Thursday, 1 March 2012

Travel: The Eisteddfod ~ A wealth of Welsh reasons for rhyme

A local mother carries the Horn of Hirlas at the Elsteddfod. 

"IT struck at me from the names on coal trucks; and drawing nearer it flickered past on station signs, a flash of strange spelling and a hint of language old and yet alive. It pierced my linguistic heart," wrote J.R.R. Tolkien of the lure of Welsh. The renowned author of The Hobbit later mastered the senior British language, whose linguistic roots predate the Sixth Century.

It's no wonder, then, that the riches of Welsh — very distinctive to the tongue, the ear and the eye — are celebrated annually at the roving National Eisteddfod, held at the northern town of Denbigh in 2001. Perhaps the Eisteddfod or "sitting" harks back to Cardigan Castle in 1176, when a Welsh lord named Rhys ap Gryfudd hosted a bardic celebration. The first National Eisteddfod, held in 1861 at Aberdare, proved to be a showpiece for literary and musical talent. Last August, for the first time in 800 years, the Eisteddfod's highest honour — the Chair for the traditional cynghanedd or 24-beat strict-metre form, with its complex inner rhythms, its assonance and alliteration — made history. Because it was won by a woman, a mother of three, a freelance arts consultant and lecturer in German — Mererid Hopwood, 37.

The Eisteddfod assumes significance in the light of the ongoing, rather divisive, debate on Welsh. To begin with, Wales was Prydain (or Britain), where Brythonic, then Cymraeg or Welsh, were spoken extensively except for Pict-occupied northern Scotland. The Anglo Saxon invasion drove the Welsh back into hilly Wales, and even Cornwall. Did you know that the word Welsh is from Old English Welisc, meaning rare, strange or even foreign? Today, of the 2.5 million inhabitants of Wales, half a million are primarily Welsh speakers.

Before I leave Cardiff for Denbigh with my Welsh hostess Catrin — who demystified local aspects for me — I sense linguistic uniqueness through chance encounters. At a dinner with five Welsh speakers at an Italian restaurant in Cardiff, a producer with BBC Wales explains to me. "The poetry here is not elitist. It comes out of the land, from people like the farmers. The poems for the Eisteddfod week in August are sent to the judges anonymously. It's only when the pseudonym is called out that the audience looks around to find out who the Chair or Crown (for free verse) is going to."

We arrive at Denbigh after driving past dozens of caution notices about the foot-and-mouth disease. En route, we see a strange 100-foot sign, created out of plastic sheets and wooden pegs on a hillside by engineer Tudor Jones to promote the cultural extravaganza. In a constant drizzle ("typical Eistedfodd weather," a passer-by mutters), we slosh through disinfectant mats, rub shoulders with hundreds of people in galoshes trudging from tent to tent, taking in rock and classical music contests, art and photography, even global crafts. All the while, the focus is on the central pavilion, where the best lyricist is soon to be honoured. A marketing officer has already won pride of place for her novel, while headmaster Penri Roberts won the annual Crown for free verse.

After a musical interlude on harps, the adjudicators assess the year's entries, then announce the verdict. Regal figures rise from the assembled Gorsedd of the Bards of the Isle of Britain, dressed in billowing robes of white, blue and green, presided over by the Arch-Druid. As a spotlight scans the audience, a single figure rises to his feet, then ascends his throne for the year. It is a moving movement of pageantry, even for a non-Welsh person like me. 

The assembled bards of the Gorsedd celebrate a victor at the Eisteddfod at Abergele in 1995

Is the bardic assembly a necessary fiction to keep Welshness alive? Is the Eisteddfod the most poetic of political statements? These questions pulse through the veins of the event. 

Back in Bangalore, I watch Hopwood's moment of glory on a video Catrin sends me. I hold my breath long-distance, along with the 5,000 others in the pavilion. The Arch-Druid, custodian of ancient rites, thrice asks, "A oes heddwch? Is there peace?" and thrice the cogregation responds, "Heddwch! Peace!" Trumpeters in rich red velvet fanfare to the four corners of the earth, harpists serenade and bards sing. Barefoot elfin girls dance in primeval delight, the Arch-Druid drinks the wine of welcome out of the Horn of Hirlas, a throwback to the drinking horns of 12th Century Welsh princes. It somehow seems like a spectacular Celtic open-air theatre. 

