The Ramayana theatre is a theatre of stylization and conventions, which are in many forms, strictly codified. Stylized make-up and costumes, codified gait and movements, recitative chant like delivery of stylization, the basis having been provided by a non-realistic, imaginative approach to the theatre. Stylization is primarily concerned with the treatment of the actor’s face, dramatic speech, movements and gestures. These factors are found in the Ramayana Theatres of India and South-East Asia.

The highly stylized make-up in Kathakali, the powerful masks of the Khon of Thailand and the lyrical masks used in Java are extremely effective devices to treat the actor’s face. The stylized figures of the Wayang Kulit, the shadow of Java succeed in  creating a world of mystery and fantasy, deepening the meaning of the epic story. The masks and make-up of characters like Ravana, Hanuman and Jatayu have inspired craftsmen to evolve stylized approaches to their designs and varied interpretations of the characters. The embroidered zari mask of Ravana used in the Ramleela, the life-size mask of Jatayu used in the Ankia-Nat of Assam, the mask of Ravana in the Shahi Jatra of Orissa and those used in the Burmese dance-drama are most dramatic and powerful. The make-up and masks greatly accentuate and enrich the scheme of stylization of the Ramayana Theatre, and impart to it a quality of other worldliness.

Along with the rich thematic and textual content, the Ramayana Theatre also has a rich and highly developed music and dance content. Music is the very dynamics of this theatre, and it determines the pace, rhythm and the movement of the drama. Specific melodies are fixed for various situations and actions to express different sentiments and moods to accompany the entries and exits of the characters. Orchestral pieces are often used as incidental music, specially during the fight scene. The orchestra plays in unison with the vocal line and repeats the melodic phrase giving relief to the actor to present choreographic patterns and enrich his gestures by an elaborate interpretation of the text. The theatrical presentation with rich music, striking poses and codified gestures builds up a spectacle of great choreographic beauty and pictorial charm.

The use of poetry, music, dance and mime, the intermingling of epic and lyrical poetry and narrative and dramatic material; highly stylized and choreographic style of acting illuminating the gestures, poses and movements of the actor; conventions of speech, such as the alternation of prose and verse and a stylized, recitative and rhythmic mode of delivery; the use of singers and narrators; elaborate costumes, stylized facial make-up and fantastic masks and headgear, with the concepts of colour symbolism and role division; freedom from the entities of time and place; elaborate preliminaries and rituals, are the main features which characterise the Ramayana Theatre of various countries. The primary conventions and some of the practices are indigenous, reflecting the values of the tradition of theatre of the country concerned.

The similarities of elements, performing techniques and conventions between various forms of the Ramayana theatre in various Asian countries, indicate a two-fold process of transformation and continuing mutual exchange. The whole pattern of migration, assimilation and continuing exchanges is complex because of two factors; one, the natural tendency and capacity of the indigenous artistic traditions to adapt and transform alien forms; and two, the coming of the influences from different parts of India and in different periods of history. The process of the transmission and transformation of the Ramayana tradition was never a one-way traffic. Some of the ancient Indian forms, performing techniques and conventions which disappeared from the country of their origin, still survive in certain South-East Asian countries, especially in Indonesia.

In the long tradition of the Ramayana Theatre, dance dramas with modern choreography evolved. The use and popularity of Ramayana episodes in the traditional dance Ketjak of Bali, the dance-drama of Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia and Burma have been structured, based on the shadow theatre. Kathakali in India represents a perfect integration of visual and aural effects in plastic form. Kathakali was first called Ramanattam (17th & 18th centuries) which later transformed into Attakatha and still later Kathakali. Ramanattam was a series of 8 pieces covering the entire story of Lord Rama starting from the Putrakameshti sacrifice and ending with the fall of Ravana. It was in Malayalam and was acclaimed as a great art. Ramanattam players sang the padas and used masks. A change was introduced by Prince Vallathol Thampuran, by providing separate singers and masks were replaced by make-up, mudras were accentuated; a variety of percussion instruments were used, costumes were worn and mime turned into mimicry. Thus Kathakali evolved as a word tone drama, a dumb show.

The Ramayana tradition in India and South-East Asia, because of its pervasive character and deep-rootedness has greatly influenced the beliefs, customs and life styles of the people of these regions, comprising of different ethnic and cultural groups. It has enriched the performing and visual arts. Rama is an avatar of Vishnu in Hindu tradition, a Bodhisattva in Buddhist tradition, Shalaka Purush in Jain tradition and a believer of Islam in Muslim tradition. It is this cross cultural perspective of the Ramayana tradition which is its most fascinating and rewarding aspect and Ramayana Theatre is popular not only in India but throughout South-East Asia – a fine example of the inter-cultural concept in theatre. 

Note: Ketjak is the Ramayana monkey chant in Balinese tradition. Ostensibly, the Ketjak is a re-enactment of the battle described in the Ramayana epic, in which the monkey hordes came to the aid of Prince Rama in his battle with the evil king Ravana. In a temple courtyard, more than 200 men squat in tight concentric circles around a small central space reserved for the chief protogenists. Suddenly with their sharp cries of Jjak, begins one of Bali’s most thrilling musical experience.


Note: The author of this section on World music is none other than the expert Ethnomusicologist, Dr. S A K Durga. For any doubts and queries on this subject, please mail her.

Also see Ramayana Theatre in India and South-East Asia - Part 1
              Ramayana Theatre in India and South-East Asia - Part 2


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