30 March 2013
Dancing to make dreams come true
The Thai female dancers were moving symmetrically, meticulously placing their feet and precisely drawing gestures with their hands – what a contrast to the buoyant and twirling atmosphere I had encountered in Peru but very much similar to the dances of neighbouring Cambodia. Colours were sparkling on their garments and make-up was embellishing their young and already pretty faces. Yet they were repeating the same dance, on a tune played over and over by the musicians, for they had been paid by worshippers who hoped their prayers would thus be answered. The more one paid, the more dancers would partake in this transactional ritual... assumingly aggrandising the chances of prayers realising themselves. The small Erawan shrine, in the centre of Bangkok, has in fact become so popular that it’s always full, dancers relieving themselves so the service could go uninterrupted as worshippers keep paying for it.
Sitting in a forest of skyscrapers, the Hindu shrine was built half a century ago to get rid of the supposed bad karma caused by having built the Erawan hotel on the “wrong” date. Oh, the joys of superstition... Hinduism, in a country where 95% of the population is Buddhist? Hindu beliefs came from Cambodia, in particular under Khmer rule, and still continue to exert their influence on Buddhist practices.
My desire to see more dances would be satisfied that night by unexpectedly bumping into a military ceremony taking place in front of the National Theatre and which started off by traditional rhythms on which couples gracefully moved. Posting myself against a tree, stepping delicately on a horde of electrical wires feeding into the sound system, armed with my telephoto lens, I could almost “peacefully” enjoy the show – until it was the turn of a couple of military musicians whose instrumental performance with weird flutes rapidly became unbearable to listen to.
Even if it makes for great pictures, I am always uneasy when I cannot tell for sure if paid-for dancers are truly enjoying themselves. This is in particular true when children are involved: take for instance those little girls, perhaps 8 years old or thereabout, groomed like adults, who delighted tourists with their harmonious dance, right at the entrance of Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, a famous Buddhist temple sitting on top of a hill overlooking Chiang Mai, Thailand’s major northwestern city. During their break, a 3-year old, probably the younger sister from one of the dancers, equally groomed and costumed, shyly danced alone, rotating her blue umbrella – it was such a funny sight as she was a bit clumsy in her moves and regularly interrupted herself to stare at the broad-smiling audience.
Clumsiness was probably not what led a mentally-ill man to destroy – with a large hammer – the statue of the Erawan shrine exactly seven years ago... but whatever the cause, the unfortunate man was immediately killed by bystanders (you don’t mess with a statue of the god of creation, right?!) while the leader of the right-wing party claimed all this was a plot by the prime minister to maintain power through black magic…