[Interview] Dr Anant Narkkong on the Significance of Manohra

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)Dr Anant Narkkong, an ethnomusicologist from Thailand, on the significance of Manohra, and the collaborative process with 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

Shruthilaya Ramachandran on Playing Manohra

[Interview] Shruthilaya Ramachandran on Playing Manohra

Shruthilaya Ramachandran (left) as Manohra  and Puwapon Pinyolapkasam (right) as Prince Sudhana (Photo: Tan Ngiap Heng / Courtesy of Bhaskar’s Arts Academy)Having interviewed Mrs Santha Bhaskar to find out more about Bhaskar’s Arts Academy’s (BAA) production of Manohra, I approached Shruthilaya Ramachandran to find out about her thoughts on playing the titular role.

How do you feel playing such an iconic role in Thai classical dance as well as BAA’s repertoire?

It is indeed an iconic role. I have to admit that I was a little daunted at first because I have watched BAA’s previous generation of dancers portray it so sincerely. Also, the level of sanctity and spirituality that the role holds in Thai culture does not make it any easier. I am honoured and happy to be selected for this role, and am grateful to my gurus who entrusted the role to me!

What are the similarities and differences in movement vocabulary between bharatanatyam and Thai classical dance?

It’s impossible to master the nuances of any art form  within such a short span of time. But based on what I managed to glean from the techniques taught by our fellow Thai dancers, I can safely say that both bharatanatyam and Thai dance seem to converge on laasya (grace), even though they are actualised in different ways.

In bharatanatyam, we tend to use movements that are more rounded, and they flow from one to the next by bending our body, hands, and legs. However, Thai dancers seem to keep their body, back, and shoulders upright, while still achieving the grace in their movements.

Both art forms also rely on mudras (hand gestures) to convey meaning. Some common ones between the two art forms include ‘suchi’, ‘pataaka’, ‘ardhachandra’, and ‘hamsaasya’. However, those are done with minimal or no facial expressions in Thai dance.

Another characteristic difference is the aramandi (bent knee) position. This is fully opened up in bharatanatyam, but executed in different degrees of openness in Thai dance. There is also an accompanying bounce or pulsating jerky accent that adds to the beauty of their movements.

Has this collaboration given you a renewed appreciation of your own art form?

This collaboration has certainly heightened my appreciation for bharatanatyam. I was already aware that both art forms could have drawn on common influences, and hence, share some similar movements. However, getting to directly interact with the art form by learning it from a Thai professional helps us see the nuances and unique differences that give it its identity.

Personally, a big takeaway from this collaboration is that, as dancers, we not only have to be physically agile and flexible, but mentally so as well. For example, it is very interesting to know that Thai dancers follow the rhythm being played, and they just seem to know when to strike a step or a movement without the use of a rigid eight-count system. It did take us a while to get accustomed to their musical style.

What was truly heartwarming was that the Thai dancers modified their teaching technique, and started counting in beats of eight to helps us learn the steps during training sessions. I am thankful for such amicable exchanges, which not only exposes me to new art forms, but it also enhances my understanding of my own art form, bharatanatyam!

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

Dr Anant Narkkong on the Significance of Manohra

[Interview] Mrs Santha Bhaskar on Manohra — A Singapore-Thailand Collaboration

Photo: Tan Ngiap Heng / Courtesy of Bhaskar’s Arts Academy

Over the past few years, Bhaskar’s Arts Academy (BAA) has been collaborating with various classical dance troupes in Southeast Asia, to create intercultural works based on stories from Asian myths and legends. 

For the third and final project, BAA is working with Thai classical dancers and musicians to stage Manohra, an iconic work in Thai dance drama. Artistic director of BAA, Mrs Santha Bhaskar first encountered it in 1990 and was inspired to reinterpret it using bharatanatyam. With this being the third iteration of the work, Manohra has become a key work in BAA’s repertoire. 

I interviewed Mrs Bhaskar to find out more about this iteration of the work. 

Mrs Santha Bhaskar

Manohra is part of a trilogy of works that sees BAA collaborating with other classical dance troupes from Southeast Asia. How did you go about choosing the works to be performed?

