The story of Nang Narai, one of the reincarnated lives of the God Narai, who protects and helps people from all dangers and suffering, is to be found in the Ramayana Epic of India. The writer of the epic was the Richi Valmiki.
The story is about Rama and his consort, Sita, being banished from the city through his step mother’s trickery. Afterwards, Tosakan the Demon abducts Sita and brings her to his city, the City of Longa. Rama, with the help of troops of monkey warriors gives chase in order to bring his wife back. The story proceeds in an exciting and interesting way and is laden with hidden philosophical concepts relating to the idealistic virtues of the characters; for example, Rama’s bravery and Sita’s purity and loyalty to her husband in her role as his wife. The Indians believe that Rama is a reincarnation of the God Vishnu.
Hinduism originated from Brahmanism. Its major principles came from the Upanishad philosophy, which taught that the soul and the Atman existed within all human beings, who were parts of the Brahma. This concept held that goodness or badness originated within each individual and was thus different from the belief of the Veda period that taught that gods created the Karma. The important gods were the God Brahma, respected as the Creator, and the God Vishnu or Narai, believed to be the Peace Lover and Destroyer of Difficulties. The Hindus viewed the God Vishnu or Narai as their Supreme God. From this philosophical concept, it can be concluded that the God Vishnu or Narai was charged with the main duty of banishing vice and obstacles and turning the wrong to the right. So, the role of the God Narai was the subject of many stories and, later, these stories about god worship in Hinduism and the Ramayana Epic spread to Southeast Asia and to Thailand.
*Lecturer of Department of Dance Education, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, Bansomdejchaopraya Rajabhat University
From the Ramayana Epic to the Ramakien in Thai Performing Arts
The Ramayana Epic has been influential in all regions of Southeastern Asia. Thai people have been familiar with this epic since the Sukhothai Period, as is evident in the name of a cave, the “Phra Rama Cave” in the first inscription stone of King Ramkhamhaeng. The names, Phra Rama and the God Narai, can also be found in the second inscription stone of Wat Sri Chum. It is thus understood that when Sukhothai was the capital of the country, Indian civilization had influenced Thai art and culture since before the Dvaravati Period (the 11th -16th Buddhist Centuries or the 18th Century) onwards. In reference to this, Malinee Dilokwanich states, “In terms of the history of Indian civilization (100 -1000 A.D.), Indian civilization expanded to cover almost all the countries in Southeast Asia; namely, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, South Vietnam, Malaya, the Sumatra Archipelago, Borneo, Java and Bali. The acceptance of Indian civilization during this time resulted in a firm foundation for the development of performing arts and drama” (Malinee Dilokwanich, 2543: 223).
The Ramakien, a Thai adaptation of the Indian Ramayana, is considered to be a valuable literary work of all times. The philosophical ideas hidden in the work are seen through the characters’ words, their bravery, their self- sacrifice and their gratitude. These ideas correspond with the Buddhist belief about the results of the Karma—good or bad deeds being the results of an individual’s actions. Thai performing arts were partly influenced by Indian arts, starting with oral narratives, as well as by the concepts and belief in Hindu gods. Like the other Southeastern Asian countries, Thailand took the Indian influence and adapted and modified it to blend it with local art; the Ramakien, adapted from the Ramayana epic, was presented in the form of the Shadow Dance and the Khon Masked Drama. Evidence of this can be seen in the following versions of the Masked Drama:
1. The incantations of the Ramakien of the Ayuthaya Period—there remain only
episodes from the episode of “Rama Punishing Nang Sammanakkha” to “the Fall of Kumphakan the Demon”. These episodes are not in chronological order.
2. The Ramakien of the Ayuthaya Period, starting with the episode of “Rama
Gathering the Troops” and continuing to the episode of “the Communication of Ongkhot”.
3. The Ramakien of the Thonburi Period coming in four books: the first book depicts
the episode of “Phra Mongkut and Phra Lop”; the second book features the episode of “Hanuman the White Monkey Warrior Courting Nang Wanarin”; the third book presents the episodes of “Thao Maleewarach Presiding over a Trial” and “Tosakan the Arch Demon Returning to His City”; the fourth book deals with the episodes of “Tosakan the Arch Demon Organizing an Acidic Sand Ceremony,” “Phra Lux Being Struck by the Kabilapat Lance” and “Tosakan’s Locks Being Tied to Those of Nang Montho” (Thanit Youpho, 2506 : 150).
4. The Ramakien, the royal composition of King Buddhayodfah Chulalok, is the most
complete version of the Ramakien Drama because the King had royal court scholars compile different versions of the play that had been scattered since the Fall of Ayuthaya in 1867 to establish it as part of the cultural heritage of the nation.
