I am putting on my best shirt as I go to a theatre tonight. Actually it is the Ramayana Ballet, performed by the Bina Remaja Troupe at the Ubud Royal Palace.
This is one of the iconic and much loved tales from Hindu scripture. The performance brings out its splendid beauty and poetic flavour. The musicians in red jackets flank the stage on both sides. The elaborate costumes and the refined movement of dancers shine in the full magic of Balinese theatre. It is difficult for the first-time spectator to judge the quality of the performance, but it looks proficient and smooth and it gives a sense of refinement fortified through the centuries of practice.
The story begins when Rama and Sita, not ordinary mortals but gods, set out on their journey. They dance with romantic adoration of each other against the majestic portal of the palace. The pair enters the Dandaka forest and they are soon spotted by a minister of the demonic King Rahwana. He wants to kidnap beautiful Sita.
Soon the minister Maricha transforms himself into a golden deer. Sita would love to have such a cute deer, so Rama leaves her in care on his brother Laksamana and goes hunting. When an arrow hits the golden deer, it becomes Maricha again and screams for help (with the tragic sounds of the music).
Sita believes that her dear Rama is in some trouble, so she sends Laksamana to the rescue. Laksamana wisely draws a magic circle around her for protection and runs to the forest. But crafty Rahwana is just waiting for this moment. Now disguised as a poor old priest, he begs Sita for water. Kind-hearted Sita offers him water. Just then he turns back into his own demonic form and snatches Sita out from the protective circle.
Rahwana carries Sita away to his kingdom. But the giant bird Jatayu attacks the kidnapper to rescue Sita. After a short fight the bird is mortally wounded. Rama and Laksamana discover Jatayu just before he draws his last breath. Rama prays for the bird’s safe entry to the heavens.
Just in time the white monkey general Hanoman appears on the busy stage. Fearless Hanoman sneaks into Rahwan’s kingdom to tell Sita that help is on the way. For proof he gives her Rama’s ring. And it’s not too soon, because just then the demon Rahwana tries to force Sita into marriage.
By this time the orchestra plays really loudly because the battle is under way. Hanoman storms the palace with his monkey troops and the ugly warriors of King Rahwana are defeated. Sita, beautiful as ever, is reunited with Rama.
Only now we can relax and enthusiastic applause follows. The international audience gets to its feet and goes back on to Ubud’s streets lit by the full moon, searching for dinner and maybe a drink to relieve their emotions. But I hope that some people will reflect on the timeless appeal of the story and its elegant rendition through dance and music.