The performance of tradition : An ethnography of Hira Gasy popular theatre in Madagascar

Abstract: This study deals with the popular theatre performance of Hira Gasy, and its actors andaudiences in the central highland regions of Imerina and northern Betsileo in Madagascar. The Hira Gasy has developed from a court to a rural performance during the last two centuries, a period influenced by first the British and then by the French presence in the country. Today, the performances are given in diverse contexts, the most common being in connection with reburial ceremonies. The Hira Gasy troupes all have a common form of their performance, with speeches, songs, acrobatics, dance and music, while the content is unique for each troupe, although given in a culturally recognized form. The study is based on 19 months of fieldwork divided into five periods between1991 and 1996. The main argument is that the Hira Gasy performances provide a forumin which the problems of identification and belonging are discussed. The `foreigner' isused as a `mirror image' for the rural and the poor in their aims to assert and shape theirsense of belonging in a changing society. The symbols of identification - the ancestralland, the common tomb, and the family solidarity - are felt to be threatened by increasingindividualization and the decrease in the fulfillment of the ancestral duties. For the ruralpoor their feelings of marginality and powerlessness in relation to the economically andpolitically powerful urban elite are expressed in Hira Gasy. Through the practice ofcustom they sustain their moral dignity, which is one of the most important means inorder to remain malagasy. The Hira Gasy performances are indigenious arenas for existential and moral discussions, and for providing a sense of belonging in a problematic reality shaped by both the `way of the ancestors' and the `way of the foreign'.

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