I enjoy reading the epics, myths and folktales and learning about the characters which are popular in Southeast Asia. It serves me well for experimenting and choreographing in the language I am comfortable with. Collaborating with our neighbouring artistes, understanding their culture, and sharing the knowledge with the audience has always been important to me and for BAA. 

The birth of “Vinayaka” was chosen when we collaborated with our Indonesian counterparts as the elephant-faced one is popular in that region. We actually collaborated twice—once with artistes from Bali with performance in Bali (2010) and the second time with artistes from Java with performance in Singapore (2016). It was very interesting for me and for my dancers and musicians to work with these two very different collaborators, and understand the similarities and differences in each style.

For the second work of the trilogy, we collaborated with Cambodian artistes. I chose to tell the story of Brihannala because it is not known to many people. It is about an interesting transgender character from the epic, Mahabharatha, who Arjuna transforms into. That helps him pose as a dance instructor in Virata’s kingdom for the final year of the Pandavas’ exile where they were to remain incognito.

You were first introduced to the tale of Manohra in 1990. What is it about the tale or the performance you saw that made you want to stage it over and over again?

The tale of Manohra touched my heart when I was in Bangkok. My mother used to tell me stories about the Ghandarvas (heavenly musicians) who enchant musicians and beautiful ladies on earth especially on a full moon night. She also told me stories about Kinnaris (heavenly birds) coming to earth to take a bath in a pond named Manasassaras.

In Bangkok I discovered the story of Manohra and was surprised that this story is not known to India. This is the reason I want to repeat this work—it is in the hope of passing the story on to the next generation of dancers and audience.

What makes this iteration of Manohra unique from the previous stagings by BAA?

The story itself is unique. With each staging of the work, more life courses through its veins, and more ideas sprout in how we can communicate the work to the audience. Some of the first and second generations of dancers are here to witness the tale’s transformations. For the third generation of dancers, their aspirations to learn the dance of the Kinnaris and to be a part of Manohra is coming true through this collaboration.

Manohra is one of BAA’s landmark works with original music composition and choreography. And now with our Thai partners, with the blending in of Thai music and Thai dance movements, the life and energy of the work transcends to a different level.

 

Manohra runs from 8–9 September 2018 at Esplanade Theatre Studio. Tickets from Bhaskar’s Arts Academy.

Other Interviews from this Series: 

Shruthilaya Ramachandran on Playing Manohra

Dr Anant Narkkong on the Significance of Manohra

[Listing] Fun Home by Pangdemonium!

To round off their 2017 Season, Pangdemonium is performing FUN HOME, the stunning musical about a family that’s nothing like yours and exactly like yours.

Based on Alison Bechdel’s best-selling graphic memoir, the piece interacts with Bechdel at three different ages. Moving between past and present, it reveals her unique childhood, a growing understanding of her own sexuality and how she handles her uniquely dysfunctional family. FUN HOME is a gripping portrayal of a daughter’s determination to connect with her volatile, brilliant father whose temperament and secrets have defined her family and her life.

“FUN HOME is an exhilarating, heart wrenching, and moving musical which will resonate with anyone who has ever felt different, even within their own family. The story—based on real life experiences of Alison Bechdel—is a roller-coaster of comedy and tragedy, and the songs are sublimely beautiful. Be prepared for a truly unique and unforgettable musical theatre experience.” said Adrian and Tracie Pang, Artistic Directors of Pangdemonium.

Winner of five Tony Awards, including Best Score and Best Book, the haunting melodies of Jeanine Tesori and poetic lyrics of Lisa Kron set a foundation for this refreshingly honest musical.

Starring Adrian Pang, Monique Wilson, Nikki Muller, Elena Wang, Benjamin Kheng, Gail Belmonte, Chloe Choo, Elly Gaskell, Aria Zhang, Damien Weber, and Bjorn Haakenson.

Named Best Musical of the Year by the New York Times, FUN HOME is a daring and innovative work about seeing your parents through grown up eyes. The Singaporean debut of this intimate and emotional theatrical experience is not to be missed!

FUN HOME runs from 29 September–15 October at the Drama Centre Theatre, Rated R18, Tickets from Sistic

The Mad Chinaman Returns!

