Thai Ramayana lights up desert sky in Rajasthan

Thai Ramayana lights up desert sky in Rajasthan

Partha Desikan

An article on the above subject was published by the Indo-Asian News Service on Thursday, February 28, 2008. I had not chanced on the article then and therefore could not refer to the happy proceedings when I blogged on Rama, Rajendra, Kesava and Kedili on July 14, 2008 where I began my account of my version of the history of idli with an admiring reference to the Ramakien and to the rendering of the devotional songs of Azhvars of Tamilnadu in Thailand.

I now happily reproduce the news report in its entirety.

The festival of lights is months away but it felt like Diwali in this small, dusty Rajasthan town ( Beawar, Ajmer District, Rajasthan) when thousands of lamps lit up a ground for a unique Ramlila show. Hanuman led a monkey army and lord Ram triumphed over evil Ravana – but all of them spoke fluent Thai.

A 60-member troupe of Thailand’s Sala Chalermkrung Royal Theatre this week performed ‘Hanuman the Mighty’, a dance drama of eight acts based on portions of the Ramakien – the Thai adaptation of the Indian epic Ramayana.

Electric bulbs sparkled on trees, bushes and the sprawling ground, as elderly people, youths and little children watched mesmerised. The fluid movements of the pretty Thai dancers wrapped in satin and brocade costumes embellished with sequins and colourful headgear transported them to a fantasyland.

Although the narration was in Thai with brief introductions to each act in Hindi, the audience laughed at the child Hanuman’s antics, cheered when the monkey army made human pyramids and performed gymnastic moves, sighed when Sita was on the verge of ending her life and clapped when Ram triumphed over demon king Ravana.

‘I have seen many performances of the Ramayana but this one was especially beautiful. Although the narration was in Thai, the artistes’ facial expressions and movements made it very easy for me to understand it,’ said Amar Sharma, a 55-year-old social worker who was in the audience.

It was the annual cultural fest that industrial house Shree Cement Limited has been organising at its plant in Beawar town of Ajmer district, about 60 km from state capital Jaipur.

‘We wanted to add a new dimension to corporate social responsibility by fostering better relations between India and other countries. Since the Ramayana is close to the heart of Indians, we organised this performance of the Thai Ramakien,’ H.M. Bangur, managing director of Shree Cement, said.

The Ramakien is one of the plays performed as part of Thailand’s traditional Khon dance drama. Khon combines Chak Nak Duekdamban (mythology), Krabi Krabong (martial arts) and Nang Yai (shadow play).

The earliest evidence of the Ramakien dates back to the 13th century when it was performed in the shadow puppet plays and dances that originated from Indonesia and Cambodia, which have their own versions of the Ramayana. The main story is similar to the Indian epic written by Valmiki but some details are different. While Ram is called Phra Ram, Sita is Sida and Ravana is Tosakanth.

The most complete version of the Ramakien was written by Thai king Rama I (1782-1809). But the Ramakien that is most widely used in productions, on account of its melodious verses, was composed by king Rama II (1809-1824).

Khon was regarded as a royal court performance but is now performed for the public as well at the royal theatre in Bangkok.

Pipatpong, one of the directors of the royal theatre, said: ‘This is the first time we are performing in India and the third outside Thailand. We have performed earlier in Germany and the Netherlands.’

Thai Consul General Manop Mekprayoonthong said: ‘Ramayana is an important epic not only in India and Thailand but the whole of South Asia. Its performance will help bring different cultures together.’

It takes about two hours for the performers to put on the glittering costumes with intricate designs. The costumes consist of about eight pieces that have to be tightly sewn together for every performance. The artistes remove the costumes by cutting the stitches with scissors.

Preeti Jain, a 36-year-old housewife, said: ‘The costumes were extremely beautiful and the artistes’ movements ranged from very delicate ones to complex acrobatic displays. It was a visual treat.’

The artistes of the royal theatre are taught at the Dramatic Art College in Bangkok. They normally get initiated into the world of Khon at the age of four and undergo training for 15 years.

Timothy, a 28-year-old who plays the role of a lion, said: ‘I was 12 years old when I was admitted to the college. At that time I didn’t know much about Khon or Ramakien and joined only because my mother wanted me to learn it. But now I feel proud to be a part of the theatre troupe.’

‘I am very happy that we came to India to perform the Ramakien as its roots lie here. Thailand has just adapted the Indian epic,’ he added.

Pipatpong said: “We want to perform in India again and are planning a trip to Kolkata later this year. However, it hasn’t been finalised yet.”

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