Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Preparations to understanding Phra Lak Phra Ram

At the moment, being a Lao artist feels a lot like Fahrenheit 451, where each Lao artist winds up choosing to embody one book, one classic in a future where the people have almost no access to their own histories and culture. Nor Sanavongsay, for example, is focusing on the tales of Xieng Mieng, Peter and Bai Whittlesey are focusing on the epic of Sin Xay, and it's my understanding that others are taking on Phadaeng Nang Ai, and Manola and Sithong. I'd love to see someone take on an updated, less-sexist version of Horse-Faced Keo, and Kalaket. 

I'm particularly curious about Phra Lak Phra Lam, because I think it has a lot of potential with clear retellings.

An understanding of Phra Lak Phra Ram gets my attention because it demands a familiarity with both the Hindu Ramayana and the nearby Ramakien to fully appreciate where the differences are and how we incorporate it into our sense of ourselves as Lao.

To keep it comprehensible, you can look at Phra Lak Phra Ram as a text that originates from the work of the poet Valmiki who had broken down the Ramayana into 6 or 7 books, depending on who you talk to.
  1. The Book of Youth 
  2. The Book of Ayodha (The Book of the City) 
  3. The Book of Forest 
  4. The Empire of Holy Monkeys 
  5. The Book of Beauty and 
  6. The Book of War
In Thailand, Ravana, the demon king, is named Tosakanth and many of his evil characteristics are left out, and there are verses that allow a sympathetic interpretation of him. Rama is not divine, but merely a human prince in the Thai version, and the Ramakien is localized into terms of naming conventions, ways of life depicted, the food eaten, the dresses worn, and the weapons used. Some new characters are introduced, including Maiyarab and Sahatsadecha. The Thai version also presents Hanuman the Vanon as more lusty.

The Cambodian Reamker has several differences from the original Ramayana, including new scenes and emphasis on Hanuman and Sovanna Maccha, a retelling which would influence the Thai and Lao versions.

The Southeast Asian accounts are typically different from the Hindu Ramayana suggesting that Sida has to face many additional trials after being rescued from Lanka, primarily tests of loyalty that even lead to a Snow White scenario where she is supposed to be taken out to the forest to be executed, but the her executioner realizes she's innocent and brings back a deer's heart instead. Prince Ram winds up faking his death to test her loyalty and when he peeks to see her crying over him, she's furious and calls upon the earth to open up so that she can descend and live among the Nak. Not quite Romeo and Juliet, there.

In the Lao edition, the Phagna Khrout Garuda replaces the figure known as Jatayu in the Ramayana, and switches the roles of the Vanon known as Sangkhip and Palichane, who are the sons of Nang Khaysi and Phra Athit. This is significant because one story of Sangkhip and Palichane is often read at the temples, possibly to stop buffalo sacrifices of the old days. There are several other differences I'm still trying to sift through. The Vanon and Nak figure a lot more significantly in our versions.

More analysis to follow.

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