5. The Ramakien which was composed by King Buddhalerdlah Naphalai, starts with
the episode of “Phra Rama Having Hanuman the White Monkey Warrior Presenting His Ring to Sita” and concludes with the episode of “Phra Rama’s Coronation”. Another part starts with the episode of “Phra Rama’s Journey into the Forest” and concludes with the episode of “Nang Adul, the Devil, Playing a Trick on Sita“ and the episode of “ the Wedding between Phra Rama and Sita at Mount Krailas” and “Their Return to the City”. This version also includes incantations of the episodes of “the Floating Lady,” “ the Naga Noose,” “ the Brahamas Arrow,” “the Battle of Mangkornkan” and “the Erawan Elephant”.
6. The Ramakien, written by King Mongkut, consists of the episode of “Phra Rama
Roaming in the Wilderness” and the Overture from the episode of “the God Narai Defeating Nonthuk”.
7. The Ramakien, composed by King Vajiravudh, consists of the episodes of “the
Richi’s Making Selection of Orachune’s Child,” “Tosakan Defeating Thataka and His Wedding,” “ Sita Being Lost,” “Longa on Fire,” “the Banishment of Phiphek,” “the Floating Lady,” “Building a Road to Longa,” “the Battle of Longa,”—the episode of “Sukarun Disguising the Troops,” “Sukreep Destroying the White-tiered Umbrella,” “the Communication of Ongkhote,” “the Kumphiniya Ceremony,” “the Nagabas Noose” and
“the Brahmas Arrow”. The compositions consist of songs, incantations and dialogues.
8. The versions of the Masked Drama adapted by the Department of Fine Arts
consist of excerpts from important episodes that can be completed in one performance and cover the early episode of “the God Narai Defeating Nonthuk” to the episode of “Phra Rama Return to the City”; a series of the episodes dealing with Phra Rama’s ruling the City, starting from the episode of “the Competition in Archery” and concluding with the episode of “Phra Rama’s Death” “Phra Rama’s Being Enshrined in the Urn”. This adaptation was based on King Buddhalerdlah Naphalai’s version (Srisurang Phulsup, referred to by the Office of the National Cultural Commission, 2534 : 13).
The God Narai Defeating Nonthuk
The God Narai Defeating Nonthuk Overture was composed by King Mongkut. It is the story of the reincarnation of the God Narai, who came to earth to eliminate the chaos caused by a demon.
Originally, the episode of “the God Narai Defeating Nonthuk,” was presented as a short performance known as the “Overture”. It has been performed since the reign of King Mongkut. The Department of Fine Arts presents this episode in the form of a Masked Drama which is accompanied by dances, known as the Rum Thii Bot or Rum Chai Bot, incantations and dialogue. The Piphat traditional orchestra accompanies the performance. The costumes resemble the dress of monarchs in ancient times. Currently, the Khon Masked Drama has been developed using male and female dancers to portray male and female characters.
The story of the reincarnated God Narai eliminating chaos on earth appears in the text, The Ten Reincarnated Lives of the God Narai , where Praphan Sukhonthachat describes how, in this reincarnation, the God disguises himself as a woman, “ ‘I (Narai),disguised myself as a woman to lure Nonthuk the Demon into my snare before I killed him’. The God Issuan asked Narai, ‘How did you disguise yourself as a beautiful woman? I want you to show me now.’ So, the God Narai showed Issuan how he had disguised himself as a beautiful female angel who had come down to the earth to defeat Nonthuk. Seeing an attractive woman in front of him, the God Issuan wooed her with sweet words ” (Praphan Sukhonthachat, 2531: 42). The Ten Reincarnated Lives of the God Narai, published by Wacharin Publishing House, presents the 12 reincarnated lives of the God; his reincarnation to eliminate suffering on earth is in his ninth life and this period is known as “Thep Absorn Avatara” (Wiyada Laosunthorn, 2529 : 45). The Royal Publishing House’s version also presents this episode in the ninth life of the God and calls it “Absorn Avatara” (Praphan Sukhonthachat, 2531 : 49). From the evidence above, it can be assumed that the ninth life bearing the name “Thep Absorn Avataar” and that named “Absorn Avatara” refer to the same period in the life of the God Narai. The story is about a Brahman demon who is sent by the God Issuan to serve as a guardian at the entrance of Mt. Krailas and whose duty it is to wash the feet of angels who come to see the God Issuan. The name of this demon is Nonthuk.
