Analysis of the ritual action
The coming into presence of a specific nat in the ritual pavilion is signalled by several elements in the performance: music, dance, song lyrics, costumes, offerings. Depending on which spirits entered the body of the dancer, the hsaing waing ensemble will perform a specific type of music: refined court songs support the dance of legendary princesses; intense martial rhythms underline the prowess of princes and military commanders. Melodic and rhythmic modules identify specific spirits; they are necessary to make the spirits manifest. These musical modules are accompanied by specific dance and gestural modules, performed by the dancer. The lyrics commemorate the spirits’ legendary stories, celebrating their spiritual powers and underlining the benefits devotees can obtain by worshipping them. Finally, specific elements of ritual costumes and the presentation of offerings help manifest the spirits belonging to the pantheon of the Thirty-seven nats.
The possession dance performance is divided into several dance and musical phases. The video presented here shows those characterising the dance of the Min Lay nat, the younger Taungbyone Lord.
Sung invocation [00:11]
In calling up the spirit of Min Lay, the nat kadaw turns towards the nat statue on the altar in a praying position. Inspired by the nat’s image, the spirit medium improvises a short text on a standard melodic line, supported by the hsaing waing ensemble.
Spoken invocation [00:30]
The spirit medium pronounces a short spoken invocation, not always performed, calling the nat by his name and title.
Spirit embodiment and possession dance [00:41]
The beginning of the possession dances is signalled by the explosive sound of the ensemble and by the shaking hands of the spirit medium, who welcomes the spirit of Min Lay into his body. From now on, the nat is considered to be materially present: the possession dance, which in the case of spirit mediums is always controlled, is a sign of the spirit’s manifestation.
Music and dance modules [00:42-02:12]: The ensemble supports the possession dances by playing the identifying music of the spirit invoked. The metric-rhythmic-melodic modules performed on the tuned drums take a leading role. Similarly, specific gestural and dance modules performed by the dancer show that the nat is present. In the case of Min Lay, these consist of dancing with the index fingers uplifted, to signify the great power the nat holds only in this finger. These elements of music and dance performance constantly recur throughout the possession dance.
Sound-movement interactions [01:50]: During the possession dance, the hsaing waing ensemble and the dancer depend on each other and interact via verbal, visual or musical signals. For example, in this video we can see the possessed dancer “requesting” the ensemble to increase the tempo and dynamics by simply getting closer to the drums, or by exchanging a meaningful look with one or more of the musicians. At that point the music will coordinate the dance movement of the possessed dancer.
Distribution of the offerings [01:02-01:47]: The devotees share specific ritual offerings with the nat. These help emphasise the spirit’s personality: for example, Min Lay’s ethnic and religious identity (a Muslim Indian, although unspecified) is highlighted by the offerings of cigarettes, biryani rice and non-alcoholic drinks. The nat repays the offerings giving them his blessing. Once received and consumed, the offerings are immediately re-distributed among the other participants. The sharing and re-distributing of the offerings is an important moment for establishing a mutual relationship between the community of devotees and the spirits.
Entertainment phase [02:13]
The hsaing waing ensemble can perform several songs to entertain the listeners – ideally, the nats invited to the ceremony and the physically present devotees. Songs from the most diverse repertoires can be heard during the entertainment phase: Burmese court songs, modern popular songs or even specific spirit songs (nat chin). Many spirit mediums operating in urban environments today make the most of these moments to show off their vocal skills by performing the vocal part of a song in place of the singers. The audience of devotees is often called on to take part. In the video, the dancer encourages the audience to support the performance by clapping their hands in time with the music.
Departure of the spirit [05:05]
At the end of the entertainment phase, the spirit is dismissed. The spirit medium signals [05:00] to the drum circle player that he intends to conclude the spirit possession dance. The musician leads the ensemble towards the conclusive musical phase. This is characterised by a short resumption of the metric-rhythmic-melodic modules that characterised the initial phase of the spirit possession dance. At the same time, the spirit medium performs the spirit’s distinctive dance and gestural modules again; he then places himself in front of the altar and joins hands in the gesture of prayer. This indicates that the spirit has departed, abandoning his body.