Orteke—Traditional Kazakh Puppet-Musical Performing Art
If we analyze it semantically, the word “orteke” derives from “or”, pit, hole or trap, and “teke”, goat. Therefore “orteke” is both, the name of the wooden figurine of a mountain goat itself, and the name of a musical-puppet genre as a whole. Figurines of other animals and even people could be used in orteke performances, but it was the goat that became the symbol of this specific nomadic art and gave its name to it.
“Or” from orteke is a 2 metres wide, and about 1.5 metres deep hole.
Such holes are made around the hay stack so as not to be destroyed by livestock or wild goats. When animals fall into those holes, in fright, they run in a circle, jump, twirl, and look for the ways out. Basically, they make masses of meaningless movements. Those animals begin rushing even more as someone appears. Useless attempts to free themselves amused people. Hence, many believe that the dance of a puppet goat demonstrates the movements of a trapped or hunted animal.
However, orteke does not necessarily represent the hunting process or wounded animals. In fact, in the traditional Turkic culture, hunting for such animals was strictly regulated, and even if they were hunted down, there was a ritual of asking for the forgiveness before killing them. Thus, orteke's hunting nature may certainly be one aspect, but by no means the most defining. Rather, orteke reflects a deeper mythical process that constitutes worldview of the ancient nomadic culture of Central Asia. From this viewpoint, orteke can be interpreted as an earthly projection of the act of Creation. For example, just as in some belief systems gods created the world through dancelike movements, or shamans used dance in their healing rituals, orteke is believed to be that special being that creates “Something” through its ritual dancing. When you watch the performance, be it in person or through the recorded video tape, you may feel some magical aura around it, and it definitely gives the audience some food for thoughts.
Peculiarities of Making and Performing Orteke
The surface that orteke dances on is usually round or square leather membrane. The shape of the pedestal for the puppet is deeply semantic. The circle is a projection of the Earth as a celestial body, in this case “shanyrak” and “yurt”, known as nomad’s traditional house, a symbol of a personal little space of each family. The square shape is interpreted as the four corners of the world. Interesting is the opinion of some masters that there was a tradition where people preferred using a round membrane for rituals, and square ones for play and fun.
Not all kuys are applicable for orteke. Musicians most often choose dynamic kuy, and should have sharp hand movements to give the necessary impulse to the wooden puppet through the tied thread. Melodies should offer a room for a dance. As it is displayed in the video where two kids come forward and dance, sometimes orteke performances are accompanied by traditional dancers.
Importance and Cultural Value of Orteke in Modern Kazakhstan
Many traditional games have been lost along the way, and it is well known that games can facilitate communication between parents and children. Hence, orteke also reveals intergenerational communications. Moreover, it has an educational meaning where adults teach the youth basic techniques of playing or constructing orteke. Therefore, it is not solely a musical performance, but a theatrical art and an educational work.
Overall, orteke organically combines the sound of dombra, the dance of a goat, the vocals of a puppeteer musician. In addition, the figurine itself can be a masterpiece of an applied art. At first, it might be difficult to imagine how it all works in practice. But it is worth seeing at least once, and orteke will certainly make a strong impression on the viewers of any age.
- Assonova A.
- “The sacred goat, or the meditation of the nomads”, Kursiv, Sept. 2010, available at https://kursiv.kz/news/2010-09/sakralnyy-kozel-ili-meditaciya-nomadov
- Kuttybekuly K.
- Ortekenin 3000 zhyldyk tarikhy bar (3000-year history of Orteke), Aikyn. Dec. 2008.
- Raitarovskaya N.
- “Traditional Kazakh Puppetry” Word Encyclopedia of Puppetry Arts, 2012, available at https://wepa.unima.org/en/kazakhstan/
- Sultanova M. E. & Shaigozova Z. N. Orteke
- From Myth to Ritual and Game, Kazakh Research Institute of Culture.
- Zhubanov A.
- “Orteke - the Beginning of the Kazakh Puppet Theater”, Kazakhstanskaya Pravda, 1935.
Contributed by Ms. Zhansulu Issayeva, Ph.D. Candidate in International Relations, GSIS, Seoul National University