karaghiozis7Shadow play is a type of street show traditional to Greece, and has been particularly popular with children; in Greek, it is mostly referred to as "Karaghiozis", which is actually the name of the central figure that is always featured in these shows. Its origins can be traced to traditional Asian shadow theater.

The origins of shadow theater

Shadow play involves the use of flat articulated cut-out figures (shadow puppets) held against a translucent scrim (or screen), with a source of light making them visible to the audience through the scrim.

This form of performance is traditional in Southeast Asia, and is believed to have originated in Central Asia or India at some point in the 1st millennium AD; evidence of shadow puppet theatre is found in both old Chinese and Indian texts. From there, this practice spread to the Near East, where the rule of the Ottoman Empire allowed it to expand from Turkey to the North African coast between the 14th and 16th centuries, while it later also arrived in Europe.

karaghiozis2Each culture and country that adopted this form of entertainment adapted it to its own traditions and to its local customs, history, legends and folklore. Among the countries whith a vibrant shadow theater tradition we find China, India, Indonesia, Malayisa, Thailand, Cambodia and Turkey. In the 18th century it also arrived to France directly from China –hence was known as ombres chinoises ("Chinese shadows")– and it became popular with the upper classes and even the royal family; it continued developing and is still performed today, although its popularity waned after WWI.

In Turkey, the local variation has a comic and satirical nature and features a lead character named Karagöz (meaning "black-eyed"), a representative of the lower class who is outspoken and street-smart; his shenanigans always include his more refined, educated friend Hacivat. Karagöz has a history of at least five centuries. Performances used to be addressed primarily to adults, mostly men, with vulgar language often being used; they were particularly associated with the period of Ramadan.

The Greek Karaghiozis

The Greek shadow play tradition has directly evolved from the Turkish one, even keeping the two central figures, Karagöz and Hacivat, which have been Hellenized as Karaghiozis and Hadjiavatis, respectively. The puppets are designed always in profile and they traditionally gave off black shadows, although in more recent times translucent materials are used to create colored shadows.

Karaghiozis3Left: Dimitrios Sardounis aka "Mimaros"; right: shadow puppets (1900-1930); source: Spathario Museum of Shadow Theatre

The first Karaghiozis performance on record in the country took place at the end of the 18th (or the start if the 19th) century in Ioannina, in Epirus, under Ottoman rule at the time: a jewish puppeteer performed for the ruler of the region, Ali Pasha. Another performance found on record took place in Nafplio in 1841, by the Greek Yannis Brachalis. However, it wasn’t until the 1890s that the karaghiozopaichtis ("shadow play puppeteer") Dimitrios Sardounis aka "Mimaros" (1859-1912) in Patras drastically adapted the shows to the Greek customs, also removing the element of profanity and adult content, essentially turning Karaghiozis a family-friendly form of public entertainment.

In the Greek version, the eponymous character is a Greek man who lives in the Ottoman Empire. He lives in poverty, in a run-down shack, he wears shabby clothes and no shoes. His facial features are deliberately caricatured, he has a hunchback and an unnaturally long right arm. Karaghiozis is a typical underdog, crafty but uneducated, always trying to make some quick money to get by, often (but not always) with unfortunate results; he represents the oppressed people and his stories usually serve as a commentary/satire of the social and political situation of the country.

Karaghiozis4Karaghiozis has a (rarely seen) wife and three children, collectively referred to as kollitiria ("burdocks; clingers"). His closest friend is Hadjiavatis, who is more educated and well-mannered, but also more servile to the Ottoman rulers; he dons Turkish clothing and works as the town crier. He is often roped into his friend’s cunning tricks.

There are several more recurring characters, most of whom are based on exaggerated stereotypes of people from various parts of Greece. These include Barba Yorgos, who represents the unsophisticated but honest Greeks of the countryside (especially Central Greece), Sior Dionysios/Nionios, a gentleman from Zakynthos (in the Ionian) with Italian influences in his speech and manners, Morfonios, a vain westernized dandy (ignorant of his own grotesque appearance), Fatme, the beautiful daughter of the local Ottoman ruler (whose hand is often offered as the reward for some completed task) and Veligekas, a heavily built guard of the palace (who often beats up the unlucky protagonist in the end).

Karaghiozis5Traditionally, the setting is very specific: the scene always opens on Karaghiozis’ shack on the left and the saray (palace) of the sultan/vizier/pasha on the right. The narrative also follows a particular routine: there is always a sung introduction, usually with the protagonist and his children dancing; then the plot unfolds, usually in a formulaic manner, with the Ottoman ruler setting a task or challenge, Hadjiavatis announcing it publically, and Karaghiozis deciding to take up the job in hopes of getting rich (he usually fails dramatically and is beaten up, but is sometimes triumphant and rewarded); finally, there is an epilogue, with the heroes usually addressing to the audience directly.

Although the art form leaves great room for improvisation, and can adapt to the climate of the times, there are some traditional tropes, motifs and storylines that have been passed down for generations, usually involving Karaghiozis trying to take up a new profession. Some of the most well-known include Karaghiozis as a physician, a baker/cook, a teacher, dentist, scribbler, astronaut etc. Perhaps the most famous storyline, created by Sardounis ("Mimaros") involves the main character helping Alexander the Great (a figure reminiscent of Saint George rather than the historical Alexander of Macedon) slay a dragon or "accursed serpent".

karaghiozis1Source : National Historical Museum

The role of karaghiozopaichtis

Shadow theater in Greece knew its heyday before World War II; at the time, there were over one hundred showmen in the country. The karaghiozopaichtis (from Karaghiozis + paizo "to play/perform") is the soul of the show; he moves the flat puppets using detachable rods and changing his voice to play each character, and acting as the playwright, performer and director. The storylines and text are inspired from oral tradition and there is a lot of room left for improvisation, commentary and satire of current events and public figures.

Music is usually an integral part of the show. The music typically used for Karaghiozis’ entrance is a traditional hasaposerviko (a type of fast circle dance on which the famous sirtaki dance was based) music piece from Constantinople. Most of the recurring characters also have their own short introductory song, describing some of their key features, in a satirical way. The legendary showmen at the beginning of the 20th century such as Molas (1871-1948) and Charidimos (1895-1970) used entire orchestras for their shows, featuring instruments including the clarinet, violin, santuri, piano, accordion, trumpet, guitar etc.

karaghiozis6Evgenios Spatharis - Source ERT

One of the best known puppeteers of contemporary Greece was Eugenios Spatharis (1924-2009), son of Sotiris Spatharis, himself a karaghiozopaichtis, who began to make a name for himself during the Second World War, in 1942. In 1980 he started presenting a special program on Karaghiozis on Greek public television. In 1991 he established the Spathario Museum of Shadow Theatre in Maroussi (Athens).

Karaghiozis’ popularity waned with the arrival of cinema, television and, finally, the internet. Today, there are fewer performers but the new generation, with representatives like Athos Danellis and Ilias Karellas, is trying to revive and reinvent this show through synergies with musical groups and other artists while preserving its distinctive character and spirit of satire.

N.M. Based on the original article which appeared on Grèce Hebdo (Intro image: Karaghiozis - Source : National Historical Museum)

Read also via Greek News Agenda: Arts in Greece | Eugenios Spatharis: Grand Master of the Greek Shadow Theatre

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