Preserving an ancient art

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Nutchanat performs wai kru or honors teachers. Jetjaras Na Ranong

Despite a two-year hiatus, Nutchanat La-ongsri dominated the scene with unwavering power. Donning a large helmet, she donned a white suit with a red strap tied across her upper body. His back stuck out like a bird’s tail. She pressed her hands in front, showing silver bracelets and fingernail tips. After a wai kru ceremony, she staged a play by nora kaek, the dying breed of performance art from the Deep South.

In the story, she played the role of a committed lead actor in the meteoric courtship of two actresses, who struggle to break free from her pursuit. As they twirled around the stage, the band alternated between fast and slow tempos. nora kaek performers were fluent in Melayu and Thai for local audiences, mostly Muslims and Buddhists, reflecting the religious diversity in the three southernmost provinces.

Based in Narathiwat, his troupe Nora Kaek Song Pasa Udomsil S. Por Nu is one of the last bastions of this rare art. He joined a two-day celebration at Wat Pha Kho in Songkhla last month, the first performance after the coronavirus pandemic. The event was organized by the Media Center for Arts and Culture, Thai PBS, after nora obtained the status of intangible cultural heritage from Unesco last December.

A band plays traditional instruments. Jetjaras Na Ranong

Nora kaek is influenced by nora and do yong, a dance drama common to Muslim Thais in the three southernmost provinces. The experts said nora kaek is an adaptation of nora in Muslim communities. Artists must speak Melayu and Thai. Their dress, instruments and posture are different from the general nora.

While this unique art form plays a crucial role in fostering Muslim-Buddhist relations in the Deep South, three factors – the absence of heirs, the rise of new forms of entertainment and the unrest – contribute to the decline of its popularity and the possibility of disappearing.

Faced with a succession crisis

After the performance, Nutchanat, 53, the troupe’s fifth-generation scion, carefully removed the heavy headgear, or sits, which belonged to its founding ancestor two centuries ago. The 3 kg wooden wreath is out of breath. She will have it repaired and only use it in ceremonies, as they are now harder to find.

Above, Nutchanat La-ongsri and two actresses play nora kaek. Jetjaras Na Ranong

“Normally a lead actor or pr is a man, but I cross-dress on stage,” she said. “It’s about courtship. I ask a lead actress or Nope, ‘Are we going to see wild bananas on the mountain?’, but she plays tough. There are many other plays. This is followed by a Nora Rong Kru ceremony.”

The ceremony is a ritual to pay homage to nora spirits, including ancestors and teachers. They will visit the ritual stage and possess living descendants. He is required to show gratitude, to fulfill vows and make offerings, and to perform rites, such as tattoo jug (cut the bun) and khrawp seut (coronation).

Nutchanat knows her lines by heart because she has been performing them since she was very young. When she was young, she once had such a headache that she couldn’t go to school. Even the doctors couldn’t cure her. Looking back, it was a sign.

“In the Nora Rong Kru ceremony, the ancestral spirits said via a medium that they had chosen me to be the next heir [of nora kaek]. I accepted it on the condition that my headache would go away. I recovered little by little. Since then, I have played with my father and relatives in the troupe,” she said.

It was in her thirties that her father, Udom Kaewwicean, finally handed over to her while she worked in a rubber plantation. At the time, she remained hesitant, but only family members can inherit nora kaek for they must take care of the instruments, and especially of the headgear. “Initially, I performed in my village only because I had to take care of my family. When my sons grew up, I told my husband that no one would inherit them because my children are unlikely heirs. My nephew now has a chance because he played and studied it [at university]although he does not speak Melayu,” she said.

Nutchanat La-ongsri with the group. Jetjaras Na Ranong

Nutchanat said finding an heir to take the helm is the most serious challenge as it requires a succession of bloodlines, passion and practice. She taught foreigners, but they come and go. To his knowledge, there are only three nora kaek troops in Narathiwat. And veteran musicians are very hard to find. The pandemic was another nail in the coffin.

