When Russian photographer Katerina Slesar first read about the ancient Dagestani tradition of tightrope walking she decided she had to see it for herself. Hardly knowing anyone in Dagestan, she embarked on a journey to remote mountain villages to find her own lead to the story.
“I went to Dagestan three times this year and visited numerous mountain auls [fortified villages] and towns, travelling hundreds of miles from place to place, sharing the ride with the locals,” she remembers. “Almost hitchhiking, this way of travel helped me to get to know the mentality of the locals and to better understand Dagestan. During my travels, I stayed with the local families of tightrope walkers and had a first-hand experience of day-to-day life in the villages.”
Slesar’s search was soon rewarded and she had a chance to observe the everyday life of the tightrope walkers and document their ancient craft. “Most of the tightrope walkers live in mountain auls 2,000 meters above the sea level where the tradition was born hundreds years ago. The elder tightrope walkers still practice their craft the old way, by putting up a tightrope in the backyards of their houses to train themselves and teach the young. As tradition dictates, one must start the training as soon as one starts walking, hence, the craft of tightrope walking is passed from generation to generation at a very early age. The tightrope walking tradition is very inclusive and anyone who wants to learn the craft could join for free, however, most of the tightrope walkers are relatives or close friends,” Slesar explains.
“In all the mountain auls that I visited in Dagestan the living conditions were quite basic, where in the absence of most modern conveniences, a strict daily routine of household chores was crucial for the survival of the aul,” she adds. “Roads and other urban infrastructure are at very basic levels. Modern technological pleasures such as phone reception or an internet connection are weakened to a minimum from the surrounding mountain terrain. Many auls experience overall decline: the houses are abandoned or decayed, the older generation is dying and the younger generation is fleeing to cities and towns in search of a better life. This affects the tightrope walkers’ craft a great deal, and puts the survival and continuity of this ancient tradition at risk of being extinct.”
Slesar is not the only artist who’s been captivated by the unique craft of Dagestan’s tightrope walkers: the tradition was also featured in a recent video work by the artist Taus Makhacheva, entitled Tightrope. In the video, Rasul Abakarov, descendant of a famous tightrope dynasty, crosses the abyss of a canyon carrying paintings by Dagestani artists. Both Slesar’s and Makhacheva’s work give the tightrope walkers much-needed exposure which could help save their art from disappearing. “During Soviet times, the government promoted and supported tightrope walkers offering them stipends, organising and sponsoring trips, competitions and training grounds. Nowadays, all these matters are taken care of by a few enthusiasts and by the tightrope walkers themselves,” Slesar says. “The local authorities provide very little, if any, support to preserve and promote this ancient Dagestani tradition, nor do they encourage tightrope walkers to continue their craft. Yet, despite all these difficulties, tightrope walkers are adamant at preserving their tradition. They vigorously train the young, seize any opportunity to take part in an event where they can show off their skills, such as a wedding or a holiday. All this is done at their own cost and with in-kind contributions from villagers.”
Slesar’s work provides a great insight into one of Dagestan’s ancient traditions which often remain invisible to the public eye, hidden in remote mountain communities. “People have a false and grim impression about this ancient region which remains unexplored and somewhat closed to outsiders,” the photographer adds. “Through my trips I discovered a different side to Dagestan and its people. From a historical and demographical viewpoint, Dagestan is a truly interesting place. There are over 14 ethnic groups that live there, each speaking different tongues and dialects, each having their distinct traditions, culture and mentality. It is the most ethnically diverse territory of Russia. Yet, for many centuries, these ethnic groups have all managed to share a common territory and live with each other in peace.”