Phralak Phralam – Ramleela, Lao style!

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After coming to Malaysia, I have been amazed by how widespread the popularity of Ramayan is in Southeast Asia. First, I found out that many stories of wayang kulit, or shadow puppetry, borrow heavily from the Ramayan. Then, I came across this article recently, detailing how Muslim artists in Indonesia consider the Ramayana a part of Javanese culture. In Cambodia, scenes from the Ramayana and Mahabharta are etched on the walls of Angkor Wat.

Therefore, it should have come as no surprise that Phralak Phralam – the Laos version of Ramayana – is staged every alternate night at the Royal Palace Museum theatre, the most popular tourist destination, in Luang Prabang, Laos. But surprised I was!

Phralak Phralam is actually Phra Lak – Lakshman – and Phra lam – Ram, a musical depicting the abduction of Nang Sida (Sita) by evil Thotsakan (Ravan) of Longkha (Lanka) and her rescue by Phralak and Phralam, with the help of Hanuman and his army of monkeys. Sounds familiar?

Phralak2Well, there’s also Ongkhot (Angad?) and Jatayu, as well as lesser known characters (whose names have probably been distorted beyond recognition) – Phragna Khout, Somphouphanh, and an eagle named Sampathy (Jatayu’s elder brother).

The performance itself was highly unique and engaging – with all the male characters wearing beautifully carved and painted masks, and all characters wearing gold-embroidered costumes. I especially enjoyed Hanuman’s performance – who is shown in this particular iteration with a touch of whimsy and mischief. The show is less drama and more of a musical, with dialogues rendered as a song in a woman’s voice, or with dramatic music.

Check it out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J8T5hMF-85s

The Phralak Phralam website helpfully mentions:

The Lao Ramayana differs from the original Indian version of the Ramayana. The Ramayana reached Laos late, around the sixteenth century, brought by Buddhist missions. The original Indian epic adapted to the geography, names of figures and regional languages. Consequently, all the story in the Lao Ramayana is situated in the valley of the Mekong, the grand royal city is called Chanthabouri Si Sattanak, while Lanka remains an island far from the heart of the kingdom, inaccessible and dangerous.

Particularly mesmerizing were the fluid movements of all the protagonists, especially of the women in the Nang Keo dance, and the live folk music accompanying the show. I managed to get a closer look at the traditional instruments and noticed that many of them were lovingly painted with pretty motifs. I also feel that Thai influences were evident, especially with the spires on the headsets, but would love it if someone familiar with the topic could confirm my hunch!

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Nang Keo Dance

The website says that this version was choreographed in 2003, and that the Phralak Phralam was earlier performed in various Luang Prabang palaces, usually during the Lao new year called Pimai. I would highly recommend watching this video for the theatre’s history and painstaking preparation of the beautiful masks.

Since the actors were all wearing masks, I initially felt that their work must be easier, as they didn’t have to manage their expressions, only their movements. But as I looked closely, I could feel them emoting with all their being, and the effort was evident when their masks came off. They were literally embodying the characters they were playing, and the masks made no difference as such. There were also teenagers and preteens playing the monkeys in Hanuman’s army and they were a joy to watch, remembering to scratch themselves occasionally and bringing fun and a light touch to the show. Loved it!

The Phralak Phralam adaptation of Ramayana is pretty close to the actual one. But I have noticed that stories, especially old ones, have a life of their own. They travel, mutate and adapt to the local context, revealing the ingenuity of all those they come in contact with.

Wonder what I’m talking about? Well, fancy this: One day, Sita was pining for some mushrooms. Yes, you read that right. Mushrooms! So she asks Hanuman to get some for her from Lanka. This is a story I heard at Garavek – a theatre involving a traditional storyteller and an old musician playing the khem (wind instrument made of bamboo). It apparently explains how Mount Phousi (a favourite sunset point) in Luang Prabang was named after Sita.

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View from Mount Phousi, Luang Prabang

So, with some coaxing, Hanuman flies from Luang Prabang to Lanka for Sita’s mushrooms, but when he gets back, Sita says she wanted another variety. So he flies back again, and gets another type of mushrooms, but Sita refuses these ones too. This happens many times, till Hanuman gets fed up and asks Sita, ‘What is the name of this type of mushroom that you crave?’ Sita, apparently, cannot answer this question, because the variety she wants is called ‘monkey’s ear’ and she knows this will upset Hanuman.

Finally, Hanuman uproots a mountain from Lanka and brings it back to Luang Prabang, leaving Sita free to choose whichever mushrooms she wants. And this is how Mount Phousi got its name!

