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Sunday, May 11, 2014

Khon: Hanuman in Pursuit of Supanna Matcha

I had the privilege of attending a Thai Cultural Performance, by the Bunditpatanasilpa Institute's Dance Troupe from Thailand. Invitations came from the Thai Embassy in Budapest. There were several dances, but I was most impressed by the Khon performance. Khon is a form of Classical Thai dance drama, originating from the Ayutthaya period of Thai history, dating from the 14th to 18th Century.  The dance drama is based exclusively on the Ramakien, the Thai version of the Hindu epic, the Ramayana. Traditionally all the roles were played by men wearing masks to the accompaniment of a piphat ensemble, and Ramakien could only be staged for the Royal Court. But today, female dancers perform the roles of female characters and basically anyone with an interest can attend a Khon performance.

Supanna Matcha peers anxiously to make sure she is not being followed by Hanuman
The episode of Khon staged that night was The Pursuit of Supanna Matcha.

Hanuman is comical
I'm assuming that you are more or less familiar with the Ramayana/Ramakien. The summary: Rama, Prince of Ayodhya, has been exiled for 14 years in the forest, at the instigation of his step-mother who wanted her own sons to inherit the throne of Ayodhya.(N.B. Ayodhya was in India, whereas the Ayutthaya Kingdom was based in Thailand).  Rama was accompanied by his wife, Sita, and his brother Lakshman in exile. While Rama and Lakshman were out hunting, Sita was abducted by the demon king, Tosakanth (Ravana) who carried her all the way to his island kingdom of Lanka. Hanuman, the monkey king, offered to help Rama rescue Sita from Tosakanth. It should be noted that Hanuman is not really a monkey but a vanara, a race of humanoid forest dwellers who could shape shift.

When they come across the sea which separated them from Lanka, Rama ordered the monkey/vanara army to build a bridge all the way to Lanka. A clever vanara called Nala came up with a design for the bridge. The bridge was well underway, when Rama encountered an unexpected adversary - the golden mermaid.

Supanna Matcha, the mermaid offspring of Tosakanth, who was also the Queen of all the Fishes, ordered her subjects to dismantle the land bridge built by Hanuman and his army. When Rama learnt of this, he sent Hanuman into the depths of the ocean in pursuit of Supanna Matcha, in an attempt to subdue her. Eventually, the bridge was completed and Rama named it Nala Setu or Nala's Bridge.

The performance was both engrossing as well as amusing. However, although she is supposed to be an antagonist, I can't help feeling sorry for the elegant and graceful mermaid, being pursued by the boisterous and clownish Hanuman.

The movements were energetic and mesmerising and the costumes drop-dead gorgeous and authentic to the last ring, anklets and bracelets worn by the dancers.

The sneaky Hanuman sneaks up on Supanna Matcha
Supanna Matcha pushes away Hanuman
An epic struggle ensues between Hanuman and Supanna Matcha

All's well that ends well? Notice the details of their fabulous costumes

This episode of the Ramakien is especially interesting because it refers to a real phenomenon, the Nala Setu; now more commonly known as the Rama Setu, a chain of coral reefs and limestone shoals which connects the Indian subcontinent to the island of Sri Lanka. Apparently, until 1480, one can actually walk across the Palk Strait from India to Sri Lanka - a distance of about 40 km! However, a cyclone in that year destroyed some of the shoals and shifted the sand...

The Setu Ram connects India to Sri Lanka

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