Performance Arts among the Là, IV

The Latter Banōm Dynasty (1678-1816aH)

Performance art under the later Banōm saw two great revolutions.

The first came with the highly innovative poetry of the minor kùnyi aristocrat, Luàng Rèmuli Somyang Nāji Rèkoda Maòkoro Tajangàon (b.1688-d.1724aH). Luàng Rèkoda, whose career began with private performances to her adopted family, followed by performances to family friends, and eventually to the royal court, used the technique, sporadically employed previously in the sōdahàra, of equating the natural pitch accent of contemporary Rawàng Ata with musical tones. Sung poetry thus implied a melody, and the suggested response to that melody could give form to the following line. Rèkoda’s invention, however, was to alternate sung lines of poetry with lines of instrumental melody, creating a dialogue. This enabled a humorous effect, as the melody of the instrumental line would suggest – but only ambiguously – a possible reply to the spoken line. Rèkoda’s poems/songs most often took the form of a dialogue between two lovers, in which Rèkoda’s chaste (but sometimes suggestive or ambiguous) side of the conversation would be met by an instrumental reply that mimicked the intonation of a ribald response. The audience was thus both crudely entertained by the implied vulgarity and flattered on their wit in guessing the suggested reply, while Rèkoda avoided saying anything vulgar herself.

In truth, the key innovation had been the decision of the anonymous sōdahàra dancers to experiment with pitch/melody implication – but they had left the technique at the level of an artistic experiment. Rèkoda’s blend of crude entertainment with artistic integrity, on the other hand, became wildly popular, and cemented in the noble mind the idea of the instrument as a poetic voice, and of the poetic voice as a form of music. Other poets, mostly likewise kùnyi, followed in Rèkoda’s footsteps, creating the artform of the somyangahàra (many early proponants incorporated elements of dance into the performance); these poets created more formalised poetic structures (both for artistic legitimacy, in emulation of foreign poetry traditions, and simply because a more rigid structure made it easier to ‘guess’ the implied responses), and diversified the content of the poems, finding many subgenres where a ‘censored’ instrumental line could be employed – most remained largely comic, though political and sometimes even dramatic elements could also be found. The full implications of Rèkoda’s innovation, however, would not be seen for some time.

The second great revolution sprang from the same source: the cultivation of taste. Rèkoda’s experimental poetry was only one aspect of a general tendency among the nobility at this time to show off their own artistic souls – under the Orasyà and the Luyang and the Former Banōm, nobles had sought the image of patrons of art, and had begun to themselves produce some visual art; under the Latter Banōm, they increasingly took on artistic roles in performance art. Aristocrats began to look down on paid dancers, singers, instrumentalists and reciters as mere ‘entertainers’, not to be considered true artists. Accordingly, the nobility attempted to involve themselves more closely with the production of art.

Aside from the growth of a tradition of courtly poetry and song, soon dominated by the somyangahàra, this was most strongly seen in the sōdahàra, the dramatic sung dance. While professionals were still required for the more physical luìmayao, the sōdahàra required no abilities beyond the grasp of a diligent dilettante, and was quickly colonised by aristocratic performers, who came to regard the form as the highest species of art.

The luìmayao itself, in this period, degenerated (or was elevated) to the level of highly athletic pornography, invariably highly erotic and in many cases featuring actual sexual acts between the performers. The rāmayao became larger and more politically significant, but stagnated as an art form, becoming increasingly simplified for the sake of the larger, less thoroughly trained crowds of performers. The vunamùnung continued in traditional form, while the sùintunung increasingly became a form of sōdahàra for the lower classes.

Significant change did occur in narrative poetry. The bardic schools were reduced to only three in number, with the Classics now learnt by the educated, literate aristocracy through written versions. However, the schools were charged with the endeavour of creating new works, the first to be commissioned in centuries. It was the decree of Èsaolu II that each king would commission a new Immortal Classic from the bards, creating the four ‘New Immortal Classics’: Èsaolu II’s The Fable of the Squid and the Sharks and of the Hidden House Beneath the Waves; Vàdanta II’s The Tale of the Courting of the Shy Goddess; Kòmoros II’s The Litany of All the Sorrows of the Houseless Men; and Èsaolu IV’s The History of the Later Kings (Èsaolu III neither comissioned a Classic nor had Èsaolu II’s Classic, unfinished at the time of his death, completed; this was left to Vàdanta II to accomplish). The first two of these are intended as entertainment; the third is a moral and political treatise pitying those who have no House (and by extension no nation and no king) to serve; the fourth is an extremely dry and political account of the succession of kings since the Fòanaka. In addition to these four Immortal Classics, several dozen other historical and fictional poems were written in this era.

