September 23, 2018 | ° F

Folk Festival highlights Kalmyk, local culture

Photo by Nelson Morales |

Thousands crowd onto Wood Lawn of the Eagleton Institute of Politics on Douglass campus Saturday to learn about Kalmyk culture at the New Jersey Folk Festival.

Centered around the Republic of Kalmykia, the New Jersey Folk Festival (NJFF) hosted its 37th annual cultural celebration Saturday on the Wood Lawn of the Eagleton Institute of Politics on Douglass campus.

Thousands of visitors listened to both traditional Mongolian and local N.J. folk music, watched cultural dance troupes and shopped for handmade arts and crafts to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Kalmyk people's migration to the United States.

"The Kalmyks were a group of people from Mongolia who moved to Russia. When Russia was the [Union of Soviet Socialist Republics,] there was this issue where they were basically atheistic. So they wouldn't let them have Buddhist temples," said Jack Hummel, the festival's media coordinator.

As a result, they moved to America in the 1950s and settled mainly in Philadelphia and Howell, N.J., said Hummel, a School of Environmental and Biological Sciences first-year student. There are between 1,000 and 3,000 Kalmyks in Howell.

To teach the public more about the culture, festival coordinators had four "gers," circular tents held up by a wooden frame and covered with felt material that served as traditional housing for Mongolians, set up on the lawn.

"If you go to Kalmykia in modern day, you won't find this kind of structure. But if you go to Mongolia, there are still a lot of people who still use this type of material for housing, especially in the outskirts of the city," said Telo Tulku Rin Poche, the Buddhist spiritual leader of the Kalmyk people.

The "gers" can hold in warmth to withstand temperatures as low as about 20 degrees below zero, Rin Poche said. But it can still be kept cool during Mongolian summers, which reach up to 75 degrees, by rolling up the felt covering and opening a circular vent at the top of the structure.

A display of Kalmyk crafts and artwork were also showcased at the festival, featuring artifacts like Mongolian bows and arrows as well as paintings, poetry and calligraphy.

While many came to enjoy the weather and day's activities, the festival held a deeper significance for one Red Bank family.

Bosson Guchinov, a Mongolian man who happened to be at the University for a meeting, came to the folk festival with his wife Stephanie and daughter Sophia after his sister Zeba told him about it.

"I feel like I'm at home because I could speak the language and I know a lot of people and I'm like really like them, back in history," he said.

Just by attending, Guchinov coincidentally reunited with a few childhood friends he grew up with in Howell where his family attended a Buddhist church.

Likewise, Sophia Guchinov was also excited to see the Kalmyk cultural displays since she meets very few other Mongolians.

"To see all this, it's so amazing because I know the people and are related to them. So they actually built these [‘gers'] and have these in Mongolia, and that means a lot because there's a big connection there," she said. "This [festival] is really good because I'm … learning a lot more."

The idea to feature Kalmykia came from NJFF trustee Nikolai Burkaloff, who had a passion for the ethnic group and worked with NJFF Director Angus Gillespie to build relationships and connections to bring the "gers," Hummel said.

"This year, it's pretty remarkable because most people haven't even heard of Kalmykia," said Gillespie, a professor in the Department of American Studies. "But you just spend the day here, you come away with a better understanding."

Gillespie first launched the folk festival in 1975 when the dean of Douglass College wanted a year dedicated to the arts. The University had recently built an art school building complex, which is today known as Mason Gross School of the Arts.

When he spoke to the dean and joined the committee organizing the celebration, he was named director of the folk festival and was given $1,300 to run it.

Now that the NJFF has become a part of Rutgers Day, the festival's committee receives about $50,000 to run the day, Hummel said.

Gillespie said joining with Rutgers Day served as an advantage, since the University-wide event has an advertising budget larger than the NJFF's budget and therefore has a greater reach.

"If there's a disadvantage, it's that the message of the folk festival gets subsumed by this larger picture. But on the whole it's a good thing," he said.

Still visitors like Linda Levenberg of Elizabeth, who came with a friend, managed to enjoy the day while learning about a different culture.

"We listened to music in at least three to four different venues. We walked the craft line and sat in a ‘ger,'" she said. "We got a look at the Kalmyk culture, which we really weren't aware of before."

Levenberg, who graduated from Douglass College in 1977, is still involved with the Associate Alumnae of Douglass College.

"I don't think the campus has changed all that much," she said. "I think it's great that it's still as beautiful as it was."

Lauren Saxer, the festival manager, said the committee's hard work paid off, and that she was happy with the large turnout.

"My favorite part about today is seeing … families from all overcrowding the lawn of Eagleton," said Saxer, a School of Arts and Sciences senior. "I mean it's so different from what you usually see [at Rutgers] and everybody's generally interested in everything that we have."

Guchinov said he enjoyed his time and appreciated the recognition of his heritage.

"[Mongolia] is the least populated in the whole world and it's rich to get some kind of history," he said. "You're not going to get this from [anywhere else]. It's not in the history books anywhere."

Kristine Rosette Enerio

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