I blogged a while back about the opera version of the Temiya Jātaka, Somtow Sucharitkul’s ‘The Silent Prince’. Recently, an opera-ballet based on the Janaka Jātaka was created by the same composer. It is available on YouTube and is well worth a watch:
I have enjoyed these performances greatly, because they demonstrate that jātakas remain a living part of Thai Buddhist culture. In particular, I have enjoyed the very creative ways in which the stories have been adapted to their new media. In the case of the Janaka Jātaka, for example, a story that I see as being largely about lineage, kingship, and solitary renunciation (especially paccekabuddhahood), is presented with a very different focus. Central, as is generally the case in Thai art as well, is the shipwreck that leaves Janaka stranded at sea, struggling to swim to shore against all the odds, and his rescue by the goddess Mekhalā, who in this performance sings beautifully as well as helping out. Straight after the rescue, in this performance, comes the pivotal encounter with two mango trees – one fruiting, one stripped bare – that leads Janaka to renounce. Rather a lot of the story has been elided in this process: the identification of Janaka as king, the various tests he passes in order to earn that position, his marriage to the deceased king’s daughter and fathering of a son, and his gradual decision to leave the palace. His battle to leave behind his wife, the long struggle he faces before finally achieving solitude in the forest, mirrors – in the text – the struggle he faces to survive his shipwreck. In the opera-ballet all this fades into the background.
This freedom of interpretation is something that I, as a scholar and not an artist, would find impossible. To me the text is there as a work of literature, and in my translation I have tried to be faithful to that text. And yet I find delight in the ability of others to retell the story in a different way, to change the focus, to find a new meaning and a new presentation.
I have heard on the grapevine that Somtow recently announced his intention to dramatize all of the ten jātaka stories of the Mahānipāta, and present them as an opera cycle that will take five nights to perform. The next creation will be the story of Bhūridatta, already under preparation. I will be watching with interest.