Chetana Nagavajara

How things have changed beyond our control! In our Thai version of the “Ramayana” known as the “Ramakien”, the 18 monkeys are avatars of devas who help Rama in his fight against Ravajna, known in Thai as Thosakan. We Thai could not care less about original meaning or context or etymology, and a group of hooligans who tattooed themselves with the images of these holy monkeys in the early 20th century were known as “the 18 monkeys”. So the word has entered the Thai language, bearing a derogatory meaning of crooks or scoundrels. I don’t think the dance troupe that performed at the Siam Society in the evening of 30 June 2015 wanted to align themselves with those original bullies, but rather with the Ramakien. In any case, the name of the troupe does catch your attention, and when these dancers enlisted the collaboration of classical musicians to perform with them, the event promised to be more than just a routine show. To compound the matter even further, the musicians decided to hark back to Bach and Corelli with those works that rank as the acme of Western classical music in terms of technical and interpretative demands, and the audience could not help wondering how the choreography and the music would match. And they did match, though not in the conventional sense of, say, Tchaikovsky and “Swan Lake”; but in a strange way, they spoke different languages, yet they did illuminate each other and enter into a dialogue that was more suggestive than explicit. It was left to us the audience to read a meaning out of this singular conversation.

Act 1, accompanied by Bach’s “Suite No. 2 in D minor for Solo Violoncello”, plays on the theme of order versus disorder/chaos. Those chairs lying around haphazardly in the middle of the hall are, by and by, brought into order by the dancers, who seem to have taken a cue from the structural supremacy of the music that is in no way lacking in variety of moods. Towards the end of the Act, the chairs are arranged in a perfect line, and one dancer crawls slowly underneath those chairs in one direction, signifying perhaps a self-willed or self-imposed subjugation to orderliness. This, being the first Act of the evening’s performance, serves, in Western context as an overture, and in the Thai context as a “Wai Khru” (veneration of the teachers), as art turns inward, examines itself and comes out with a manifesto-like message as if to say: ours is the difficult task of creating order out of chaos that requires an extraordinary degree of self-discipline.

Act 2 can afford to be more flexible and even improvisational. It becomes even more ambitious in attempting to tell a story. The music is one of the most familiar of Bach’s compositions, “Partita No. 3 in E major f or Solo Violin”, whose first movement is often played by great virtuosi as an encore after a great concerto like the Brahms or the Beethoven. If familiarity is the hallmark of this music (which in no way detracts from its difficulty and sophistication), the dance wants likewise to offer a familiar narrative; familiar, yes, but only to those who know contemporary Thailand well enough. The narrative begins with a deva emptying from a sack very small pieces of shredded foam that look exactly like rice grains, filling the centre space. (I am talking of a theatre in the round.) Everybody that treads on these rice grains trips and falls. Rice comes from the gods, is to be consumed wisely, and it must not be forgotten that our traditional Thai society used to perform rituals of veneration of the rice goddess known as Mae Phosop. The deva himself does not maintain distance from the godly gift and stoops down to mingle with human beings, even allows himself to be seduced by a female creature. At the beginning of the Act, this girl is pulled around by a man, showing absulute obedience to the latter. In choreogrphic terms, the dancers have plenty of room to exhibit their prowess, but all this has to happen within the narrative frame. One single act performed by the male dancer gives us the clue to the gist of the story: the male dancer stuffs rice into his mouth with one hand and stays in that posture for quite a long while. Then he drops to the floor and performs a series of convulsive movements. The message is loud and clear: THE RICE STORY that has almost plunged Thailand into perdition. The chairs have in the meantime been thrown into a heap, looking like damaged furniture that piled up in Bangkok and its vicinities after the devastating floods in 2011. The Act concludes with all the characters drowning in that heap of ruins, while the hall darkens. Even the deva is not spared. What a contrast with the spiritually uplifting music of Bach! To speak in the Brechtian parlance, the dance and the music are locked in a process of mutual alienation (Verfremdung). What an ingenious way to prove the Brechtian theory that “Verfremdung” is a theatrical device to make you think! And I am personally grateful for that prompting towards thinking or reflection that does not go over into weeping. At this stage, art stops short of becoming real life.


The third and last Act is an acknowledgement of the contemporary dancers’ debt to tradition. The roots in the Khon (masked theatre) are demonstrated via the traditional combat between monkeys and demons, whose divisive training constitutes the foundation of male dancing. Strangely enough, this dance ensemble engages a Westerner who is small in size to assume the role of a monkey (Ling), and an unsually tall and robust Thai as a demon (Yak), an arrangement that runs counter to local Thai expectations. That can be considered a boon from the performing point of view, especially for the combat scene in which the demon Thosakan has to lift the monkey Hanuman, a scene that often causes embarrassment if Thosakan and Hanuman happen to be of almost comparable size. It is worth observing that the hostility between them is not always irremediable, for there are moments when they try to become conciliatory, expressed by the use of a fan. Other dancers representing human roles also have a chance to demonstrate their virtuosity in this Act. The music used is apposite, for Corelli’s “Violin Sonata in D minor, (La Follia)”, is a real virtuoso piece, which gets impestuous at times, and even the continuo part played by the cello rises occasionally to the level of an equal partner, which goes well with the Thosakan-Hanuman rivalry. The session ends on a philosophic note: the belligerence only comes to an end at the point when the dancers take off their masks and reveal their human identities. It is only in the realm of the human that reconciliation becomes possible. Let us face reality in the human world and in a humane way.

I must emphasize that this is how I read the message from what I saw and heard at the Siam Society this last Tuesday evening. I can never know the intentions of the choreographer. All in all, the performance was not only aesthetically enjoyable, but undeniably thought-provoking. Leaving aside the technical accomplishment of the performers, one must admit that there was a philosophical and social undercurrent that propped up this performance. The blending of Western and Thai artistic traditions may have been conceived as an experiment, but it was an experiment that could convey messages of real import. The Siam Society is no longer a venue for traditionalist scholarship, it is functioning well as a critical apparatus for our contemporary society.

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