By Melanie Hamilton
In a cozy little home, just on the edge of Telavi, an eating area canopied by emerald grape vines holds a long, narrow table dotted with Georgian classics: badrijani nigvzit (slivers of eggplant with walnut paste), gooey khachapuri (traditional cheese bread), khashlama (boiled meat with local greens and spices), and of course juicy, steamy khinkali (dumplings) ready to be doused with black pepper. Suddenly there’s a pause in the ongoing supra (traditional Georgian feast), forks are placed down and voices hushed to whispers just before a poised and concentrated man breaks out in song. Two more join in and suddenly the table has transformed from a feasting place into an intimate show. Pouring out of their mouths in unison is the phrase “mravalzhamieri,” a traditional Georgian folk song and phrase loosely translating to “may we have many years.” Song and supra go hand in hand, accompanied by elaborate toasts, homestyle food, and a time to be still and with one another.
Some 2,400 years ago, ancient Greek historian Xenophon wrote in Anabasis of Georgian tribes who prepared for battle by singing stating, “After having lined up, one of them started a song and all others followed marching and singing rhythmically".
In the many centuries since Anabasis, and even before, song and dance have been integral to Georgian culture and national identity. Folk music extends into every aspect of Georgian life with haunting songs of mourning, joyous hymns of celebrations, peaceful lullabies, victorious ballads of bravery, and various tunes about a hard day’s work and the harvest. The significance of Georgian singing is not only defined by its various uses, but by its incredible diversity. For example, in the hills of Guria you’ll find men belting out songs in bold, colorful Krimanchuli voices that leap and bound in and out of melody in strong yodels–a stark contrast to the soft, sacred chants chorussed in Georgian orthodox churches.
Recognized by UNESCO as a Human Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage, Georgian polyphonic singing is not only a treasure to the nation, but to the world overall. Perhaps we should even say the Universe? In 1977, NASA’s Voyager spacecrafts launched into space where they’d eventually float on to probe interstellar activity. On both Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, were a gift to anyone, or anything that might find them: The Golden Record. United States President Jimmy Carter announced, “This is a present from a small, distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and our feelings.”
On the Golden Record were sounds and images meant to convey the vast diversity in life and culture on Earth. Among the songs–which included Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and the classic Chuck Berry tune, Johnny B. Goode–was Chakrulo, a Georgian folk song hailing from Kakheti, telling a story of battle and heroism.
Equally important as Georgian singing, is Georgian dancing. Once upon a time, an introductory greeting of “who are you?” was followed by “which dance do you dance?” to determine where someone was from. A person’s dancing style was as common an inquiry as what their surname was or what they did for work.
An archeological dig in the 1930s led to the discovery of an ornate goblet known as The Trialeti Chalice. Adorned with ritual scenes such as divine offerings to a throned deity, the Tree of Life, and carefully carved deer and stags, the chalice dates back 4,000 years. More importantly though, are the worshippers depicted dancing perkhuli, an ancient round dance performed by men, often in a ritual setting. Today, Georgian traditional dance is still preserved in amber from the ferocious leaps of khorumi, a war dance originating in Adjara and Guria, to the graceful drifts of samaia, a dance dedicated to the memory of legendary female ruler, King Tamar. Other famous dancing styles include kartuli, a warm, romantic performance of two partners and mtiluri, a highlander dance-off meant to signify the brutal competition in Georgia’s northern mountains for both territory and women–and the immense courage to withstand such situations.
While Georgian dance certainly originated in a pagan context, closely associated with agriculture and divine worship, it has evolved again and again, especially in the Sukhishvili Georgian National Ballet. Started in the 1920s and later formally established in 1945, the ensemble has performed in 98 countries, in a series of more than 20,000 performances, entertaining an estimated 60 million people. Sukhishvili even has the honor of being the first and only folklore group to ever have performed at Milan’s world famous opera house, Teatro all Scala, receiving an ovation so long that the scarlet curtain was dropped 14 times.
The rise of Sukhishvili has not only put Georgian dance on the world map, but has sprung a renaissance of Georgian dancing tradition and its preservation. Since its inception more than 70 years ago, Sukhishvili has prevailed regionally and internationally, withstanding the brunt of Stalin’s Terror, the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union, and much more. This can also be said for Georgian song and dance as a whole; over the millennia, despite countless foreign invasions and a patchwork of various extra-national influence, it has both evolved and remained a central fixture of the unbreakable Georgian spirit.