MAD CHINAMAN COVER 002

Having been involved with The LKY Musical and this year’s National Day Parade, Dick Lee decides to take a trip down memory lane by reviving a concert which charts his musical journey from his childhood in the 1960s to the release of his album, The Mad Chinaman, in 1989. This revival promises all of Lee’s well-known songs with an extended storyline and a bigger band.

In the midst of his preparations, Lee generously granted this email interview (his responses have been lightly edited).

For those who are unfamiliar with your earlier work, why present yourself as The Mad Chinaman?

The concert is based on my autobiography which traces my musical journey and explains how I ended up with that nickname. This also happens to be the title of my 1989 album that introduced me to the Asian market.

Will you be writing new songs for this upsized version?

I will be performing songs from my career, including a few cover versions of songs that inspired me.

Your career in Singapore really took off after your success in Japan. Do you think it’s easier for local musicians to gain recognition now without first making a name abroad?

I think being accepted abroad is a kind of validation, but it depends on the genre. For example, a Chinese pop act would not be popular amongst the non-Chinese in Singapore. It is still important to establish yourself in your home country, I think, before other countries can accept you.

What are some aspects of the local music industry that need improvement?

We always complain about lack of exposure and local media support, but to be fair, I think they give all they can give. Finally, it all boils down to the quality of the music. When that improves, the support grows naturally.

If you are given three words to describe the Singapore sound. What would they be?

Tropical. Asian. Bright.

What is one advice you would give to your younger self?

Be Fearless (I guess I was anyway). Then, be MORE fearless!

Are you working on any exciting projects that your fans can look forward to?

For the first time, I’ll be directing the fifth production of my 1988 musical, Beauty World (written with Michael Chiang), the second play in my family trilogy, and my first movie.

 

Catch Dick Lee: The Adventures of the Mad Chinaman Upsized on 3 September, 7:30pm at the Esplanade Concert Hall. For ticketing information, visit Sistic.

[Theatre Review] A Celebration of Two Countries

Photo: Wong Horng Yih, Courtesy of W!ld Rice

Photo: Wong Horng Yih, Courtesy of W!ld Rice

Another Country
W!ld Rice
27 June 2015
Drama Centre Theatre
25 June–11 July 2015

”If only at one point our hands could clasp,

What rich variety and gesture could be ours.”

~ Dance by Fadzilah Amin

Like any love-hate relationship, Singapore and Malaysia have often come to fisticuffs. But in Another Country, we waved at our cousins, raced across the room, pulled them up, and danced with them.

We danced to the melodies and sentiments excavated from the texts of both countries that span five centuries. Drawing from literature, interviews, and even legal documents, Alfian Sa’at intricately weaves together the text for Sayang Singapura while Leow Puay Tin does the same for Tikam-Tikam: Malaysia@Random 2.

The Malaysian ensemble (Ghafir Akabar, Sharifah Amani, Anne James, Alfred Loh, Iedil Putra) interprets the Singaporean texts and the Singaporean ensemble (Sharida Harrison, Lim Yu-Beng, Gani Karim, Janice Koh, Siti Khalijah Zainal) performs the Malaysian texts.

What emerges is a beautiful testament to the rich cultural resources we share that present a socio-historical account of the concerns that the writers had. This compels the audience to re-look at their own stories from a fresh perspective while listening and learning more about the other side.

The curators must be applauded for picking texts which not only cover events running up to the merger or just after the separation, but also broach uncomfortable topics.

Notable selections from the Malaysian corpus include Tunku Abdul Rahman dreaming of a bad omen which preceded the race riots in Malaysia, Amir Muhammed’s 120 Malay Movies which discusses Singapore marking the start of the national narrative at 1965 and parallels that with the Malaysians not acknowledging their cultural roots from the Hindu empires of old, and the self-reflexive The Myths that Cloak Our Theatre by Krishen Jit which criticises the industry for the lack of community theatre projects and turning theatre into a polished product meant for the middle classes to consume.

