Saturday, October 06, 2007

Theatrical healing

Its midnight, a scowling moon looks on as bare- chest drummers beat in sync with a chorus of singers. The all-male cast of dancers clad in thin white cloth, and palm leaf fringed red cloth that hangs loose like female hair from their heads begin the performance. Well fitted bells jingle from their calves the raucous noise at once magical and thespian. The patient, diseased by insanity or ill luck, is propped on a low stool as palm leaf shrines litter the earthen arena, a lure for the various demons. These disease causing demons know as Sanni Yakku are held responsible for draught, troubled pregnancies, disease and all sorts of malignant forces that trouble man.

In the climax of the performance, holding flaming torches in both hands, the dancers leap, dive, whirl and spin, the energetic display, a necessary prelude for the main reason for the show.
Colourful and monstrous looking Masks, different ones representing each demon and the disease it causes become the ultimate transformation that allows the chief performer and exorcist to embody the demon.

Yes here, the Buddha reigns supreme yet many still belief that these demons and deities have the power to heal, by taking away the disease or problem they have caused. Specific characters and dramas have developed over the centuries to counteract almost every affliction and ailment. The terrifying expressions of the mask conjure the demon that will possess the performer cum exorcist who threatens, humors, implores, torments and bribes the demon till it departs.This dramatic dance consist of, heroes, villains, clowns and several other characters who venerate and recite the lineage and exploits of each demon. The Sanni Yakku is a group of demons who in past battles with the Buddha were banished from earth. Though they have no physical presence they still have the power to cause harm to man, so for centuries, this dance ritual has become the stage, where man meets his tormentor.

"Devil Dancing" performed by the Sinhalese of Srilanka, a small island on the coast of the Indian ocean, is an alternative system of healing, a system based on early Vedic concepts of etiology, in which diseases and ills of all sorts were believed to be caused by demons. Identified predominantly by the symptoms manifested by the patient, these demons could be summoned and exorcised in stylized ritual mask dances, called natima.

The quest to understand all the unknown forces around that inspires awe and anxiety, has lead to the need for religion, Religion is based on establishing mutual trust between the divine and human in order to secure the benevolence of the gods and their help in mastering those unknown forces. In these ritual dances, theater meets spirituality, humans appealing to the divine, seeking their goodwill. This desperate plea to demonic forces through the language of the body, will be rebuked and casted out by all new generation religions, yet for many all over the world, it is still a cultural reality. For them gods, demons and men exist in an accessible realm, and interaction, when deemed necessary is not at all uncanny.

Today, despite better understanding of "unknown forces" some still cling to the old ways. With the bastardization of traditional beliefs by foreign influence, many still turn to their local gods to find respite in times of dire need. Where modern medicine or conventional traditional medicine fails or is inaccessible, the "ungodly" option becomes the only option.
Long before the world famed religions of today, the concept of good and evil was personified in demons, gods, spirits and ancestral worship. Today most of the world’s population has been categorized into one of the four major religions, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism. So many more "isms" have being in existence and more have cropped up and continue to flourish, all religions hold promises of a better life in this world and the next.

As the newer religions flourish, the old gods perish; ancient deities are starved of attention and sacrifice. The Greek god Zeus, Athena, goddess of war, and Aphrodite goddess of love, once worshiped and placated through sacrifice have now become objects of entertainment and romantic nostalgia. Here in Nigeria, among others, Olurun and his secondary deities Orisha, and Shango the god of Thunder are shunned to the backwaters of rural communities, cults once revered as gate keepers of the gods are now branded evil human sacrificing secret societies.

Nowhere else is this more displayed than in the Nigerian movie industry, where fertility, love and financial gain are pursued devoutly through the notorious juju man. Weather it is a "Babalawo" , "Mallam" or “High priest”, the mystery behind traditional beliefs in Nigeria is shrouded in myth, misery and monetary demands. As the movie industry continuous to state the obvious, dramatically emphasizing the need to be closer to God in other to avoid the effects of evil, in the real world, desperate people search for solutions where ever they can find it, even if it means appeasing the Devil.

Its all too easy to push this rituals away to the remote places of the mind, or file them neatly in the 'ungodly' category, however, a closer look by a rational mind will bring to light certain facts that will bring insight on these obscure ways of doing things, fear or sheer intellectual lethargy must not stop us from peering into the darkness, albeit from a safe distance. Ignorance is indeed the darkest of all evils.
Approaching this subject with an open mind, the fascination of cultural similarities from one continent and another is unearthed in this revelation of theatrical healing. When dance and drama is performed not just to entertain or educate the community, but to placate spirits and gods, performance art is taken to a whole new level. Dance, the ultimate form of physical expression, accompanied by rhythm and awe inspired crowds, takes on a magical and ethno-religous aura.
Masquerade dancers are a feature of religious societies in many areas in the world. Four main types of masquerades are identified by the roles they play: those who embody deities or nature spirits and to whom sacrifice is made to assure the fertility of land and people, those who embody the ancestral spirits, those who placate the spirits through their dance, and those who perform principally as entertainers.
Here in Nigeria, the Bori cult of the Hausa, and the Ajun Cult of the Jukun, perform very similar dance rituals to appease spirits. Though in the case of the Bori, a state of trance is entered by the dancer, who is usually a member of the Cult. It is believed that disease and bad luck are caused by specific spirits called "Bori". So accompanied by rhythmic drum beats the possessed dancer becomes a medium for the demon to speak his mind. In the demons own voice, the cure and cause of the disease is revealed. A cure usually requires animal sacrifice and the patient is expected to join the cult. The patient is kept under care of a cult member for a period of time, until the dance ceremony where the culmination of the healing process takes place.

The Jukun whose elders deal with hysterical disorders in women by exorcising evil spirits in initiation ceremonies also use rhythm and dance. During a three-month period in a house shrine, the sufferer is taught songs and dances that have a therapeutic function culminating in a ceremony in which the initiate publicly joins the members of the society to perform the Ajun-Kpa dance.
From the distant coasts of Srilanka, to the northern regions of Nigeria these stylized ritual dance dramas, based on myth and religion and the desire for the physical well being of man, intertwine in this primordial performance of gods, demons and men.

No comments:

About Me

My photo
On a Journey to discover the taste of the Living Water!

Blog Archive

Favourite Authors

  • Bessie Head
  • Doris Spelling
  • Fey Weldon
  • Leo Tolstoy
  • Steven King
  • Thich Nhat Hanh