A fresh take on the Ramayana

Art July 20, 2012 00:00

By Jasmine Baker
Special to The

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Ancient becomes relevant as Chula students breathe life into Ravana of the 10 heads

India’s ancient epic the Ramayana came to life last week as Chulalongkorn University students delved into its moral quandaries and followed them into modern times.

The presentation at Chula’s Sodsai Pantoomkomol Centre for Dramatic Arts was part a research project undertaken by Associate Professor Pornrat Damrhung and his drama majors. It will also be staged at a theatre-school festival in Taipei.

They drew their inspiration from “Lanka Sip Ho” (“The Ten-headed Ravana”), a nearly forgotten version of the Ramayana sung by the Tai-Lue, an ethnic group in northern Thailand.

It was interesting how they diverged from the customary good-versus-evil approach found in most versions, including Thailand’s Ramakien.

The production holds to the original story line, but Phra Ram (Rama) is no longer merely a pious incarnation of Vishnu coming to save the world. He is instead a normal human whose pride costs him his wife.

Wanting to please Nang Kaew Sida (Sita) with a gift, he’s fooled into following a beautiful golden deer that’s actually a demon in disguise and leaves Sida alone in the forest, an easy target for kidnappers.

The demon king Pummachak (Ravana) is no longer vicious and lustful without a clear reason. We witness the rather rational source of his resentment of people: As a child he was bullied every day for having 10 heads. Several actors in turn portray his development from young boy seeking acceptance to determined teenager to corrupt adult. The actors intertwine their portrayals by passing on the demon mask one to the next.

The production highlights the hero’s weakness and the villain’s pitiful background to remind viewers that life has many shades between stark black and white. And shifting back and forth between the ancient tale and the thoughts of a modern youth connects the viewer to centuries-old fictional characters.

Humans have equal potential to be good or bad and the ability to choose. The Tai-Lue people express this in their belief that the human heart is both the brightest and the darkest thing in Creation.

Unfortunately, such concepts are the production’s chief strength while the presentation lags. There are many amateurish elements – puppets, a shadow play and the performers’ movements – that contrast sharply with the exquisite traditional Tai-Lue music and what could potentially be charming choreography that mingles contemporary and classical dance.

Also, juxtaposing the popular song “Dek Oey Dek Dee” – which lists the 10 things good children do – with clips of go-go dancers and school kids beating each other up is too simplistic to convey the message about good and evil that follows.

Importantly, though, what I saw last Friday was only a work-in-progress, by a cast of drama students, not professionals. They deserve plenty of leeway in any evaluation.

“Lanka Sip Ho” is an admirable university production that allows aspiring theatre-makers to explore their creativity and physical abilities alongside their professor and professional artists.

The show obviously has its other merits, beyond achieving the maximum aesthetic heights. Still, I hope it gets much more polished by the time it’s staged overseas.