The story of Mahajanaka
Mahajanaka Jataka is one of the ten last lives of the Boddhisatta (Buddha to be) as he finally perfects the ten qualities that will enable him in his last life to attain the Nibbanna (enlightenment) and be able to teach the path for others to follow.
The story is particularly well known in Thailand and Sri Lanka: it describes the aspirant for Buddhahood, Mahajanaka, making his way to reclaim his rightful kingdom. After his boat sinks he swims in the ocean for seven days and seven nights before the Goddess of the Ocean, Maṇīmekhalā, rescues him. Then he takes the kingdom, but eventually renounces, to practise meditation as an ascetic. The swimming scene is particularly renowned, as a demonstration of vigour in adversity. This adaptation of the story focuses on Mahajanaka’s relationship to the three central, matriarchal characters.
Thai dancer Pichet Klunchun performs as the Bodhisatta in the three ages of man. British dance artist Tilly Webber performs firstly as the mother pregnant with Mahajanaka, symbolically dancing with a singing bowl filled with water when, as a widowed queen, she is forced to leave her kingdom with her unborn child. She then features as his saviour Maṇīmekhalā, who takes him from the sea to his true home. Finally, she appears as his wife, Queen Sīvali, whom he marries and who tries to dissuade him from renouncing.
The combination of solos and duets between the two performers explore parallels in the narrative, such as firstly the mother pregnant with Mahajanaka being rescued by the god Sakka in a heavenly carriage, to Mahajanaka being rescued in the ocean by Maṇīmekhalā. And there are symbolic parallels between Mahajanaka’s swim in the ocean and his later swim through crowds of people and his efforts to leave his wife Sīvali at the end of the story. There is much exploration of the character development of both archetypes.
This is particularly so when Mahajanaka, now king, in the final passage, then decides to renounce and go into the holy life. It is there too in Sīvali’s initial attempts to prevent him from leaving, before she lets him go, renounces worldly life and also goes into meditative bliss.
A striking contrast to some of the traditional folklore ‘adventure story’ tropes of the narrative is the fact there is no antagonist involved. The character that is the Buddha’s nemesis in his final life (Devadatta), who plagues him all throughout his huge round of rebirths as the Boddhisatta, is absent. The drama stems from the tension between the male and female leads, and their personal, spiritual journeys, which are both ultimately rewarded with salvation.
Mahajanaka Jataka is traditionally associated with the Buddhist quality of Viriya, or effort, and while this quality is very much present in the adventures of Mahajanaka, it is ultimately renunciation (Nekkhamma), another of the ten ‘perfections’, that is stressed. Throughout the story we see various examples of the act of letting go or renouncing: the story, for instance, begins with the pregnant queen having to flee her city as her husband, the king, has been killed by his brother due to a courtly intrigue. Later, the renunciation of both Mahajanaka and Sīvali are explored in detail.
The dance pieces are accompanied by a mixture of traditional Thai songs, and some new electronic compositions, which are almost entirely made from processed audio from recordings of Thai instruments. Similarly, the choreography is a fusion, in the truest sense, between Thai traditional and western contemporary dance. There are some short, animated sequences, which reference Thai shadow puppetry; a traditional storytelling platform long associated with Jataka story telling. There are also some specially produced recordings of Thai Buddhist monk Ven. ChaowKhun PhraRajawithetpanyakhun chanting the introduction, epilogue and verses of renunciation of Mahajanaka Jataka from the
original Pali language texts.
Mahajanaka Dance Drama Creatives:
Choreography & Direction: Adrienne Hart
Original Score: Sebastian Reynolds
Dance Artists: Pichet Klunchun & Tilly Webber
Musicians: Thai Woodwinds (Pii-Nai & Khlui) Great Lekakul, Gong Circle & Drum (Khong Wong Yai & Taphon), Pradit Saengkrai
Electronics: Sebastian Reynolds
Animation: Sun & Moon Studios
Dramaturgy: Miranda Lawrence
Costume Design: Sophie Meyer, Emma Lyth & Andie Scott
Lighting Design: Frazer Riches
Academic consultant: Dr Sarah Shaw
Support and acknowledgments:
Mahajanaka Dance Drama has been funded and supported by Arts Council England, British Council, DanceXchange, Oxford Dance Forum and Oxford City Council’s Culture Fund.
Many thanks to the Kickstarters who backed our initial R&D phase in 2016.