Funny, frightening and audacious, kukeri dance to bring good health and fertility
Issue 5, February 2007
by Dimana Trankova; photography by Kukerlandia*
"Is there no carnival in Bulgaria?" you may ask yourself on 17 February while watching TV reports about the start of the carnival season in Venice, Rio de Janeiro and New Orleans. The answer to your question will come on the following day, the first Sunday before Lent. In Bulgaria it is called Sirni Zagovezni and is the last day Christians are allowed to eat meat before the 40-day period of fasting. On this day, in a gesture long-forgotten in our everyday lives, people ask forgiveness from their relatives and friends for any wrong they may have done by kissing their hand.
But you will hardly have time to think about this, as early on Sunday morning you wake up to the deafening sound of dozens of cowbells, clappers and rattles coming from the street. Though it does not have a fixed date and can happen any time in late winter or early spring, Sirni Zagovezni is the day that Bulgarians usually choose for their carnival.
The first thing you will realise while watching the procession and the figure at it's head, the kuker, hopping in the lead wearing a huge headdress made of fur, horns and plumage, cowbells, a realistically crafted phallus around his waist and brandishing a wooden sword, is that the Bulgarian festival has nothing to do with that in Venice.
While watching the audience poking fun at the granny (a man dressed like an old, ugly woman, who is the kuker's wife), you realize something else too. Bulgarian mummers' games have nothing to do with the carnival in Rio either. They last only one day and women are not allowed to take part.
This does not mean, however, that the fairer sex is neglected on Sirni Zagovezni. All day long, the kuker chases women around with his wooden sword to bring them health and children, and uses such colourful language that more timid spectators blush with embarrassment. Like others around the world, this Bulgarian carnival comes from an ancient holiday celebrating the revival of nature. The Sixth Ecumenical Council in Constantinople tried - and failed - to ban it in 680.
*The photographs are from the national photographic exhibition and competition Kukerlandia 2006. Kukerlandia 2007 is being held from 17 February until 3 March in the George Papazov Art Gallery in Yambol
70 years ago, on 10 March 1943, Bulgaria's pro-Nazi government decided to defy Berlin and halt the deportation of Bulgaria's 50.000 Jews. This was down to the actions of one man - Dimitar Peshev. Just two years later he faced Communist justice and found himself on trial for his life. His niece Kaluda Kiradjieva remembers