Dr Anant Narkkong on the Significance of Manohra

In the final interview of this series, Isaac Tan speaks to Dr Anant Narkkong, an ethnomusicologist from Thailand, on the significance of Manohra, and the collaborative process with Bhaskar’s Arts Academy. 

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

Shruthilaya Ramachandran on Playing Manohra

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Shruthilaya Ramachandran on Playing Manohra

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.

Shruthilaya Ramachandran (left) as Manohra  and Puwapon Pinyolapkasam (right) as Prince Sudhana (Photo: Tan Ngiap Heng / Courtesy of Bhaskar’s Arts Academy)

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

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