CULTURE IN KYRGYZSTAN

CULTURE IN KYRGYZSTAN

Kyrgyz culture is rich and varied and has much in common with the cultures of other horse-based nomadic cultures. Kazakh and Kyrgyz cultures have been described as mixes of Mongol and Turkish culture. On top of this, Kyrgyz culture combines the strong nomadic traditions of northern Kyrgyzstan with the more settled and agricultural lifestyle and Islamic conservatism of southern Kyrgyzstan. Such co-existence is unique in Central Asia, where the other countries have either been traditionally nomadic (Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan) or settled (Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) not so much combinations of both.

Due to their nomadic lifestyle and lack of a written language, the Kyrgyz have not left behind much written literature or visual arts. Their culture has mainly been handed from generation to generation orally in the form of epics and legends and artisanship expressed in everyday items. The Kyrgyz poem and epic— the "Manas" — is Kyrgyzstan’s most well-known and indicative form of cultural expression. It is a huge work — regarded by some of the world’s longest poem and longest work of literature — passed down through the generations by storytellers called manas’chy. It was not written down until the 19th century and even today many Kyrgyz prefer to listen to it told by talented storytellers rather than reading it. The deeds of the hero Manas is the main focus of the epic.

According to everyculture.com: “Support for the arts mostly comes from selling pieces or paid performances. There is little to no funding available from the government. Kyrgyz folk singing and music lessons are frequently offered in schools. There are several Kyrgyz children's performance groups, which feature traditional songs and dance as well as performances using Kyrgyz instruments. The best-known instruments are the komuz (a three-stringed lute), oz-komuz (mouth harp), the chopo choor (clay wind instrument), and the kuiak (a four-stringed instrument played with a bow).There also are adult folk, classical, and operatic musicians and groups who perform in the capital regularly. Popular television shows feature Kyrgyz pop and folk singers and musicians. There is a small but active film industry. [Source: everyculture.com]

According to the U.S. Department of State: “ There were no government restrictions on academic freedom. Religious higher educational institutions must follow strict reporting policies, but they reported no restrictions on academic freedom. On June 26, a group of eight protesters attempted to interrupt an exhibition of the paintings of imprisoned human rights defender Azimjon Askarov, held on the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. On the same day, parliamentarian Nadira Narmatova called on the organizers to close the exhibition, claiming it might provoke unrest, and labeled Askarov a “separatist.”“ [Source: “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2014: Kyrgyzstan,” Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State \*\]

Kyrgyz Culture

The Kyrgyz are renowned singers and dancers. The songs with rich content include lyrics, epics and folk songs. Kyrgyz paintings and carvings feature animal horn patterns for decoration on yurts, horse gear, gravestones and buildings. The Kyrgyz like bright red, white and blue colors. So their decorative art is always brightly colored and eye-pleasing, and full of freshness and vitality. [Source: China.org china.org *|*]

Kyrgyz folk songs and ballads to are richly lyrical, expressing joy, sorrow, injustice and loss. The song types range from traditional folk songs to lullabies to wedding songs. They even have short ditties that they sing to departing guests and to their animal flocks. Kyrgyz musicians use many kinds of unusual instruments. For example, the three-stringed lute-like instrument popular in Kyrgyz music, the komuz, is uniquely Kyrgyz in origin. Every Kizilsu Kyrgyz learns to play the komuz from early childhood.

