Indispensable Ramadan entertainment: Karagöz

When Ramadan comes, many long-neglected kinds of art are revived. Probably the most famous as well as the most neglected is the traditional Turkish shadow theater "Karagöz."

Indispensable Ramadan entertainment: Karagöz

When Ramadan comes, many long-neglected kinds of art are revived. Probably the most famous as well as the most neglected is the traditional Turkish shadow theater "Karagöz."

Particularly in İstanbul, in various historic places like Feshane on the Golden Horn, Karagöz shows are put on during the holy month and sometimes it is possible to come across Karagöz on TV channels. Still most people probably won't remember or see it again until the next Ramadan. For this reason Karagöz has come to be associated with this holy month of fasting.

This type of shadow play, which involves two-dimensional puppets (figures), whose shadows are cast on a screen, had an important place in Turkey as well as throughout the larger area of what were once Ottoman lands. Of the four main traditions of theater in Turkey (which include the "folk theater tradition," the "popular theater tradition" (shadow play or "karagöz"), the "court theater tradition" and the "western theater tradition"), the significance of this shadow play, still known by people as "Karagöz" or "Karagöz and Hacivat," deserves a special brief study. And now is just the right time to do that -- the holy month of Ramadan, during which Karagöz plays flourished and became famous countrywide.

Karagöz puppet theater Technique

Regarding presentation, the Karagöz puppet theater stage is separated from the audience by a frame holding a sheet of any white translucent material, but preferably fine Egyptian cotton. It is mounted like a painter's canvas, stretched tautly on a frame. In the past the size of the screen was two meters by two-and-a-half meters. More recently it was reduced to one meter by 1.6 meters. The operator stands behind the screen, holding the puppets against it and uses an oil lamp as a light source from behind. An oil lamp is preferable as it throws a good shadow and makes the characters flicker, giving them a more lifelike appearance. The light is fixed behind and just below the screen. The light's distance is determined by ambient light levels and the screen on which the shadow is to be thrown. The screen diffuses the light and the light shines through the multicolored translucent material of the puppets, making the figures look like stained glass. The puppeteer holds the puppet close against the screen with rods held horizontally and stretched at right angles from the puppet.

The figures are flat, clean-cut silhouettes in color. Animal skin, especially camel, is used in the making of the puppets. The skin is well-rubbed and soaked in a solution containing bran to remove its oil properties and make it softer. The skin is dried under the sun during the months of July and August after which it is smoothed out and treated until it is almost transparent. It is then scraped with a piece of broken glass to remove hairs before being rubbed and polished. The outline is drawn by applying a stencil and the lines are cut out with a small, curved knife called a "nevregan." The cut-out is then stained with translucent vegetable dyes of light blue, deep purple, forest green, olive green, crimson, terracotta, brown and yellow. Jointing is done with a piece of gut threaded through each of the two pieces at the point of overlap and then knotted on both sides. The action of the figures dictates their shapes. Each of them has a hole somewhere in the upper part of the body which is reinforced by a double leather piece like a socket into which the control rod may be snugly inserted from either side.

The stock characters in Karagöz

We cannot separate the performance and the characters of the shadow theater from the social context and ethos of the Ottoman Empire in which it was generated. It was a large empire that spread over three continents -- Europe, Asia and Africa. Its population consisted of several nationalities, religions and ethnic groups, all of which saw İstanbul as their capital and natural center. Karagöz is also firmly rooted in the culture of İstanbul. Shadow theater is not expected to introduce individualized traits in its characters; they are stock types and no more. Certain definite types have come to be commonly associated not only with nationalities but also with occupations. For instance the Anatolian Baba Himmet is invariably a woodcutter, the Jew is a dealer in secondhand goods or a moneylender while the Laz from the Black Sea is a boatman or a tinsmith. These character traits account, in a way, for a number of the speech idiosyncrasies that affect the figures' dialects. Each native of each separate district has his own special version of the Turkish language, his own peculiarities in the choice of word, inflection and diction. This serves not only to introduce the character, but also as a comic device. It also provides a main means of creating dramatic tension. For example, during conversation between characters, much comedy results from the misunderstandings that can arise.

It is always doubtful whether the Karagöz and Hacivat characters ever really existed and there are many legends about this. Karagöz was supposed by some to be a gypsy and there are many allusions and much evidence in the plays to support this theory.

Karagöz has a round face and his eye is boldly designed with a large black pupil -- hence his name "Black Eye." He has a pug nose and a thick, curly black beard. His head, completely bald, sports an enormous turban which, when knocked off, suddenly exposes his bald head and provokes laughter. In all dialogues between Karagöz and Hacivat, we find Hacivat uses flowing language full of prose and rhyming while Karagöz uses the language of the common people. His promptness with repartee gave him fame and reputation. Though he is stupid and easily taken in, he is constantly able to deceive Hacivat and others.

Hacivat is a reflective character with a pointed, turned-up beard. Each movement is well-calculated and worked out beforehand. Karagöz, on the contrary, is impulsive and his character is shown by his speech and behavior. Hacivat's reasoning limits his actions. Even though he makes few gestures with his hands while on the screen, Karagöz is more dynamic and energetic. Where Hacivat is always ready to accept the situation and maintain the status quo and establishment, Karagöz is always eager to try out new ideas and constantly misbehaves. Hacivat is always bound by the moral principles of the upper class and can easily adapt to them.