“It was difficult for the members of the troupe to come together because some of them have their own groups. You have to find a suitable moment to put on a show, let alone a Nora Rong Kru ritual that can last up to three days. I couldn’t find anyone in the village because they are already dead,” she said.

Mayateng Samoh, a musician with the troupe, echoed the same view. He played music from an early age because his father was responsible for the nang talung (shadow puppets). He’s been drumming for Nutchanat’s band since his father’s generation.

“Musicians fade because there are fewer performances. A rarity. When they play together, even veterans are out of tune. Novices can only perform a few songs. nora kaek may disappear,” he said.

Mayateng, whose ancestors came from Malaysia, said nora kaek helps build ties in communities. Despite religious differences, performers can work and live together in a nora theater. In fact, they spend more time with the group than with family members. Meanwhile, a local audience, whether Muslim or Buddhist, can enjoy the show.

“If it wasn’t for me, no one would beat the drum. Anyone who loves folk art appreciates it. It’s my root. The Malay Peninsula is my home,” he said.

Nutchanat La-ongsri and two actresses play nora kaek. Jetjaras Na Ranong


The dance on the wall

Nutchanat hopes his nephew, Arnon Wanphet, will continue the long tradition. He is now a lecturer in classical Thai dance at Phranakorn Rajabhat University. He conducted research on the genealogy of his family members nora kaek troupe and had it published in the Journal of Fine and Applied ArtsKhon Kaen University, in 2017.

“It is impossible to determine when nora was adapted, but it resulted from the context in which the majority Muslim population is Thai. Mak yong is their popular performance. It has the closest similarities with nora“, said Arnon. “Nora Srmai is said to have founded nora kaek. My ancestor used to play with him.”

Arnon said nora kaek helps to promote religious coexistence and social cohesion. In his nora theater, salute to Muslims or wai Senior Thais. Before performing, they face a palace (altar) and prostrate before the head covering. Meanwhile, nora kaek is the means by which people, despite the religious difference, can be informed and entertained.

nora kaek is the way of life. It is carried out in sun [male circumcision], drank cha tung [worship of the goddess of rice]ordination and Nora Rong Kru ceremonies. However, many factors have contributed to its declining popularity,” he said.

Nutchanat La-ongsri performs nora kaek. Jetjaras Na Ranong

Arnon said that migration can interrupt the lineage succession of nora kaek. For example, he grew up in Hat Yai of Songkhla and continued his education in Bangkok. He’s a teacher, not a professional nora kaek performer, but he returns to Narathiwat to perform it at an annual ceremony.

Besides, nora kaek the elders prefer to preserve their folk tradition rather than adapting it for shows, like those in the upper south region. With the advent of other forms of entertainment, its popularity has declined. Finally, the unrest in the Deep South led to a mass exodus. This simmered while Arnon conducted research.

Arnon said then he was original nora kaek is still found in the northern states of Malaysia, it may be extirpated in the three southernmost provinces of Thailand. Very few troops occur nora kaek in Narathiwat. Despite conservation groups, members could not speak Melayu. During this time Pattani troupes made adaptations including more Thai style elements.

Nutchanat La-ongsri and two actresses play nora kaek. Jetjaras Na Ranong

“Schools in the Great South should put nora kaek on the curriculum. In addition, researchers should take an interest in it. The Phatthalung and Nakhon Si Thammarat Drama Colleges are examples of those producing art theses and making nora kaek more recognised. Recently, videos have been posted on social media, like TikTok,” he said.

Pum Jiradejwong, a local nora expert, said most of the top performers in the Deep South are women because there is no male successor. The succession of the line is a constraint because not all the members of the family are interested in it. If foreigners are admitted, nora kaek will survive. Universities can play a crucial role in preserving the rare Southern art form.

“For example, Thaksin University has put it on the curriculum and has trained thousands of practitioners, which makes it more sustainable,” he said. “With additional support, nora kaek will go far. Don’t worry about the language. It’s diversity. Nowadays, children sing Korean songs.”

For a video of this story, visit bangkokpost.com/vdo.

Nutchanat La-ongsri performs nora kaek. Jetjaras Na Ranong

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