The dancers moved gracefully in a circle, their beaded garments swaying as they struck bird poses in a dance drama known as ‘nora’ – a performance art from southern Thailand that was added Wednesday to the prestigious UNESCO Heritage List.
This form of drama – combining dance, song and storytelling – has its roots in India and has been practiced in the southernmost provinces of Muslim-majority Thailand for centuries.
The performances are usually a dramatic retelling of the story of a local prince who attempts to rescue Manora – a half-human, half-bird princess, whose abbreviated name gives the art its name.
The ultra-elaborate showcases can last up to three days.
On Wednesday, UNESCO officially put the nora on Thailand’s “intangible cultural heritage” list – a move that could potentially bring more global recognition to a dance typically seen only in small village gatherings in the south of the kingdom.
In the Su-ngai Padi district of Narathiwat province, not far from the Malaysian border, young dancers carefully donned their costumes on Saturday, with rows of beads strung in a kaleidoscopic display of color and pattern.
The backs of their clothes shot upwards, imitating a bird’s tail.
“Nora is important to southerners for two reasons: first, it’s for entertainment… the dance conveys messages that teach people to do good for good karma,” said Vichien Rattanaboono, president of the group of provincial dance.
“And second, it’s about ceremonies and beliefs. Manora will be played in ceremonies to show respect to our teachers and parents. It’s to show our gratitude,” he said.
As a small group played drums and the pi nai – an oboe-like instrument – the five dancers twirled, their expressive finger movements accentuated by their long silver nails.
Covid-19 restrictions over the past 20 months have resulted in fewer public performances as large gatherings in hotspots have been banned.
“After the emergence of Covid, there were no plays…it stopped us from having concerts,” said Nitichaya Sooksan, 18, adding that Saturday was their first performance since the start of the pandemic.
The high schooler has been performing for nearly seven years, first taking it on with friends.
Longtime nora performer Saman Dosormi, who also has a performing arts degree in neighboring Yala province, said the dance showcases the southern provinces’ “shared culture” of Buddhist and Muslim Thais of Malay stock.
“It doesn’t matter if you are Buddhist, Muslim or Christian, anyone can perform this dance,” he told AFP.
“I’m very excited (for nora’s inscription in UNESCO) – I would like all Thai cultural arts to be recognized by the world,” he said.