Dr Anant Narkkong (standing row: second from right) and composer Ghanavenothan Retnam (standing row: second from left), with musicians involved in Manohra. (Photo: Tan Ngiap Heng / Courtesy of Bhaskar’s Arts Academy)
What is the significance of the tale of Manohra as well as the dance drama to Thai culture?
The Jataka tale, Manohra, holds a very important place in Thai culture for both royal and folk arts. In the royal court, there was a position of royal playwright for a genre of theatre called Lakhon Nok between the 16th-18th century (known as the Ayutthaya period). There were many forms of visual arts created around the story of Kinnaree/Manohra too, as seen by the sculptures and paintings of Kinnaree that decorate many famous temples and royal palaces.
The story of Manohra is a firm favourite within the Lakhon Nok canon. The theatrical elements of music and dance always win the hearts of audiences. The role of the female heroine, Manohra, in Thai Lakhon Nok is very important, and comparable to other male lead roles in other Lakhon stories.
In folk arts, especially in the Southern part of Thailand, Manohra, or in short “Nora”, has ritualistic significance such as a shaman in trance, dressed in human-bird (kinnaree) costume, singing and dancing to music and a particular rhythm. Southern Thai people also believe in the magical powers of Manohra. Somehow the male Nora/Kinnaree has a higher status than the female one, and has gained much respect from their society. I should also mention that there are versions of Manohra in the Northeast Isaan and North Lanna regions. The performance elements differ from one place to another.
In modern Thai or urban culture, we can still find Manohra depicted in many PR materials, advertisements, tourist spots, hotels, shopping plazas, fashion, and so on.
As an ethnomusicologist, do you see any similarities between music for Bharatanatyam and Thai classical dance? Did you work closely with composer Ghanavenothan Retnam on the music?
So much of the dance and musical relationship between India and Thailand can be seen through this process of collaboration. We share many similarities between our dance vocabularies: gestures, movements, rhythm, melody, emotions, and aesthetics. This also proves the long history of Indian culture that has existed in Southeast Asia, and how Thai artists in the past have adapted Indian elements, as well as from other cultures, into our unique set of art forms.
I worked closely with Ghanavenothan Retnam in the process of music making, and with our dear Mrs Bhaskar in the choreography. I have learnt a lot from them and from their wonderful artists. It is a new experience to be able to understand the beauty of Bharatanatyam and Raga-Tala, It was a real pleasure to share my knowledge and the ideas from my Thai artists with the Singapore team.
Has this collaboration made you look at the tale in a new way?
It is a wonderful experience from an artistic and humanistic points of view. The arts always have a special impact on our hearts. In my earlier works I have reinterpreted the story and the destiny of Manohra by incorporating socio-political views such as human rights, feminism, and sex abuse. I have even made my own version of Manohra which did not follow the original storyline and it did not have a happy ending!
However, when we relearn the significance of Manohra through this particular production, it is a big inspiration and it motivates us to continue developing.
We—be it Singaporean, Thai, Kinnaree, or human—are born with differences in terms of ethnicity, politics, economics, language, religion, beliefs, environment, etc. But we can share and can live together. I wish the audiences of Singapore can find their inspiration from the love between Prince Sudhana and Princess Manohra in this regard.
Manohra runs from 8–9 September 2018 at Esplanade Theatre Studio. Tickets from Bhaskar’s Arts Academy.
Other Interviews from this Series:
Mrs Santha Bhaskar on Manohra — A Singapore-Thailand Collaboration