Then the three poet-jurors, (a farmer, an editor and a solicitor in daily life), call on the winner — "The Day's Eye" or Daisy — to stand up. It turns out to be Hopwood, who's invested with a gold-edged blue robe and her carved throne. Later, in an e-mail interview, she shares Eisteddfod insights with me: "I have carried lines of cynghanedd in my head since I was a child, and I have always been struck by its beauty. One day, I knew I would find the key to its secrets. When I moved to West Wales, I had an opportunity to attend a circle with an inspirational chief poet, Tudur Dylan. He won the Chair in 1995 and is the son of an erstwhile Archdruid. It's tough to write in this form, but a challenge that was too enticing to ignore!" 

Hopwood's poem, titled "Dadeni" in Welsh (Renaissance" in English), was the result of just six years of acquaintance with cynghanedd, used by over 500 people today. Trained within a "circle that met in the backroom of a local pub. I was often the only woman in the group... But there are plenty more women in Wales now who are learning fast," she adds. He poem deals with a woman mourning the loss of her child and her eventual "rebirth" — a central concept in Celtic mythology — from the experience: "All of me is inside a coffin/ Inside it is my memory of birth/ And the smile of young sunshine/ Is a graveyard within me."

 So unexpected was this gender breakthrough that Hopwood was celebrated by Welsh tenor Rhys Meirion at the Eisteddfod as a "king", as Catrin points out. Hopwood smiled her way through the ceremony, unfazed by these gaffes. Next time, at the Eisteddfod at St. David's, she will be inducted into the Gorsedd as a white-robed bard. Will she never be elected an Arch-Druid, Wales wonders today.

The Eisteddfod takes me back to tales of schooling in 18th and 19th Century Wales, when Welsh-speaking children were penalised by being made to wear a "Welsh Not", or wooden board inscribed with "WN." If the victimised child could point out another offender, the board was passed on. The child with the board at the end of the day was caned! Could there be a more cruel way to suppress a language?

What does the Eisteddfod signify in the life of the Welsh nation? Is it a poetic circus of culture, as German observer Peter Sager dubbed it? What makes Welsh speakers from Abergavenny and Abu Dhabi, Nant Gwynant and New Zealand, converge on it by air, bus, by car, even by wheelchair? I sense an invisible line of demarcation here: even those who speak English throughout the year speak Welsh at the Eisteddfod. In a country where Cardiff became capital city in 1955, where a National Assembly was granted only in 1999, the peripatetic festival binds the people, even creates vocal focal points. 

The Eisteddfod's legends are larger than life. Despite the harpists and singers, the choirs, the folk dancers, the rock-operas, the learner's classes, the event derives its energy from the poetry. Despite centuries of anglicisation, Welsh voices are at their proudest here. The Eisteddfod at Llangefni is where the grand old man of Welsh literature, R.S. Thomas, railed against the dominance of English. In a barn at the same festival, troubadour Dafydd Iwan sang a satire about Carlo Windsor, the fake Prince of Wales (shades of the current British heir apparent?) as fists waved, hundreds raised their voices to his pitch, in a union of identity.

Hopwood, the current toast of Wales, sums it up well, "The National Eisteddfod is the cultural highlight of the Welsh calendar. It reinforces the Welsh sense of belonging as it draws together a language and cultural community in a spirit of peace and celebration."

As I look back at the Eisteddfod, I mull: How will Welsh readers react to Hopwood's awdl or strict metre poem when the winners are compiled into the national festival bestseller, with a print run of over 7,000 copies? Will the Eisteddfod prove more potent a voice of Wales than the bombs that flare through Northern Ireland? In a language-riven country like India, wouldn't it help to hold regional Eisteddfod-like festivals to celebrate each language and dissipate linguistic tensions?

(Originally published in The Hindu Sunday Magazine, April 2002) 

Just added this as a sample of what Welsh sounds like....  two folk songs by Buddug Verona James

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