Wednesday, August 29, 2012
I was surprised today when I climbed in the back of the little truck bound for Taungbyone, because in addition to the usual Burmese ladies, it contained a pack of four European tourists–three girls in their 20s and a middle age guy. We never interacted, so I don’t know what their deal was. As soon as I jumped out of the truck at the festival, I walked briskly past all of the market stalls, since I had checked out all of them–and photographed a few–yesterday. Instead, I headed straight down to the back lanes containing dozens of huts in which the nat pwes take place. It was a couple of hours before sunset, so I had to move fast to shoot some video and photos before it got too dark. My camera’s video setting never does well in low light conditions, and the flash doesn’t work anymore for still photos.
Lots of supercharged performances were taking place simultaneously. It was not uncommon to see two pwes going off right across a dirt lane from one another. At the center of each was the nat kadaw, a very highly revered figure in the nat subculture. “A flamboyant and charismatic master of ceremonies dressed in elegant costume, the kadaw is a spirit medium, dancer, storyteller, and magician who exposes the crowd to a living incarnation of the nat. Many of the kadaws are male crossdressers performing the role of female Nats.”–Sublime Frequencies. The nat kadaw at one of the shows was obviously a male who wasn’t even trying to look very feminine, which you don’t see too often.
I also spied another unusual pair of them consisting of one male and one female (both elderly) conducting a sword ritual. In one large venue, a bunch of teens and twenty-somethings were partying super hard, swigging alcohol like it was water and holding a wild dance party. And all the while, within each pwe, a traditional Burmese orchestra worked the faithful up into an absolute frothing frenzy. As the drummers pounded away on their skins, the cymbals, clappers, gongs and wood blocks joined in–all with so much gusto, exuberance and joy, it felt like the Earth was just being born. The icing was slathered onto this big, wild, quivering cake by the little lady singer, who belted out a high-pitched, reverb-drenched melody that brought it all home to the Burmese nat worshipping faithful.
Too bad my camera battery died, because I walked around a bit more and saw two or three more really high-octane performances unfold inside some strangely beautiful settings. As I reached the end of the lane, where a small bridge crosses over a polluted stream, I turned around and walked back toward the exit, completely spent from all of the chaotic sights and sounds. But more were to greet me on the way out: even more trash-strewn lanes and streams, masses of humans squeezing past each other, food stalls emitting wafts of thick smoke, market stalls overflowing with all manner of goods. On the way, I saw a beggar missing some body parts sitting on the ground with a candle strapped to his ankle, wax dripping all over his leg, no doubt burning his skin in the process. Maybe he didn’t know it, but he put on one of the best performances of all.
Roll over photos for captions.
Words and photos ©2012 Arcane Candy.