“Three wedding songs” – a work of art (and performance ethnography) by Olga Alexandrova

The work of performance art that is the subject of this post isn’t new.  Udmurt by birth, Olga Alexandrova (a brief bio for her can be found here) first performed her “Three wedding songs” in 1994, and she has performed it many times since, mostly in Europe and Russia.  But it’s new to me, and it likely will be for you too.

There doesn’t seem to be an online video of the entire performance, which lasts about forty-five minutes.  But she has made available, embedded on her web site and also as an unlisted YouTube video, the final six minutes of her performance.

The words are in Udmurt, but you don’t need to understand them in order to understand, or be deeply moved.  Alexandrova’s inventiveness and expressiveness are simply remarkable and she uses so much more than mere language here.  On the other hand, it certainly does not detract, and it likely helps, to know something about the Udmurt beliefs upon which her performance is based.  To this end, the following is a writeup that I’ve copied from Alexandrova’s web site by the noted authority on Udmurt mythology and religion, Vladimir Vladykin:

According to the Udmurt tradition a human life cycle consists of three weddings.  A new-born baby was given a baby’s wedding, it was as if married to the earth and the whole world.  Friends and relatives came to the house where a baby was born.  They brought dainties and songs with them, wishing luck to the parents and praising them, and giving their best wishes to the children.  Every child was wished long life and good luck.

Unlike many other nations, the Udmurts did not prefer boys to girls, they rejoiced over every baby.  The Udmurt word for ‘children’ is either nylpios or pinalyos, i.e. ‘boys-girls’ or ‘girls-boys’.  A home without children was desolate and arid.  People thought that the more children a family had, the more God loved them.  And although life was never too easy, nobody was deprived of attention or affectionate words.  Children were usually called zamia bugore, ‘my golden darling’, gydyke, dydyke, ‘my dove’.  In a good home these words were used quite often.

Leaving home, entering another social or age category, was such a painful experience that it was almost associated with death.  That is the reason for so much anguish in the recruiting and bridal laments.  The child grew up.  It is time to consider another wedding – this time a real one.  The Udmurts took marriage very seriously, as peasants usually do.  From that time on they started to count a new, real life.  It was no mere chance that in a wedding song they sang about the previous life being left on the other bank of the river.  The child has crossed the river and come to the other bank as a grown-up.  It was considered everyone’s duty to have a family.

The wedding party lasts three days, and for three days and nights songs never cease.  The bride’s and bridegroom’s families compete, trying to outsing each other.  Nobody gives in.  The winners are joy and song: new melodies, new verses emerge that refresh one’s mind and gladden one’s heart.  The wedding ceremony comes to an end, but memories remain for the whole life.  And these help the young couple in their hard times, keep them from going astray into the thickets of misapprehension or from falling into the bottomless pit of offence, prevent them from strewing cold snow on this sole warm path that leads from heart to heart.

Children have left home.  Old age is creeping near, as stealthily as a cat.  It is time to set out on one’s last and longest journey, to take the road, by which, as Udmurts believe, wild ducks flу.  Tragic… But not dreadful, if you have lived your life respectably, if you have not been useless to other people, which means, to yourself as well.  You take your holy wedding dress out of the chest.  Again… Wedding songs are sung again.  Only this time they are sung «in reverse order» – because this time it is not the joyful wedding sounding with music and songs that used to be, but the saddest, the last, irrevocable one.  A person is wedded with the earth forever.  He passes away to the land of eternal peace, taking with him his everyday cares.  What remains, is the good that he managed to do in his life.

It is the third and final wedding that is portrayed in the video (linked to above).

So far as I can tell, Alexandrova’s performance, although based on Udmurt mythology and religion, is not a re-creation or a recitation of a previously existing performance.  It appears to be a new creation.

I got more out of this six minutes of performance ethnography – and it certainly affected me more – than almost any book of ethnography I’ve read.  This is art of the highest quality and it reminds me of the last of three consecutive entries in Vasily Rozanov’s Fallen Leaves, the three entries (three weddings?) that I consider to be “bedrock” for Rozanov.

From Fallen Leaves by Vasily Rozanov (as translated by Robert Payne and Nikita Romanoff):

§    §    §

What I could never believe and what is impossible for me to believe exists in reality.  All our errors, sins, evil thoughts, and evil actions even from our earliest childhood, youth, etc., each has a correspondence in our mature age and especially in our old age.  A life (our biography) is, thus, an organism, and not at all “separate acts.”

A life (biography) is organic.  Who could have believed this?!  We always consider that life is a “chain of separate acts,” which I can “turn in whatever direction I like” (i.e. that life is like that).

What were my feelings about my own family?  I had none.  I never saw my father, and therefore I have no feeling about him, and I never think of him (I naturally cannot “remember” what is not within my “memory”).  But even for my mother I began to feel, “when it was all over” (†), an aching feeling.  While she was alive I had no feeling for her and did not love her.  We children were so silly and understood her so little that we once wanted to complain about her to the police (we talked about it, while sitting “on logs”; timber had been cut down nearby).  Only after it was all over and I began to grow up, and especially – when I myself began to feel my first miseries (biography) – I “summoned up her ghost from the grave” and became fearfully attached to her.  She was rather dark, small, “of the noble family of the Shishkins” (of which she was very proud), always irritable, always sad, always tired, terribly tired (I realized this only much later):  In actual fact she worked terribly hard and was ill during the last two years of her life.  True, she never talked to us about anything and did not play with us.  But she had no time for such things; and she was physically aware of our estrangement from her, which amounted almost to hostility.  Naturally, she “gave up talking to such fools.”  Only afterward (from her letters to our eldest brother, Kolya) I saw, or rather learned, that she was constantly thinking about us and looking after us, only “she did not talk to fools” because they “understood nothing.”  And, of course, we “understood nothing,” with our “idea of going to the police.”  And then there is also the memory of her prayers at night (in the dark), and the fat prayer book, with brown-yellow stains (from spilled oil), and how I used to read to her (when I was seven, or eight, or even five?) from The School of Piety.  I remember reading to her the story of “Gury, Samon, and Aviva.”  I liked those stories very much – they were short and easy to understand.  And mother liked them too.

