India’s Cultural Connects with Southeast Asia

Meera Mahapatra
February 05, 2019


Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s out of the box thinking and innovative policies are now known worldwide. One among many such initiatives by the Modi Government was to invite cultural troupes from ten Southeast Asian countries, all members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, to perform Ramayana in Delhi and five different cities. The ASEAN Heads of States were to be present in Delhi to participate in India-ASEAN Dialogue and to be  Chief Guests during the Republic Day celebrations last year.

While the Ramayana has been popular in South-East Asia for centuries It was a rare treat that foreign artistes from the ASEAN countries were invited to give stage performances on themes based on Indian epics. Of course, the Indian Council of Cultural Relations has been sending Indian artistes abroad to showcase Indian culture, this innovative way of inviting foreign artistes deserves kudos. It was cultural diplomacy par excellence.

India’s multi cultural ethos and rich cultural heritage have got considerable attention across the globe. And it is heartening to see that India is no more known for its mysticism, poverty and backwardness. India’s ancient image has changed over the years.

India’s rich heritage is no longer neglected or viewed with ideological predispositions. As India began to reengage countries in Southeast Asia since early 1990s with a “Look East” policy and subsequently it was termed “Act East Policy”, India’s rich cultural legacy in Southeast Asian countries is regarded as a useful tool to forge closer ties with people of this region.

While ‘Dharmasashtra’, ‘Arthashatra’ and ‘Shilpashatra’ have drawn the attention of the intellectual class, Great Indian epics, such as Ramayana and Mahabharat have a lasting impact on the common men in South-Asian countries.

The author has personally experienced the imprint of Indian culture during a trip to the region leading a group of artistes from Sri Ram Bharatiya Kala Kendra to perform in Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. The performance of ‘Ram Ballet’ by the artistes won the hearts and minds of peole ion these countries.

‘Ram Ballet’ is actually a musical dance drama, literally a moving poetry on stage, combining classical , semi classical, tribal, folk, creative and contemporary dance forms with sophisticated choreography. The elements of Mayurbhan Chhau dance of Odisha and the martial art form of dance, Kalaripattu of Kerala have also been incorporated in this dance drama.

The goal of this trip was not at all plain and simple entertainment. Like a mantra for spiritual sustenance and daily diet for survival, staging of Ramayan is important to keep people aware of social values and moral principles and dangers and pitfalls of “evil.”

The message of Ramayana for leading a peaceful, moral and righteous life that is so crucial for a stable society is recognised by all, but needs periodic reiteration. What is a better way to do so than organising such stage performances?  Sri Ram’s righteousness, spirit of sacrifice, Bharat’s brotherly love, loyalty of the subjects to the rulers, compassion of the King for the downtrodden and marginalized section of society, administration consisting of justice, hazard of jealousy, iniquity of caste system have been beautifully depicted in Ramayana and thus the Indian artistes were able to touch the hearts of hundreds of people in the audience. The Ramayana actually educates the masses the virtues of “Good” over “Evil.”

Adi Kavi Maharishi Valmiki had correctly said that the “story of Ramayana would last as long as there are mountains and rivers on the surface of this earth.” What surprised the author is the fact that the great epic of Ramayana, which is considered to be unique treasure of millions of Indians, is also a component of local beliefs and sub-culture in South-East Asian countries.

From about the 1st century onwards, India’s culture has strongly influenced societies in Southeast Asian countries. While sea trade gave the economic rationale to build a commercial bridge between Indian and Southeast Asia, especially southern Burma, central and southern Siam, lower Cambodia and southern Vietnam, spread of Hindu and Buddhist way of life was also remarkable. The cultural connect between India and Southeast Asia for thousands of years complemented economic ties and constructed a social bridge. The Pali and Sanskrit languages were transmitted through direct contact as well as through spread of sacred texts and Indian literature, such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

The time has come for India to spread the messages of Indian philosophy and culture across the world, especially to our immediate and extended neighbourhood, not to enhance soft power, but as a contribution towards maintaining global peace. While the Modi Government invited artistes from Southeast to perform Ramayana in India, now the efforts should be made to send Indian artistes to other countries to perform in schools and colleges and universities. India must reach out to people at places where it matters and not just urban elites interested in enjoying cultural evenings.

*** The author is a freelance writer and formerly, Principal, Shri Ram Bharatiya Kala Kendra, New Delhi ***