The Interaccord (1816-1896aH)

The Interaccord, despite the chaos, war, famine and pestilence, was a fertile period for performance art.

The rāmayao, inevitably, all but disappeared: it was rarely feasible to stage such elaborate and expensive events, and even more rarely was it politically expedient. The vunamùnung also suffered, becoming more simplified. The sùintunung, on the other hand, developed considerably, as political pressures encouraged further differentiation from the sōdahàra. Its characteristics were its relatively small size (a dozen or so dancers), its colotomic rhythm made abundantly clear by skin drums, its simplicity of dance movements, and its vocal accompaniment by singers abiding by tone-cluster theory and repeating thematic words and phrases in song.

The luìmayao survived, but only barely, and it did so in a bewildering variety of forms, often highly experimental. The most honest descendant of the Banōm-era luìmayao was the so-called vùndiyao, the dance performed in brothels.

The sōdahàra survived in its old form only narrowly, as it was supplanted by a new equivalent, the sulungàhara. The distinguishing feature of the two forms was that the sulungàhara was primarily a spoken, rather than sung, performance. The newer artform also tended to strip out much of the music and dance of its predecessor, coming closer to a purely theatrical form. As with the sōdahàra, the sulungàhara in this era was primarily for performance by aristocrats for an audience of their friends.

Bardic verse thrived in the Interaccord, as bards turned for the first time to a primarily lower-class audience. The bardic schools became extinct, and bards took the written text as their only authority, and subordinated even that to their own wit and ingenuity. Bardic recitals, dujdahonday, became major entertainment events.

The biggest changes, however, came in poetry and music, and specifically in their combination. The artform of somyangahàra further diversified, and came to be considered the most precious of all arts; at the same time, a degraded form known as oradayhàra developed. Somyangahàra and oradayhàra are distinguished by the rigidity of their formal structures, and in particular by their melodic structures. In somyangahàra, the melody is strongly (though not wholly) determined by the pitch contour of the spoken line, and the pitch contour is in turn constrained by a poetic form; in oradayhàra, a pre-existing melody is the basis for the construction of the spoken line, which usually has to conform in its pitch contour only in the broadest manner. The latter is therefore far easier to compose, and lends itself more easily to simple melodies. Both oradayhàra and somyangahàra are sung to a harmonic accompaniment based on tone clusters.

Organologically, the Interaccord is a particularly fascinating era, for its rapid invention, adoption and dissimilation of dozens of new instruments, designed with the demands of somyangahàra and oradayhàra in mind. These particularly include the adoption of new and varied forms of aerophone, including several labrophones with finger-holes.

The Fourth Accord (1896-2021aH)

The Fourth Accord period has seen relatively little innovation in the performance arts. Aesthetic theory has inclined toward simplicity and perfection, rather than toward innovation. The oradayhàra has continued to diversify and develop, displacing the somyangahàra as the primary artform, though the latter remains more highly acclaimed by purists. In dance, the rāmayao and luìmayao have been revived, in the latter case in a more artistic and less pornographic form, though that niche has been taken up by the gentrified vùndiyao. The sùintunung has become a very popular entertainment/artform, while the vunamùnung has been relegated to ceremonial events.

In drama, the sōdahàra has become fossilised as a ‘high art’, but the sulungàhara and dujdahonday remain vibrant. The focus of the sulungàhara has shifted, from a tasteful performance by aristocrats to a therapeutic practice for aristocrats, in which the audience is superfluous, and often even undesirable. The dujdahonday, meanwhile, has developed immensely; what was once a simple recitation has become a multimedia event. The core text, typically a portion of one of the Immortal Classics, is dramatically recited, interspersed with oradayhàra to illustrate key moments, or to develop tangential subjects – these tangents may receive more narrative weight than the core text itself – and with interludes of sùintunung.

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