Between ritual and theater: the berikaoba

Keenoba/berikaoba, usually held in the first day of Holy Week, in the city of Suram. Early 20th-century postcard from Georgia

During their February trip around Georgia, in Kakheti province, along the river Alazani, the car of the two explorers of río Wang was stopped by strange characters wearing colorful clothes and masks. This masquerade revives one of the most famous and oldest Georgian folk customs, the berikaoba (ბერიკაობა).

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The name comes from Kartvelian ber (ბერ), ʻchild’, and directly from berika (ბერიკა), ʻGeorgian theater mask’, provided with the suffix -oba (ობა), which signals an action. This theatrical genre is defined by masquerade and improvisation. Its birth reaches back to the ancient fertility and rebirth feasts, as well as to the cult of the pagan gods Kviria and Telef. The typical themes of the berikaoba go from explicitly erotic through political satire to social protest.

A similar tradition was keenoba (ყეენობა, from ʻKhan’), the satire against the foreign invaders of Georgia and the Russian tsarist bureaucracy. This topic was particularly popular in Tbilisi in the late 1800s.

Keenoba ceremony in the Meidan of Tbilisi. Illustration from Летопись Грузии (Выпуск 1), 1913, edited by B. Esadze

Lado Gudiashvili: Keenoba, 1937, in the same Meidan

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Representations of keenoba from the Armenian naïve painter of the old Tbilisi, Vagharshak Elibekyan

Keenoba in the early 20th c. in Tbilisi, on Golovin (today Rustaveli) Avenue

The actors performing berikaoba, called berikas, are supported by various play structures, evolved over many generations, from which a hundred have survived in a written form. The berikaoba performances were mostly anti-clerical in nature, and directed against the landlords’ power. The typical berikaoba masquerades include the groom, the bride, the matchmaker, the judge, the doctor, the priest, the pig, the goat, the bear, and the like.

“During the performance, what is normally sealed up, inaccessible to everyday observation and reasoning, in the depth of sociocultural life, is drawn forth – Dilthey uses the term Ausdruck, ʻan expressoin’, from ausdrücken, literally, ʻto press or squeeze out’. […] The peformed experience is a process, which “squeezes out”, and becomes the “expression” crowning it.” (Turner * 1986:36)

With the masquerade, the actors initiate a game of identities, which allows them, through the disguise, to wear multiple identities simultaneously.

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Lado Gudiashvili: Illustrations to D. Rukhadze’s Berikaoba, 1966

The berikaoba is performed by several actors, exclusively men. Most of them wear costumes of animal leather, with other supplements: tails, feathers, horns, pumpkin masks, as well as ribbons and cowbells to increase the spectacularity of the scene. The festivity begins with the gathering of the villagers, who choose the actors of the berikaoba. The procession of the berikas, accompanied by the sound of bagpipes (stviri, სტვირი), moves door-to-door, to gather wine, honey, flour, meat and other victuals served by the host. The main characters in the procession are the “bride”, called Kekela (კეკელა), and the “groom”, who, after a series of attempts, persuades Kekela to marry her. The wedding is interrupted by the appearance of a “Tatar”, which is a clear reference to the centuries of invasions of Georgia from its powerful Muslim neighbors. The “Tatar” kills the “groom”, and the people try to console Kekela, promising to find a better husband for her. While the berikas try to resuscitate the groom with healing water, herbs and minerals, the news spreads about Kekela’s abduction. This finally brings the groom back to life. He chases the kidnappers and consoles his bride. The performance finishes with a lengthy feast, the traditional supra.

Traditional keenoba players. Photo by A. Aivazov, 1890, from here

Prince Ilia Chavchavadze, the “founding father” of modern Georgia, also participated in a keenoba ceremony in 1894

Detailed descriptions of berikaoba are found in literary works since the 17th century. Berikaoba plays usually take place at Easter and other religious holidays, weddings and similar occasions. The only obligatory rule of the play is that the roles can be performed only by men. The songs and music accompanying the berikaoba are called berikuli (ბერიკული). This tradition has remained alive until the late 19th century.

However, as our explorers experienced, the tradition still lives on, especially among young people, as an experience of the “other time” and “new identities” referred to by Turner, or simply as a form of entertainment.

Medieval berikaoba scene in the fortress of Gremi (which we will also visit), from an old Georgian film. For the modern masquerades of berikaoba, see this video.