The Singapore selection explores political censure, among other topics, by choosing The Campaign to Confer the Public Service Star on JBJ by Eleanor Wong, Fear of Writing by Tan Tarn How, and Gemuk Girls by Haresh Sharma. The most interesting choice of them all is Elangovan’s Talaq which portrays how some Indian-Muslim husbands intentionally misinterpret Islamic principles to justify their infidelity and subjugation of their brides from India. I was surprised that the Media Development Authority allowed this to pass given that they banned the original performance of the English script.  I hope that the audience would be compelled to read the play in full and judge it for themselves.

The possible dialogues sparked off by this production would not have been possible without the brilliant performances by both ensembles. Their talent and versatility are clear for all to see as they are able to smoothly transit between texts that have very different demands and characters. The actors are also able to command the stage during their individual scenes and immediately reintegrate back as an organic whole once that is over. I would not be surprised if this production gets a nomination for best ensemble at the Life! Theatre Awards and it will be such a lovely gift to the Malaysian actors as well.

This project needs to be revisited every decade and updated with new and exciting writing. Apart from the texts we have, future iterations should boldly experiment with performance practices and forms. Who knows? Perhaps we could develop a performance vocabulary unique to both sides of the causeway—our own artistic secret handshake.

Other Reviews

“Theatre Review: Wild Rice’s ‘Another Country'” by Mayo Martin, Malay Mail

“Review: Another Country” by Gwen Pew, Time Out Singapore

“It’s a small world after all” by Andre Theng, Centre 42 Citizens’ Reviews

“REVIEW: ‘ANOTHER COUNTRY’ – NO PASSPORT NEEDED, ART TRANSFORMATIVE!” by Ann Lee, The Daily Seni

“Another Country by W!ld Rice Review – Proving the Singapore-Malaysia Causeway Isn’t Too Much Of A Divide” by Scott Lur, The Smart Local

[Book Review] Singapore in the 60s by James Suresh and Syed Ismail

Singapore in the 60s

Singapore in the 60s

James Suresh (author) & Syed Ismail (illustrator)

Training Plus Int’l Pte Ltd (2015)/ 217 pp.

“If there is a subgenre of writing Singapore is becoming alarmingly good in, it is the literature of nostalgia.”

While that comment by Dr Gwee Li Sui was referring to Last Train from Tanjong Pagar,  it is arguably an accurate description of James Suresh’s latest book.

From the sights and sounds of his childhood in Queenstown to descriptions of trades and public amenities available, Singapore in the 60s serves as a comprehensive introduction to what life was like back then. The choice of adopting a conversational style of writing makes the book accessible and engaging—it feels as if one is brought around the neighbourhood by a jolly uncle.

The combination of general facts and personal anecdotes shows why such personal recollections complement official history. It reveals how certain events affected people involved who, at that point in time, do not have complete knowledge of what was happening.

While I may be able to rattle off a couple of reasons why Singapore merged with Malaya, to learn that children were provided with a book to familiarise themselves with the flora and fauna of Malaysia is incredibly illuminating. It makes the historical event much more vivid and I am pleased that this book will be used as a teaching resource in schools.

That said, this book would have benefited from tighter editing. A couple of the sentences are too long and should broken up into shorter sentences. In other cases, the use of punctuation will make it a smoother read.

Illustration

Illustration: Syed Ismail (2015)

Given that this is an illustrated book, the contributions of Syed Ismail must not be overlooked. While his humorous depictions undoubtedly enhances the reader’s enjoyment, his ability to capture the architectural features (see the cover of the book) and a sense of space must be commended.

Additionally, it is clear that Ismail also took the pains to tell his own story with his pictures. Rather than offer a general depiction of Suresh’s descriptions, all his figures are given a unique personality as they react to a certain situation quite differently (see image above). This creates visual interest and readers, especially the older ones, will be rewarded if they took the time to appreciate the illustrations.

Regardless of whether there is a future in nostalgia, Singapore in the 60s promises to be an enjoyable read for the old timers and an educational one for younger readers aged nine and up.

Further Reading

From the Blue Windows by Dr Tan Kok Yang

  • A memoir focusing specifically on Queenstown

Growing Up in Geylang by Lai Tuck Chong

  • A blog which details a childhood in Geylang