Many poems, legends, proverbs and fables have been handed down among the Kyrgyz for centuries. The epic, "Manas," is virtually an encyclopedia for the study of the ancient Kyrgyz. It has 200,000 verses describing, through the deeds of several generations of the Manas family, the bravery and courage of the Kyrgyz in resisting plunder by the nobles of Dzungaria and their aspirations for freedom. It is also a mirror of the habits, customs and ideas of the Kyrgyz of the time. *|*

Themes and Symbols in Kyrgyz Culture

According to everyculture.com: One of the most popular themes is Manas, the legendary father and hero of the Kyrgyz people. His deeds are commemorated in the national epic Manas, which is chanted by manaschis. Manas is the symbol of Kyrgyz bravery and is often shown astride a rearing horse, with sword in hand, fighting the enemies of the Kyrgyz people. While they call Manas their "father," the Kyrgyz do not see themselves as a warlike people. Instead, they are a family of artists. [Source: everyculture.com]

“This identity is embodied in the yurt, or boz-ui, the traditional Kyrgyz dwelling. The boz-ui is an important cultural symbol, as both the center of the Kyrgyz family and the showplace of Kyrgyz art. The Kyrgyz flag reflects this. On a field of red a yellow sun is centered with forty rays coming from it. In the center of the sun is a tunduk, the top of the boz-ui. It was under this that the family gathered. Inside the boz-ui are hung all the forms of Kyrgyz craftsmanship, including rugs called shyrdaks. They are made of brightly colored appliquéd wool felt, with stylized nature motifs that have been passed down for generations. These motifs are also often used for borders and decorations on public art.

“Other important symbols are taken from the Kyrgyz landscape. The unofficial national anthem is "Ala-Too," which names the various features of Kyrgyzstan's landscape. The mountains are described as a body wearing snow and sky, and Lake Issyk-Kul is the eye. Issyk-Kul, in the northeastern part of the country, is called the "Pearl of Kyrgyzstan," and its beauty is a source of great pride. Both the mountains and the lake are on the Kyrgyz seal behind a large golden eagle, flanked by shyrdak designs, cotton, and wheat.”

Culture in Kyrgyzstan in the Soviet Era

Soviet cultural influence on Kyrgyzstan has included the founding of theaters and orchestras, the publication of books, magazines and newspapers, the founding of a film industry and radio and television stations. Under the Soviets, traditional art forms, literature and music were encouraged to some degree but were often manipulated to serve propaganda purposes.

As the capital of a Soviet republic, Bishkek (which until 1990 had been named Frunze after the Soviet general who led the military conquest of the Basmachi rebels in the mid-1920s) was endowed with the standard cultural facilities, including an opera, ballet, several theater companies, and an orchestra, as well as a Lenin museum, national art and craft museums, and an open-air sculpture museum. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

In the Soviet-directed propagation of "all-union culture," Kyrgyz actors, directors, and dancers achieved fame throughout the Soviet Union. Chingiz Aitmatov, the republic's most prominent writer, became one of the best-known and most independent artists in the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

Culture in Kyrgyzstan in the Post-Soviet Era

After the collapse of the Soviet Union many art forms came close to dying out as a pent up hunger for Western pop music and movies was released. In recent years the novelty of all that has worn off to some degree and there is a hunger for traditional art forms, even among the young. Schools have opened up teaching traditional literature and music and reasonably large audiences are showing up to see traditional art forms performed.

Since independence, funding for cultural institutions has decreased dramatically, and the cultural facilities have also been hard hit by the departure of local Russians. It also is unclear whether younger Kyrgyz will continue their parents' substantial interest in classical music, which in the Soviet era led several generations to support the national orchestra. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

The Kyrgyz film industry, which had been very productive while supported by Soviet government funds, essentially vanished after 1991. Film projects that survive, such as a large-scale production on the life of Chinggis Khan directed by noted Kyrgyz director T. Okeyev, do so through foreign financing (an Italian film company has supported production of the Okeyev film).

Perhaps the best indicator of the condition of the fine arts in postcommunist Kyrgyzstan is the fate of the open-air sculpture museum in Bishkek, which began suffering a series of thefts in early 1993. Because the targets were all bronze, presumably the sculptures were stolen for their value as metal, not as art. When a large statuary group commemorating Aitmatov's Ysyk-Köl Forum (a notable product of the early glasnost period) disappeared, the museum's remaining statues were removed to a more secure location.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2016

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