Arrival of Keeni on Tatar Square (1893) by Arutin ShamshinovArt Palace of Georgia - Museum of Cultural History
Painted by prominent 19th century Georgian artist Arutin Shamshinov, this large canvas depicts the old Georgian folk game "Keenoba of Tbilisi".
The game’s origins lie in pagan mythology, but it gradually developed into a secular spectacle, ultimately becoming a ceremonial expression of a heroic battle between the Georgian people and foreign invaders. Keenoba was a grandiose, large-scale entertainment in the character of a common festival and resembled both European carnival and masquerade.
The main personage in this celebration was called “Keeni”, or the "Conquering King".
A well-spoken, strong young man was chosen for this role, who had to be physically fit in order for a great harvest to be obtained that year. Keeni, at the same time, had to be distinguished by his wit and sense of humour; his costume was very diverse, but he typically wore a variegated, pointed hat on his head.
In the main square of Tbilisi, musicians announced the beginning of Keenoba with bells and trumpets. The festival began on the first Monday of Great Lent. That day was known as "Black Monday", "Kumet", "Great Monday", "Great Lent Monday" and "Holy Monday".
Keeni's entourage included: The Shah, the viziers of Arabia, and the ambassadors of various foreign countries. Their faces were painted with different colors and they wore exotic clothes.
Behind Keeni, a couple can be seen sitting on a donkey. The participation of the "couple" in this folk game was essential. The queen of the ceremony was played by a man, whose head was adorned with a red silk cap and who was wearing blush on his cheeks. He wore a Georgian dress and a buffalo horn hung from his belt.
In front of a camel rider stands a man holding a stick, who appears to be collecting money. According to tradition, the money collected during this event was often used towards arranging a feast. Sometimes the money was used for other purposes, such as helping the poor or sick, or buying gifts in order for a poor girl to be successfully married off.
During the game of Keenoba the city was divided into two opposing sides: on one side were the members of the Georgian king’s entourage and their supporters, and on the other side - Keeni and his supporters.
The celebration started off in the center of Tbilisi, beneath the main fortress, Narikala. This celebration was a mystification of war: It was an allegorical expression that the Georgian people would never endure living under an invader and ruler of a foreign country.
During Keenoba, the whole city was on holiday, and all the shops and workshops were closed. As the procession made its way through the streets, the city’s residents came out on their balconies to observe the event.
The red flag was the sign of the conqueror. In the nineteenth century, the government of the Russian Emperor did not like this patriotic spectacle, since the Georgians began to ridicule the incompetent generals and colonels of the reigning Russian Empire. Instead of Keeni, people often dressed the main character in the armor of the King's Colonel, and they staged the siege and capture of the city.
Keeni’s procession was led by several men holding sticks; they blocked the way for passers-by, and asked them to pay tributes in favor of Keeni. They rang bells, and knocked on doors demanding payment. They also visited shops, and all traders were obliged to pay a certain amount (sometimes they paid in kind).
The procession was led by a beggar. On this day, many beggars and poor people came out in the city to receive alms. Local residents generously rewarded beggars on the day of the celebration.
The beggar is wearing beautifully decorated clothes: his robe is embellished with ornaments that were very popular in Tbilisi at the time. Garments bearing such ornaments were worn by all social groups in Tbilisi; such patterns have also been used to decorate tablecloths since ancient times.
At the end of the celebration, in the afternoon, participants took Keeni and threw him straight into the Mtkvari River - in a place where he would not drown. Keeni also took advantage of this occasion to wash off the special make-up covering his face. Then, with the money collected from the citizens, the participants bought victuals and wine and feasted for an entire week in different districts of the city.
Obviously the anti-Russian Keenoba could not continue under Russian rule, therefore, by the end of the 19th century the tradition was prohibited and gradually forgotten.
Art Palace of Georgia - Museum of Cultural History