What a gentle light might a burning icon-lamp have spread over our “unhappy home.”  But we had none.  (There was no money for the oil or for the lamp.)

And the whole house was somehow – ough! ough! – dark and sinister.  And we were all unhappy.  That “we were unhappy” I realized only later.  At the time I only wanted “to be angry with everyone.”  (Examining my coins)

§    §    §

Until I got to know my “grandmother’s” house (from which I took my second wife), I knew no harmony, decency, or kindness in life.  The world to me was not a Cosmos (Kosmeo – I beautify), but Ugliness, and in desperate moments just a Hole.  It was simply incomprehensible to me why people were alive and why I was alive, and what was life and what was it for? – so cursed, stupid, and utterly useless to anyone.  To think, think, think (to philosophize, On Understanding [Rozanov’s first, mostly ignored, book] – that I always wanted, that came “of itself”; but what was taking place in the realm of action or of “life” generally was just chaos, torment, and damnation.

And suddenly I came upon that little house with four little windows, near the Church of the Presentation of Our Lady (in Yeletz), where everything was noble.

Life was very poor, and the people were very poor.  But there was no anguish, no gloom, no complaints.  There was something “blessed” in this house, in its wooden walls, in its little window on the passageway, overlooking Beyond the Pine Trees (a part of the town).  Even the silly fat Maria (the servant), whom they endured even though she was silly, was shown kindness by everyone.

No one was unkind to anyone in that blessed house.  No one showed anger, and this is something I do not remember happening in any other Russian home.  Here there was no envy – “Why do others live better?”  “Why are they happier than we are?”  That is what they say in every Russian home.

I was astounded.  My “new philosophy,” no longer of “understanding” but of “life,” came about as a great surprise . . .

“How can there be synthetic judgments a priori?”  This question is the basis of Kant’s philosophy.  But my new “philosophy” of life had its beginning not in a question, but rather in wonderment at what I saw around me – how life can be noble and therefore, and for this reason alone, happy; how people may be in need of everything, “of a herring for dinner,” “of wood by the first of the month,” and yet live nobly and happily, live with painful, sad, infinitely sad memories, and yet be happy for the reason that they sin against no one (envy no one), and are not guilty before anyone.

Neither the little granddaughter, Sanyusha, who was seven; nor the young woman of twenty-seven, her mother; nor her mother, the grandmother, who was fifty-five, was ever envious.

And I fell in love with it all.  (I am too tired to continue writing.)  But in this way my new life had its beginning.  (Examining my coins)

§    §    §

Perhaps there is no such thing as the concept of the immortality of the soul, but there is a feeling of the soul’s immortality, and this springs from love.  Thus I rejected and “was not interested” in the immortality of the soul, because I had so little love for my mother.  I pitied her – but this is something different from love, not quite the same thing . . .  If I had loved her more keenly, more ardently, if I had felt more pain and fear that “she was no more,” then there would have been “immortality of the soul,” “eternal life,” “life beyond the grave.”  But is this perhaps the “hypothesis of love”?  Why a “hypothesis,” when I “eat bread” and shall die if I don’t “eat”?  “Eating” is like “the rotation of the earth round the sun” and other cosmic phenomena.  So from the great cosmological anguish at parting, brought about by death (for the anguish is cosmological), there results “we shall meet beyond the grave.”  This is like “water runs,” “fire burns,” and “bread nourishes.”  So the “soul does not die when the body dies, but is only torn from the body,” separated from the body.  Why this must be so cannot be proved, but we are all aware of it; we all know that it is so.  To the number of all these eternal “truths,” on which the world hangs together, belongs also the eternity of the “I,” of “my sorrow,” of “my joy.”  This concept – or more exactly the feeling that unites all of us who are alive – is so noble, sublime, and tender that the “State Duma” or the “Lena Miners’ Strike” or the asinine “I propose that we all stand up” (at news of someone’s death) are as nothing . . .  And yet this concept, this feeling, is rejected in our world:  Our world does not want it, does not know it, laughs at it.  Does this not mean that “our world” (with its concepts) is something so transitory, so ephemeral, and so useless even to the generations coming after us that it is terrible to think about.  Women’s bustles!

“Women used to wear bustles.”

“What?  What did you say?”

“I said bustles.”

“Well, what of it?  We don’t see them any more.”

“That’s just the point – ‘we don’t see them.’ “

So tomorrow we won’t see the whole of “our time,” with its parliaments, its Darwin, its strikes.  And this might happen because of this trifling thing – that “our time” had no use for “the immortality of the soul . . .”

This tender idea will outlive iron laws.  Rails will break apart.  Engines will break down.  But for men “to weep” at the mere threat of “eternal separation” – this will never break down, this will never come to an end.

O people, believe in tender ideas.  Throw away iron:  It is only a cobweb.  True iron is tears, sighs, agony.  Only what is noble is true and will never be destroyed.

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This entry was posted in Alexandrova, Olga, Religion (uncategorized), Rozanov, Vasily, Russian religious philosophy. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to “Three wedding songs” – a work of art (and performance ethnography) by Olga Alexandrova

  1. Bertrand says:

    Lovely to discover Olga Alexandrova – and I already loved Rozanov! Excellent blog, thank you so much.

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