Karagyozis Makes a Comeback in a Time of Crisis
“Tha fame, tha pyoume kai nistiki tha koimithoume,” (“We will eat, we will drink and we will go to sleep hungry”) that was the slogan that ended every good meal at my house growing up. It comes from the mouth of one of the most recognizable characters of Greek shadow puppet theater, the enigmatic Karagyozi. Recognizable yes, but enigmatic and hard to define. Who is this hunched over, large nosed ruffian who lives in a shanty and is always on the hunt to fill his stomach? For this month’s issue, www.greekamericangirl.com talks to Dimitri Karoglou and his partner Monika Furlan for the answers to the question who is Karagyozi really and why does he continue to draw crowds even in crisis riddled Greece.
Karagyozi shadow puppetry was born during the Ottoman Empire as a popular art form, making him around 120 years old. While critics debate whether shadow theater spread from Egypt to the Mediterranean or whether it originated in Indonesia, as far as the Greek Karagyozi is concerned, he seems to have come to mainland Greece from Anatolia or Asia Minor in the 19th century. Karagiozis was hellenized in Patras, Greece in the end of 19th century (approximately 1890) by Dimitrios Sardounis alias Mimaros, who is considered the founder of modern Greek shadow theater. However, there is a Turkish Karagyoz, who was popular because of the foul language he used and his large, overly protruding penis. (In Greece it’s his nose that protrudes). Karagyozi means “black eyes” in Turkish.
As a genre, with popular folk appeal, Karagyozi appears hunched-back, raggedy, living in a make-shift hut and barefoot. Because of his poverty, he uses crude and naughty ways of filling his stomach. Indeed he is always hungry. While puppeteers have kept true to a stock canon of stories involving the character, Karagyozi relies on improvisational techniques by each puppeteer to bring him to life. As an art every Karagyozi puppeteer uses improvisation, staying true to the traditional tropes but decorating them with word play contemporary with current events. This element of improvisation allows the genre to conform to the zeitgeist and perhaps is one of the reasons for his long-lasting appeal.
Dimitris Karoglu is one of the many Karagyozi puppeteers that is keeping the genre alive. He got involved with the traditional Karagyozi shadow theater by accident. He found himself unemployed and by chance came upon a seminar in puppetry, which included shadow theater. He loved it enough to work alongside his teacher and eventually branch out into his own shadow studio. He has had a successful run for six years now as Skies Onar in Thessaloniki.
“Karagyozi is very complicated and peculiar as a character,” Dimitri explains. “He is both a trickster and also a fool. He is some kind of archetype and includes snippets of character across cultures. Every Karagyozi puppeteer is contemporary to his time with jokes and humor. I am reinventing these traditional stories with my own sense of humor and style.”
Marion, 26, photo assistant for a ready-to-wear brand and a puppetry researcher from France, has volunteered this summer alongside Dimitri behind the Karagyozi set. As an outsider, she defines Karagyozi in a similar fashion. “He’s a country boy, but he is also a trickster,” says Marion. “It’s a combination of stupidity and innocence.”
Why is Karagyozi so popular across ages and times even in the Greek Diaspora? The answer is partly ideological and partly practical.
“It has become part of our culture,” Dimitris explains. The figure appears as a symbol of the struggling nation of Greece coming up from the rubble of Turkish occupation. The Greek Karagyozi appears in 1890 in Patras then part of the newly created state of Greece. Mimaros, the father of Greek shadow theater, adapted Karagyozi as a folk hero to the Greek people, recounts Dimitris. However, Karagyozi has changed to appeal with the audience. Since the 1960s, it has become strictly children’s theater. In the 30s and up to the 60’s it was tinged with more satire, carried more political overtones, and thus, appealed to more adult audiences.
Additionally it is a cheap art form: cheap to afford for lay audiences and cheap to produce with set design. For current Greek families struggling in the time of crisis, it provides an alternative form of cheap entertainment.
“Because of the crisis, Karagyozi as a profession or art is making a come-back,” Monika comments. “In the end it is still cheaper than going to the cinema.” A ticket costs 5 or 6 euros per person, a cheaper form of entertainment for a cash-strapped family. As a result, Skias Onar is actually doing well in a time of crisis.
Perhaps Karagyozi’s appeal has to do with his perpetual depiction as the underdog, a trope that resonates with Greek audiences at the present moment. He is both under the thumb of the authorities, and at the same time giving the finger to them.
“He is playful in every situation,” Dimitris describes. “He doesn’t take things too seriously. Even if he cries, even if he is getting beaten by the authorities, he is playful towards the situation. When he cries, he cries in an exaggerated, playful way giving the sense that even pain is a joke. Other times, he is happy for no reason. He is playful in all situations and that is his political approach. He is trying to tell us to return to this sense of playfulness as we have started taking life too seriously.”
Get an insider look at Dimitri and Monika behind the shadow puppet box by visiting their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/Skiasonarthessaloniki
Better yet watch Karagyozi’s dialogue with “Lucretia Bob” their cat during a rehearsal:
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