Article for Skylife Magazine of Turkish Airlines , April 2019.
Requiring great effort and expertise, traditional arts are kept alive both in Turkey and around the world. There are puppets of all shapes and sizes; Karagöz and Hacivat, the main characters of Turkish shadow theater, are just two of them. We talked to the masters who design, manufacture, and perform with these figures at their workshops in Istanbul.
When I was a kid, I would hope for a power outage on long winter nights so that I could create with my hands on the walls in the candlelight shearwaters soaring above the sea, whales jumping in and out of the ocean, and wolves roaming the mountains. At such moments, the shadows of animals would turn into fairy-tale figures, inviting me to mysterious realms. Years later, I was introduced to Karagöz, who talked from behind the screen through hayali performers, and puppets that came alive with the movements of strings. They would whisper stories to my inner child in a dreamlike atmosphere filled with vivid descriptions of mischievous, funny, witty, and naïve characters. Feeling nostalgic for those days, I pass behind that dimly-lit screen that warms our hearts and follow the footsteps of wooden puppets whose faces seem familiar. Like a curious child waiting to hear new stories, I set out to meet masters who breathe life into puppets and shadows.
My first stop is Cengiz Özek’s workshop, housed in a historic building, in the district of Beyoğlu. This is where he brings Karagöz and his friends to life. The moment I step in, I am beamed into another world, surrounded by stone walls, a decorative pool with goldfish, a cistern, and dozens of puppets and figures, all of which he introduces to me by saying, “This is an experiment for the puppet museum I plan to open in the future.”
Living in the world of puppets for 40 years, Özek met Karagöz thanks to his art teacher in middle school. He learned how to make Karagöz figures and, over the years, has staged his own plays. In addition to the traditional repertoire of characters we see in a Karagöz play, he also creates many other figures for the characters in his plays. He hosts workshops to pass this art down to the new generation. The artist, who is also involved in organizing the International Istanbul Puppet Festival, believes that Karagöz plays should be up to date in terms of both figures and content. “The figures and the content should be in touch with the times. When we look at the Karagöz collection at Topkapı Palace, we see examples used in the past such as hot-air balloons and trains. The costumes also have changed over time with an effort to be relevant. That’s what I’m trying to do here.”
Bringing this innovative perspective to his plays, the artist deals with concepts of peace, friendship, pollution, and love of nature, and explains his reasons and limits by saying, “When we look at the works of Molière or Shakespeare, we see universal topics that are common to everyone’s lives and timeless values. My goal is to reinterpret these topics by remaining loyal to the methodology of Karagöz plays.”
Özek also emphasizes the importance of tempo and adds, “Every idle second on the stage feels like an hour for the audience. We live in a period of fast tempo laden with action and reaction. You need to be able to fill that screen with sounds, images, and light. The Karagöz figure at the end of the stick has to become a part of your body.” I believe he successfully manages to reflect that tempo in his entire body language and life.
My next stop is the workshop of actor and puppet artist Cengiz Samsun. Without even looking at the door number, I realize I have arrived at his workshop in Tepebaşı thanks to his murals that adorn the entrance. Performing in theater plays as an actor, Samsun took an interest in making Karagöz puppets by means of a close acquaintance. He stepped into the world of Karagöz because it impressed him “with its philosophy, spirit, design, and engagement with crafts.” For 16 years, he has been shaping leather with traditional methods and painting it with madder, creating both classic Karagöz figures and his own characters. He also performs plays with puppets made of wood and cloth, such as Layla and Majnun, a play that brings together various disciplines such as “meddahlık”, shadow theater, string puppet theater, and tabletop puppet theater. Samsun believes that, through Karagöz plays, it’s possible to understand a community’s sociological structure from its daily life to customs, dietary habits to sense of entertainment.
Attaching great importance to staging plays “for the audience,” Samsun says, “You can perform a play written for adults to children if you simplify the language and adjust the content.” He makes an interesting point when he talks about his workshops and performances for kids. “Sometimes, we watch a play and make puppets with them. They seem so happy, as if they are in a completely different world. Children are by no means lacking in terms of imagination. They create such things that go beyond the imagination of adults and that are indeed works of art. In such circumstances, they do not look for a laptop or a smartphone.”
I leave the hustle and bustle of Beyoğlu and head for Pınar Akpınar’s workshop in the district of Büyükçekmece, only to find myself surrounded by “little people” brought to life in wood. Featuring different faces, looks and clothes, these puppets seem as if they are about to come alive and start speaking to me. While studying stage décor and puppetry at university, Akpınar felt a deeper interest in making puppets and has designed hundreds of them over time. She shapes wood, the material she feels closest to, and gives her puppets distinct expressions using paint. In addition, she sews a costume for each of them. Hoping to bring the art of puppets closer to people, Akpınar says, “Unfortunately, it’s not a very popular branch of art. That’s why I wanted to impress the people and show them how impressive puppet making is. I used to design my characters based on my dreams, then I started making puppets of famous actors from the history of Turkish cinema. Afterwards, people asked me to make puppets of themselves, so I built them with strings and copied their faces, demeanors, and clothes by looking at their pictures. Therefore, puppets entered people’s homes, presenting them with a beloved and a miniature world of their own.”
Pınar Akpınar is currently working on an all-puppet play for adults for which she is writing the screenplay and designing the set. She reaches for one of the immobile figures in a corner and says, “These are objects that have been brought to life. The best part of this job is to give each of them a character and to make them talk.” That’s when I witness the puppet come alive in her hands.
I come to re-realize that although we can appreciate many innovations and art movements of the modern age, we will always need traditional arts that fill our hearts with warmth. Living a life full of figures and puppets that come alive in their hands, puppet makers and masters of shadow theater fulfill this need by reinterpreting the stories we have been hearing for generations.