Published in Devlok, Sunday Midday on Sept 04, 2011.
Ramayana is a popular epic not just in India but also in South East Asia across Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia right down to Indonesia. These were the lands visited by seafaring traders over a thousand years ago and they carried with them the great epic. But the Ramayana of South East Asia is as different from Ramayana in Indian spirit as it is similar in form.
Yes, there is Ram and Ravana and Sita and Surpanakha and Hanuman, but the idea of bhakti is missing. Ram is a hero-prince and Hanuman is his friend and helper and servant, almost reminding you of a knight in shining armor of a heroic fairy tale helping a gentle and noble prince find his wife abducted by a nasty ghoul. There is a lot of rasa emanating from the performers — shringara (romance) and virya (heroism) and hasya (laughter) and karuna (empathy) and vibhitsa (disgust), but not much emotional outpouring aimed at connecting with the audience and making them part of the performance. The focus is more on adventure and less on religious doctrine.
This is most evident when one witnesses the Kechak dance of Bali in Indonesia. This was traditionally a dance associated with trance, possession and animistic traditions but in the 1930s with a little help from an Austrian adventurer, it was transformed into what is now famously called the Monkey dance. It involves over a hundred bare bodied men, dressed in sarongs, sitting in a circle, moving their hands and bodies to the rhythmic sounds produced using only their mouth, sounds like ‘chuck-a-chuk’ which have no meaning but fill the space with eerie magical aural vibrations.
As the Ramayana is performed, the circle of men transforms into the forest into which Ram is exiled, the body of the golden deer, the Laxman Rekha of Ram’s hut, the throne of Ravana and burning city of Lanka. It is a sight to behold in open air amphitheaters by the sea.
The dramatic entrance of Ravana and his Rakshasas, with ugly masks and costumes showing big buttocks and bellies, overshadow the gentle grace of the royal couple from Ayodhya. The Raskhasas behave like lovable ogres who transform into brutes and delight the audience with their wild and vulgar antics. It is their presence that the audience craves for, more than Ram or Sita. But clearly the hero of the South East Asian Ramayana is Hanuman.
He is not the great submissive and wise devotee of Valmiki and Tulsidasa. He is a lovable mischievous and mighty rake, a cross of Krishna and Bhima. When he arrives, the audience is energized. They clap as he teaches the villains a lesson. He is the Han Solo of Star Wars, Aragon of the Lord of the Rings, and Hagrid of Harry Potter rolled into one.
Disturbing to the devout Indian Hindu though is the idea that Hanuman of many South East Asian Ramayanas is not a celibate brahmachari. He flirts and uses his sexuality to charm and annoy and break hearts of many a Rakshasa woman. His white costume, his fangs and his bright eyes, as he jumps around triumphantly, while the Kechak dancers wail and scream and shake their hands, is a delight to watch as the sun goes down and a circle of coconut coir is set ablaze to depict the golden city of Ravana in flames.