Ballet Philippines’ Rama Hari (1980), Cultural Center of the Philippines

In November 2017, the Times of India published a story about Prime Minister Narendra Modi applauding a ballet performance based on the Ramayana during the opening of the ASEAN Summit in Manila. According to Modi, the event which was attended by Donald Trump, Shinzo Abe, Joko Widodo, and Rodrigo Duterte among many others, shows India and SEA nations’ “deep historical bonds and shared heritage.” But the ballet which Modi thought was inspired by the Ramayana is actually from a local retelling called Rama Hari written by poet-critic Bienvenido Lumbera, first staged in 1980 at the height of the repressive Martial law regime of Ferdinand Marcos. Lumbera and many other writers of his generation were jailed by the Marcos regime and perhaps this is the reason why Rama Hari is highlighted by a love song titled “Magbalik ka na, mahal” (Please return, my love) as Sita’s theme.

Evoking the same sensibilities of I Made Sekar’s engraving on shell casing of Sita’s abduction, the song tells about raindrops that cut like knives, which Sita willingly allowed to touch her body as a sign of her devotion to Rama. Sita praises Rama’s love as the tree that protects her from the harsh sun but laments the time when its leaves fall and the sun would dry her and the rain will come and drown her fragile life. Towards the end of the song, Sita sings that even then, she will wait for Rama’s promise to return. Sekar and Lumbera’s agriculturally themed reinterpretations viewed the harvest season as having violent undertones. In Sekar’s engraving, the abduction of Sita is a scene that can stand in for war, whether in Timor Leste or in Iraq. In this same logic, it is not hard to imagine that someone like Lumbera would view the same scene that Sekar drew from as a parallel to the fate of the desaparecidos, the many activists who were massacred during the Marcos dictatorship.

For Lumbera, Sita’s anticipation of Rama represents the sacrifices one has to endure in waiting for a loved one who may not return, a theme which anyone who had a loved one who fought dictatorship understood so deeply. Rama Hari is but one of the many retellings of Ramayana in Philippine culture. Among the first recorded is an epic called Maharadia Lawana of the Maranao people, the traditional dwellers of Lake Danao, south of the Philippines. The epic shares the same plot elements with Ramayana except the focus of the story becomes Lawana, a monkey king much like Rawhana who has seven rather than ten heads. Sita becomes Potri Malayla Ganding among other names and Laksmana and Hanuman are fused into one character. A few more characters are added, such as an old lady named Kabayan and an Imam, indicating the influence of Islam in the retelling of the original Hindu epic. The differences seem glaring but when we consider the fact that this epic came to the Philippines in the 9th century and was only recorded in the 1960s, I marvel instead about how much was retained throughout the centuries. The epic came through interactions by seafaring Javanese and ancient Filipinos and it is thus a multipronged process of indigenization through territorial and cultural boundaries.

A Maranao might recognize Rahwana but not Djatayu in Sekar’s engravings because their epic battle is not included in the localized version. Heavily Islamized and transferred mainly through an oral tradition, the epic has not generated as many verse and image to illustrate the epic as it has folk dances. A prime example is the Singkil, which is traditionally performed only by women. The tradition of dancing the Ramayana grounds the production of the Lumbera’s ballet. Extending the metaphors of Sekar’s matériel art, Rama Hari and Maharadia Lawana can be described as exploded versions of the Ramayana that are contained only by the pressing realities of a community. While the deeper meaning of the ballet and of Ramayana escaped the minds of neoliberal authoritarian leaders attending the ASEAN Summit, Modi at least made sense in talking about shared heritage. But what exactly? Ramayana is part of world culture that is sustained by local struggles against cycles of wars, dictatorships and globalization.

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