Nang Narai as the Idealistic Prototype
Thai society in the past was an agricultural society which consisted of extended families. It was administered by a ruler who was able to unify communities under his rule to form a country. The way of life followed what members of society considered to be right. Thida Saraya discusses the Thai social context that affects its culture, “The meaning of culture as seen nowadays is much more involved with social change. Culture is concerned with the lives of people living in any particular society. In order not to mix this up with the phrase, arts and culture, which is a kind of cultural form, we should refer to a culture that is related to people’s way of life as “cultural life”. This cultural life undergoes evolution and change. It has to be developed in order to create meaning for society and to make human beings realize the meaning of being human” (Thida Saraya, 2552 : 70).
The Ramakien is involved with the context of Thai society in terms of the philosophy of life, the belief in Hindu gods and Buddhist concepts of virtue and evil, goodness defeating badness, the causative Karma and good and bad Karma. The reincarnation of the God Narai, through his disguise as a female angel, to eliminate the evil in the Ramakien corresponds to the Indian philosophy relating to the Atman. This is shown through characters who are endowed with idealistic characteristics, as can be seen in the God Narai’s disguise as a woman in the episode of “Narai Defeating Nonthuk” in the Ramakien.
Photo: Nang Narai tricking Nonthuk into imitating her dance postures, performed by the Baan Somdech Masked Dance Troupe
(Source: Patama Watanaphanich : 2011)
Not only does the role of Nang Narai in this performance demonstrate the philosophical belief in Hindu gods but the story is also full of excitement from both the literary and performance aspects, as is seen, especially, in the portrayal of the role of the female sex. The biological aspect makes women physically refined, tender, careful and meticulous with detail. This has enabled them to exercise their influence over the male sex, society and culture at all times, as is evident in their taking care of the household, nurturing their children and preparing food. However, society has also reared women to be weak and dependent on their families. Women’s main duties within the household emphasize the separation of the gender roles and result in males enjoying a higher social status than the females. However, if the notion of gender roles is viewed from the reverse perspective, males, in order to achieve what they want to in their lives, have to depend on the role and domestic duties of females. Evidently, females are behind the success of their males.
The Role of Nang Narai in Narai Avatara
The structure of the Thai social context runs parallel with the administrative, legal and religious systems. The study of the female gender through the portrayal of Nang Narai in the contemporary dance, Narai Avatara, created by Narapong Charassri, demonstrates a new way of interpreting gender issues, as stated by Sanoh Chareonporn, “Women are placed as sex objects to respond to men’s sexual desire” (Sanoh Chareonporn, 2548: 48). Nang Narai shows that by relying on his disguise as a female, Narai finds a way to eliminate a wicked male like Nonthuk. The female role of Nang Narai is used as a sex symbol; her beauty attracts the male to come close to cherish the beauty. What the male does to the male in disguise as a female is prompted by his sexual desire.
Photo: The role of gender
(Source: “Narai Avatara, 2007 : 56)
The role of the female sex
(Source: “Narai Avatara, 2007 : 173)
In creating the character of Nang Narai in the contemporary dance, “Narai Avatara,” the artist has selected a dancer who has experienced dance techniques from a variety of cultures, for example, ballet, modern dance and contemporary Thai dance. The role of Nang Narai is created with many new dance components but, at the same time, the Mae Bot (prototype) traditional dance postures are preserved, for example, the Four-Faced Brahman posture, the Sod Soi Mala posture and the Ched Chin posture. The style is created through the use of dancers who are able to perform various cultural styles, such as Thai dance, folk dance and Western dance.
The research has found that in the creation of a new type of Nang Narai character in the contemporary performance, “Narai Avatara” by Naraphong Charassri, a new format and concept have been used The format consists of performing scripts, choreography, music, costume, stage, lighting, performers and props. The creative concept consists of the reflection of the role of females in Thai society, the conservation of traditional Thai culture, the use of symbols, the use of the performing arts and visual arts theories, an awareness of how to create novelty in the performance, the application of varied cultures, an awareness of the significance of communication, various performing formats, moral virtues and the new generation of youth. It has also been found that the creation of the Nang Narai character is a response to people of the new generation who are interested in traditional literary works and knowledge of them. This Nang Narai character is created to enable the audience to understand and appreciate the role of Nang Narai in the past, portraying Narai in the role of Nang Absorn (a female angel), the role of a wise beautiful woman and the role the male in female guise.
Photo: A male in female guise in Chuichai Brahma Dance
(Source: Patama Watanaboonya : 2013)
Photo: A male in female guise in Narai Avatara
(Source: “Narai Avatara, 2007 : 27)
The roles of contemporary Nang Narai are concerned with a glorification of the values of the female sex, the gender role, the role of the female sex and the role of the wife. It can be concluded that the new portrayal of Nang Narai in “Narai Avatara” by Naraphong Charassri has been developed from the traditional Nang Narai character. The artist has created this character to glorify women’s values and to make them more acceptable in communities, society and the country.
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