed by a fantasy featuring Louis Armstrong as a bear made of fingers. And Louis falls in love with another finger creation of jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald. And then the Louis-bear loses her. (They never were an item in real life.) All done to live recordings of Louis and Ella, Benny Goodman and others. Again totally inspired. That was followed by a sample from an older piece again featuring a bear, Gela loved the fact that I was from Alaska, trying to swim off an island, and somehow it involved the four seasons. The more I watched the more I thought of new applications for this unusual technique. And I came back the next day to watch them rehearse an abstract hand shadow version of parts of Saint Matthew’s Passion. (!!!!)

Louis Bear

I believe the Louis Armstrong bear is the one on the left. There is also a piano playing spider. Clarinet playing bird. And that’s a giraffe… and the other bear it must be Ella Fitzgerald.

Absorbing stuff! And unlike anything I’d ever seen before. With Sophie’s help I interviewed Gela for my Gravity From Above project. When I asked Gela if there was a connection between dance and the balletic hand motions I was viewing, he not only said yes but went on to elaborate not only that connection, but that between Georgian music, poetry and art. And told me that he was also involved with animation as well. Curly haired Elene was eager to show me examples of her rough animation style, preferred over slick commercial work. Brown straight haired Elene was also an animator besides being a hand puppeteer and a help at with translating between myself and Gela one day.

Paata's Hands

Paata shows what it’s like behind the screen.

I visited them several more times before I left and on the last day I showed Gela and curly haired Elene samples of my rough cut for Arca, a strange little film I directed a while ago that is still not edited together yet. They found it mysterious in a very good way. Before finally leaving Gela grasped my hands and spoke a Georgian blessing on my endeavors. I left knowing that I had made friends that I must visit them again someday.

Budrugana Gagra

Gela Kandelaki’s Budrugana Gagra, featuring three Elenes and other hand shadow puppeteers.

Meanwhile I had a rendezvous with Prima Ballerina Nina Ananiashvili. But more on that next time.

Come back again soon.

(And go back and read what you’ve missed!)

Byrne Power

London, Heathrow Airport