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Tracing the Ramayana in Southeast Asia

Lakshmi Sharath
22 April 2013
Travel Ramayana Southeast Asia
A scene from a performance of the Ramayana from Southeast Asia.

My guide Najeeb asked me if I wanted to watch a performance based on the Ramayana. I told her it is like carrying coal to Newcastle.

“But you don’t get to see the Singapore version of the Ramayana in India,” she retorted and I had to give in. A few minutes later, we were on our way to the Peranakan Museum to see ‘Ramayana Revisited.’ Najeeb, meanwhile, explained the origins of the Peranakans, early Chinese immigrants who have created a culture of their own, by merging with the local communities.

“But not everybody is Chinese — you have Indians, Indonesians and Malaysians forming a part of this ethnic group as well,” added Najeeb. That probably explained the interest in the Ramayana, I thought, and wondered if there was really an audience for it here in Singapore.

At the entrance of the museum were a couple of Singaporean Tamils teaching a group of Chinese and European kids to draw rangoli, while their parents indulgently watched them paint the floor with colourful designs. I walked in to be greeted by another group of children sitting patiently for the artistes to recreate the legend for them. A painted Hanuman carrying a mace dangled from the ceiling. Huge banners portraying the epic as ‘A Tale of Love and Adventure’ screamed from the walls. As the tourists were getting ready with their cameras, the children who had come to watch suddenly got curious.

The Ramayana seemed to be rather fashionable here. There were Batik prints of the epic on sale; there were curios on display under the name of Heroic Handicrafts – you could even buy your own Ramayana badge. This was going to be interesting, I thought, remembering Dadasaheb Phalke and Ramanand Sagar in the same breath.

With a twist
A couple of artistes walked in with painted faces, adjusting their long flowing pink and orange costumes. I heard a lilting Oriental melody as a hush fell. The Ramayana had just got its Chinese avatar. The Royal Chinese Opera performed ‘In the Forests of Dandakar’ while English subtitles played out on a screen.

There were Rama and Lakshmana in the forest with Sita, when Soorpanakha discovered Rama. The scenes were familiar but the screenplay was intriguing. The artistes mesmerised the audiences, dancing their way around the stage enacting various scenes, depicting desire, revenge, anger, violence. As heroism triumphed in the end, the Chinese artistes took a bow and the Ramayana transcended beyond the scope of a Hindu epic to the realm of world art. To the younger audiences, however, this probably seemed like a colourful oriental spectacle of superheroes who wear masks.

A little later, I was chatting with the artistes who told me that they study the Ramayana as an art form and they have seen many interpretations of the epic in Southeast Asia. As we spoke, a golden-masked Hanuman walked in and started rehearsing his steps for the next performance. This was the Cambodian pageantry called ‘Dances from the Reamker’ where Hanuman has a romantic side and falls in love. The performance was evocative as we saw a softer side to the monkey god, but soon the war scenes took over with amazing energy and movement on stage. The Chinese and Cambodian versions were as different as chalk and cheese and yet the sense of familiarity was overwhelming.

Talking to tourists, I tried to understand the fascination for the epic tale. While we clothe it in layers of myths and religion with political overtones, to them it was a pageantry of human emotions such as lust and desire. During the break, I walked around the museum to know more about the Peranakans and I came across the Ramayana display. A montage of various versions of the epic from across the world was depicted here and I was lost in the artistic interpretations. My eyes looked for the Indian display when I chanced upon episodes of Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan on a TV screen.

“Are you Indian?” asked one of the museum curators, explaining that they related to the epic through the serial, which was according to them, an epitome of the legend itself. I laughed at the irony of a TV show being on par with the various art forms, but then, one cannot dismiss the power of mass media.

Balinese splendour

A few days later, I flew to Bali from Singapore, only to find both the Ramayana and Mahabharata literally in my face. There was the famous Balinese shadow puppetry, but the vibrant kecak or fire dance fascinated me. It has its roots in exorcism, where a dancer on horseback jumps into a flame in a state of trance and the performance ends on a rather fiery note. But the dance drama relied heavily on the Ramayana. It was not just a performance, but a ritual.

The performances were more powerful, the costumes got a lot more colourful and there were more characters. There was no music, only loud chanting of “Chak”, called the Ramayana Monkey Chant, by the male chorus. As the scenes got more dramatic, the tempo of the chant would rise and fall as the performers swayed theirs arms, creating an effect of the war between Rama’s monkey army and Ravana. The performance stayed with me long after I had left Bali.

Back home, I could not but think about the many forms of the Ramayana. Is it a fantasy about superheroes and animals, an allegory of good over evil, a drama laced with lust and power, a religious epic dictating a code of conduct or just a simple story of  love and adventure?

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