Castellers in the air
Tuesday 16 November 2010
UNESCO has just announced that the catalan tradition of castellers has been added to the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (check out the UNESCO announcement here). If you've never heard of castellers, take a look at the photo to the left. You gather about fifty or more friends and neighbours, and build a castle of people standing on each others' shoulders. You start with a base of big people gripping each other firmly at the bottom, then you add rings of lighter people one on top of another, and then finally somone's five or six year old son or daughter scrambles all the way to the top and raises a hand to mark the moment of completion.
I find the castellers tradition fascinating. Still photographs can't really show the drama of the thing, the stress, the concentration, the whole structure quivering with strain. The first time that I saw it, in Cap de la Villa, the central plaza of Sitges, I really didn't know what was going on. The square was packed, and in the centre a group of people of both sexes and all sizes and ages, all wearing the same maroon shirts, white trousers, and black sashes (wound tight for support). There was much milling around and chaos, but suddenly the base was forming, hands and arms binding bodies together, and then the first four were climbing up to balance on shoulders and form the first ring, followed by four more, and four more, until I had to crane my neck to see the top. And then ...
... I was close enough to see the little girl start to climb. She got about half way up, then froze, looked back down with panic in her face, and shouted something. A woman in the crowd near me shouted something back, and the girl turned back, looked upwards, and started to climb again. When she got to the top and hoisted her arm, I had tears in my eyes at the sheer courage of her decision to go on. Although ... I asked a guy in the crowd next to us what the woman had shouted back in Catalan. "Probably, 'you get to the top, or you get no supper tonight!'" he said, and grinned.
For me, the castellers are emblematic of Catalan culture. It's all about people working together, about co-operation, about the ability of ordinary people to create something extraordinary. It's not particularly elegant, maybe, but it's about stubborness, and commitment, and strength. And also, perhaps, it's an image of all cultures everywhere and always - out of the confused mass of anonymous people, something marvellous grows, and reaches upwards and upwards, until a distant figure raises an arm in triumph.
Handout Castellers - a version of this blog is available as a student handout.