It’s a tale as old as time but the Ramayana is enjoying a sudden bout of renewed interest with a number of liter ary, academic and cultural interpreta tions offering fresh perspective on the epic. ‘Ramayana: A Shared Culture’, a recently screened documentary film, tries to highlight the epic’s global appeal as a culture sign not just in India but across 10 countries in south Asia and south east Asia.
Shot for the ministry of external affairs, the film directed by culture historian and filmmaker Benoy Behl shows the appeal the story of Ramayana has across diverse geographical regions starting from Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR to Myanmar, Nepal, Bhutan, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Vietnam.
“The story of the Ramayana is enacted more often than any other story across the world,” says Behl.
Ramayana’s popularity in south and South East Asia could have a strong link with southern India’s maritime relations with countries in the said region. “The Ramayana would have travelled, along with Sanskrit along many routes.The sea-faring route would have been the main one reaching South East Asia. Here, the great Hindu Kingdom of Champa (which covered most of Vietnam) would have played a major role in the dissemination of the epic. The present-day Tamil Nadu region and the coast of Andhra Pradesh and Odisha, were in constant interaction with South-East Asia. Ramayana could have travelled through these ports too.”
Today, the epic has survived in essence in many of these cultures but with subtle variations. That nuanced difference, says Behl, is present in India too. “In North India, the focus is on the triumph of Rama over Ravana, while in south India the emphasis is on the life of Rama, Sita and Lakshmana in the forest. Such differences exist in the versions of the epic in south and south East Asian countries too. The Hanuman in Nepal is the deeply reverential devotee (of Rama). In Cambodia and Thailand, his manly and attractive persona is emphasised. However, the final idea is the same -he is a powerful and glorious being, completely devoted to Rama,” Behl adds.
The local interpretations of the epic play out in their respective performing arts forms too -whether it a ramleela performance in Odissi, an all-women performance of Reamker in Cambodia, a Lhayee Lugar performance in Bhutan and a Cecak dance recital in Bali.
“The version of Ramayana staged on the Rama Leela Ground of Delhi is more based on the Bollywood style. The performance in Nepal has simplicity and depth to it. It is more focused on the life of Rama, Sita and Lakshmana in the forest. The Hindus of Bali in Indonesia also give performances of the Ramayana for tourists, practically every day. There it is called the Cecak dance,” adds Behl.
What makes the Ramayana’s cultural spread even more interesting is that it acquires a secular colour with non-Hindus participating in the performances. “Indonesia has Muslim and Christian actors who perform the Ramayana almost every day of the year in Yogyakarta, in front of the grand Prambanan Temple,” says Behl. “The most gentle and meditative performance of the Ramayana that I have shot so far, was near the Angkor Wat in Cambodia. This was by the ‘Sacred Dancers of Angkor’.”
Behl’s camera tracked Bharatnatyam based performance of the Ramayana not just in India but in Singapore and Sri Lanka too. “I had documented the Ramayana in the Koodi yattam tradition extensively in 1992, with Guru Amanoor Madhava Chakyar and others. Presentation of the epic in Koodiyattam is a powerful one,” he says.
Apart from theatrical and folk traditions, Behl says the Ramayana is an integral part of the lives of the people of these countries. “In a normal conversation, it is common to hear the phrase ‘Now, you are behaving like Vibhisana’, as in the epic Vibhisana goes against his brother Ravana and joins Rama’s army,” he adds.