Starweek Magazine

Travels with Rama

This was no ordinary tour group. Certainly not when you have 30 artists from ten different countries, two tons of baggage (including costumes, sets, props and a touring exhibit of photographs of the ASEAN member nations) and five performances in four cities in 13 days.

The ASEAN-COCI (Association of Southeast Asian Nations-Committee on Culture and Information) Flagship Voyage Project, Realizing Rama, was on its fifth phase this year, touring Korea, China and India. I joined the group on its last leg in India, for performances in New Delhi, Chennai, Bangalore and Mumbai. The group began this tour three weeks earlier with pick-up rehearsals in Bangkok, followed by performances in Seoul and then Beijing, Hangzhou and Shanghai.

Premiered in Hanoi, Vietnam in December 1998 during the ASEAN Leaders’ Summit there, this project broke new ground in international cooperation and collaboration when it brought together artists from the ten ASEAN member-nations to work on one production, a dance-drama based on the epic Ramayana. The epic provided a common thread, since most of the ASEAN countries have some form of the Ramayana, albeit localized by national traditions. The project aimed to achieve, in the words of ASEAN Secretary General Rodolfo Severino Jr., "not a mere anthology of dances from each of the member countries but an authentic creative collaboration", one cohesive presentation that would incorporate and interweave the artistic traditions–specifically in music and dance, but also of costume and theater arts–of each nation to come up with something distinctly–and proudly–ASEAN.

One can only imagine what the first meeting must have been like. The artists’ backgrounds were diverse and varied. Some were trained in their country’s traditional dance, drama and music; others had ballet and folk dance experience, while some had exposure to contemporary western and avant garde genres. Differences in language, culture, religion, mannerisms and even food were real, but creative and innovative as artists are wont to be, these obstacles were overcome, often hilariously. Before long, there evolved a type of ASEAN language–a Realizing Rama lingo, if you will–that can best be described as pidgin English with generous dollops of the languages and dialects spoken by those in the group. I have to admit that after two weeks with the group I feared for my command of English, for my grammar and syntax which are the tools of my trade!

After its premiere in Hanoi, Realizing Rama toured the other ASEAN nations: Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore in 1999 and Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar and Thailand in 2000. Last year the project was brought to Berlin, London, Luxembourg and Brussels. This year it was Korea, China and India and next year, Japan and the United States.

It was very important for Realizing Rama to be performed in India, where the Ramayana originated. In India, everybody–even young children–knew the Ramayana: knew the story, the characters, in many cases revered and even worshipped them. Furthermore, the story and characters had different interpretations in different parts of this vast and diverse country. (For example, we learned that Ravana, usually portrayed as the bad guy and the symbol of evil in the struggle against good–personified by Rama–is in some areas regarded as a god and also as the true leader/statesman who teaches Rama how to be a good leader.) There are Ramayana scholars and theater and dance experts in every city, curious about this production, so it was with both excitement and trepidation that the artists took their version of this timeless epic to the land of its .

Realizing Rama
is a contemporary treatment of the epic; or rather, parts of the epic distilled in a libretto that "inquires into the theme of selfless leadership" which, according to scholar and librettist Nicanor Tiongson, the countries of ASEAN need to "help them combat their most urgent problems, such as graft and corruption; exploitation of labor, women and children; destruction of the environment; drug trafficking and the abject poverty of the masses".

Contemporary dance is the binding framework, within which the artists situate their traditional art forms: Thai classical dance, the Indonesian wayang (shadow puppetry), Sundanese dance movements, Indian classical dance, the distinct Golden Deer tradition of Myanmar, to name a few. The music of noted composer and ethno-musicologist Rahayu Supanggah–hailed as the "rebel pioneer" of Indonesian New Music–with its gamelans, gongs and heavily percussive character, strikes a familiar chord in the hearts of these ASEAN artists.

In previous performances over the last four years, Realizing Rama has been hailed for its innovative choreography and stunning production values. From audience reactions around Asia and in Europe, the production indeed succeeds in articulating the spirit of ASEAN solidarity and offering those outside the region a deeper appreciation of ASEAN "not only as a repository of ancient cultural artifacts but also as a dynamic region that grows ever more vibrant..."

Personally, traveling with the group was, at the very least, an enlightening and educational experience, providing a new appreciation of and respect for being ASEAN. The mostly young artists–the administrative and technical staff were the "old" ones–had an exuberance and opennes that invited particpation and inclusion; this is what diplomacy is all about–or should be.

For such a major production, it was a very compact and efficient group. Most of the members have been with the group since its beginning; however, newcomers–some joined in last year, others only this year–were easily integrated into the production, not just for their specified primary role, but as part of the whole.

From handling of baggage (a total of over a hundred pieces, including personal hand and checked-in luggage, plus troupe baggage) to stage set-up and pack-up, from costume changes and make-up to company class, rehearsals and blocking, from official functions to shopping expeditions, the feeling of communality and camaraderie was encouraging and uplifting. For a group as diverse as this, there was surprisingly little–in fact, hardly any–mishap: not a bag was lost, only one dancer fell ill and missed a performance (her roles–each dancer, except the leads, played more than one role–was quickly and seamlessly filled in) and everybody got to shop and eat ice cream, the "official" dessert of the tour.

While ASEAN unity was the theme of the tour, national identities were exhibited too–beautifully–in the national costumes that each member wore on special occasions. One such occasion was the Diwali festival which we celebrated in Chennai as guests of Dr. Natarajan, a minister-consultant to the Governor of Tamil Nadu. From sarees to barongs to longgis to sarongs, the "parade of nations" was a resplendent fashion display to rival any international beauty contest.

Realizing Rama
is the biggest project undertaken by the ASEAN-COCI so far in the association’s 35-year history. It is also the most wide-reaching and collaborative and, because of its theme and message, the most meaningful for the nations in this dynamic but troubled region. Rama’s quest for enlightened leadership is the region’s quest for enlightened nationhood, and just as Rama’s leadership is realized, so too is a uniquely ASEAN vision realized in this magnificent production.











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