Women in Karagöz plays are young, middle-aged and old, flighty, quarrelsome, only just faithful and always prone to gossip.

Çelebi is presented in a sympathetic light. He is not caricatured and ridiculed as are so many of the other characters. Usually he is a dandified young man whose love for a courtesan or a girl from a good family motivates his action and provides the plays with plots. When noticed he has the ability to charm the opposite sex.

Tiryaki, the opium addict, spends all his time smoking opium and sleeping in the neighborhood coffee house. He can easily be identified by his pipe, his fan and a huge, humped shoulder.

Bebe Ruhi, the dwarf, has an impediment in his speech and pronounces "r" and "s" as "y." He asks the same questions over and over again until people become tired of listening to him.

Traditional Turkish music in Karagöz

Turkish music plays an important part in Karagöz. Turkish music as performed in these plays has acquired a characteristic of its own and become a musical genre peculiar to old İstanbul's urban light Turkish music. It is unthinkable to consider a Karagöz play without Turkish music. Music in these plays brings together several different genres and composition forms of Ottoman Turkish music.

In old İstanbul, from the sultan to the simple man in the street and the learned to the illiterate, all took pleasure from this shadow play. Karagöz was a true product of urban culture. This aspect of Karagöz has clearly been reflected in its music, whose repertoire extends from classical songs to light melodies and dance pieces. This amazing repertoire is a significant expression of old İstanbul's urban music.

Parts of Karagöz

Each Turkish shadow theater has three parts: "Mukaddime" (prologue or introduction), "Muhavere" (dialogue) and "Fasil" (main plot), which concludes with a brief finale.

Although every Karagöz play contains an example of the basic parts, it varies almost independently of the content of the other elements, which are perfected units in themselves. And each show is composed of an apparently random combination of these prefabricated or extemporaneous elements. Thus the individual puppeteer decides which elements are to be put together for any given show just before the show begins or sometimes even while it is in progress. Every part and every plot are subject to great expansion or contraction, but this does not mean that the parts are purely improvisatory. Throughout a shadow theater performance there are sets of speeches and certain standard scenes which never change in content.

Most of the extant Karagöz plays have been dictated or transcribed by the Karagöz puppeteer. In other words, they belong to the category of "dead" plays, or plays recorded without an audience.

Above, we have touched on Karagöz and Hacivat, the two cronies who are the leading characters of the Turkish shadow theater. But the main character is doubtlessly Karagöz. Karagöz is uneducated but honest. However there are many others, a whole host of characters, which throng this square of cloth representing a window into reality. Viewed from the manipulator's side of the screen, these personages are merely small, flat figures made of thin, transparent pieces of leather, pierced and incised in filigree-like detail and exquisitely colored, which hang by their rods clothesline-style on a horizontal string and await the pleasure of the showman to take their cues.

But to the audience they are tiny, animated creatures who walk, talk and gesticulate like real human beings, each possessing his or her own characteristic physiognomy, dress, accent, mannerisms, character traits and personality. They even have their own clearly defined name, trade and civil status. An experienced devotee of these Karagöz shadow plays can easily guess what character is about to appear merely by listening to the melody sung or played before it comes on the screen, for each has its own characteristic theme song that heralds his or her appearance. The manipulators and their assistants are unerring on this point and skilled in preparing their audience by creating atmosphere through music. This careful attention to atmosphere is all the more necessary since the stage is almost entirely devoid of props and decorative sets.


A contemporary Karagöz master: Emin Şenyer

Emin Şenyer, one of the last remaining Karagöz masters and webmaster of, learned this art from Mr. Metin Özlen, chosen by the Ministry of Culture as the best Karagöz master in 1976. He was Özlen's assistant for years and was given the pseudonym "Hayalî Saraç Emin," which later was declared by Turkish Radio and Television (TRT) as only Hayalî when he was mentioned in a documentary on Karagöz. He was a saddler for 30 years but quit his profession in 1997 to become a professional Karagöz master.

Şenyer complains about the unauthorized (in the sense that they were not trained by a master) people who contribute to the gradual loss of the essence of Karagöz. "Unfortunately our traditional art of Karagöz is abused by many. Everyone who has Karagöz and Hacivat figures in his hands attempts to manipulate them from behind a screen. Of course they cannot do it the way it should be done as they were not trained by genuine masters. On the other side, the real Karagöz masters are no longer found interesting and attractive as they still follow the centuries-old patterns, which no longer appeal to modern children and people," says the master.

He defends some degree of renovation in the art to make it appealing again. "I have formed a style peculiar to myself by using different techniques. In the making of the figures, I benefit from elements of the traditional Ottoman Turkish arts. For instance a few years ago the Lisbon Puppet Museum bought one of my collections made up of 20 pieces. It is still on display." A professional shadow master for 10 years now, he puts on shows in schools and various other locales. His busiest time is Ramadan. To contact him, you can visit his multilingual Web site or e-mail him at

Sunday's Zaman

Last Mod: 16 Eylül 2007, 11:08
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