Imagine Hanuman flying a mountain from Lanka to Luang Prabang so that Sita can eat mushrooms. I can’t stop laughing! At the same time, I am amazed at the creativity of storytellers in the sixteenth and later centuries, as this tale must have been passed on from generation to generation. It’s interesting that Ramrajya is anywhere (India, Laos, Thailand), but Lanka is only one! Kind of a human habit to believe the good in ourselves, but evil to be far away.

I have many more such amazing stories about Luang Prabang, so watch this space for more!

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The Puppetmistress

In the age of Netflix and an unending stream of good-quality shows, who has the time for a childish pastime like puppetry? Or so I thought, until I happened to catch a showcase of wayang kulit – a traditional Malaysian puppetry show – in George Town. That show turned out to be my first tryst with Southeast Asian puppetry and I have seen many more forms, from puppets the size of my hand (Potehi) to puppets two times taller than me over the one year I have lived in Penang. Apparently, it’s not just for kids!

Any artform is a veritable window into the local culture of a place and wayang kulit, literally, shadow play, is no exception. More popular in Kelantan state of Malaysia, wayang kulit can be understood as wayang, meaning “theater,” and kulit, meaning “skin,” referring to the leather puppets used to portray shadows on a white screen. The puppeteer, or tok dalang, sits behind a screen and presses the intricately carved leather puppets onto it, creating shadow play. Here’s the amazing part: in every showcase, a single puppeteer animates ALL the puppets and voices ALL of them! There could be around 40 characters in a play, but the tok dalang will single-handedly manage all the puppets and animate them!

Music is a big part of the performance; the tok dalang is always be accompanied by traditional musicians who perform the opening song, in-between melodies and background score. They usually sit on mats behind the master puppeteer and play accompanying music with traditional Malay percussion and wind instruments, like barrel drums, gongs, cymbals and a traditional oboe. The performance often starts with a tree of life motif (with two giant leaves being pressed repeatedly onto the screen) and the troupe playing a traditional song.

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Tok dalang animates leather puppets behind the curtain. Source: commons.wikimedia.org

From what I understood, wayang kulit is most popular in the villages of Kelantan state if Malaysia, where interestingly, there is wayang kulit festival held every year. In fact, even the performance I saw was by a troupe from Kelantan. Interestingly, the wayang kulit of Kelantan most often tells stories of the Hikayat Maharaja Wana, an oral epic poem derived from Ramayana.  The main story is about two brothers, Seri Rama and Laksmana, who are the sons of a king. Instead of either one becoming the next king, both brothers along with Rama’s wife, Sita Dewi, are banished from the kingdom. Maharaja Wana (Ravan) then kidnaps Sita Dewi and takes her to Langkapuri (Lanka), from where Seri Ram, along with the help of the brave monkey warrior Hanuman, must rescue her.

Sounds familiar? Well, if you are imagining a Ramleela type of unfolding of events, you are sorely mistaken! Wayang kulit has taken inspiration from Ramayana but adapted it completely to the local context. The dialogues, for instance, are in Kelantanese and the supporting cast often includes local characters like monks or court jesters. What’s more, to attract Gen Y, puppeteers have started introducing minions, Star Wars characters and Mickey Mouse! Talk about adaptations!

The puppets are also painted in various hues, adding another layer of creativity and dynamism to the ancient art form.

Wayang kulit has an interesting performance tradition. In the rural villages of Kelantan, the puppet show often starts in the evening as a form of entertainment and perhaps goes on the entire night! The audiences sit on both sides of the screen, chat amongst themselves, step out to buy some essentials, have a meal and mill around – becoming an active part of the performance, instead of a mere passive audience. The puppetry show acts as a communal activity, wherein the audience isn’t expected to merely sit and listen, but move about, and perhaps even interact with some of the cast members as the performance goes on.

The performance I saw was held at the Hock Teik Sein Chin temple in UNESCO World Heritage Site George Town. The temple has a square courtyard and a stage where the troupe Wayang Kulit Seri Warisan Pusaka performed that night with members aged between 13 and 70; five among them were from a single family. Like many traditional art forms, the skills have been passed on from generation to generation within families.

What I really found interesting was how the puppetry show was a communal activity (even in its modern avatar). The concept of a ‘moving audience’ intrigued me. As it is, every person experiences art differently, and to add another dimension to that experience by encouraging audiences to move about, get different perspectives and go backstage, made the experience richer in my opinion.
And this is just one experience! I have many more to share with you. Like I said, puppetry – who knew!!