Stories Without Borders has a simple mission: to use film to explore the two great Indian epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, throughout South and South-East Asia. Simple but, like Hanuman’s many-yojana leap from India to Lanka, also overwhelmingly huge. And all the more so when you consider that Stories Without Borders consists of just two people – Andrea Frazier and Jarrod Brown – who although clearly very talented probably lack Hanuman’s divine parentage. The pair, with expertise in film and Asia respectively and plenty of shared passion, are busy fund-raising and grant-writing in preparation for a year-long documentary filming session that will take them through India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos (and hopefully Sri Lanka, Nepal and Myanmar) to capture the artistic ‘manifestations’ which the epics have inspired in each. And this is only their first project…
The pair talks here about where the project came from and where it’s headed:
What is the story and the concept behind this project?
The story of how this project came about is a bit complicated. The concept as a whole is Andrea’s idea. Last year, Jarrod quit his job as the director of an Indian education dot-com and spent four months traveling in his old home, Southeast Asia (Jarrod lived in India and Malaysia for five years). Andrea, who currently works in television, stumbled across his travel blog and was inspired to contact him. She had been contemplating working on a full-scale documentary for nearly a year, and decided that Jarrod would make a good partner. Jarrod and Andrea share a similar cultural background, both growing up rural Appalachia in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky. It made sense, and she contacted Jarrod about doing a travel documentary.
Little did she know that Jarrod was already at work on a side project, looking at the roles the Ramayana and Mahabharata play in Southeast Asia—how, for example, Muslim puppeteers in Malaysia are performing scenes from the Mahabharata. It was natural that the two projects should come together.
The medium for capturing these cultural articulations is film, and therefore to truly document it someone with Andrea’s skills and vision as a director and videographer was needed. Furthermore, both Andrea and Jarrod saw this as a way to explore shared cultural experiences that transcend nationality and even religion. The film should serve not only as an interesting visual documentary and something with academic value but also as something that can plant the seeds for a transformative experience in the viewer.
Charting the epics across Asia is a huge project – and presumably an almost overwhelming task – how are you going about it? Have you set certain parameters to make it more manageable?
We decided early on that it was the roles of the epics and their manifestations in culture that would define the parameters. Therefore performances, art and architecture shape our explorations. Although it is fascinating to study the Laotian version of the text, the Pra Lak Pra Lam, in which Rama is replaced by a Bodhisattva, we realised that wasn’t appropriate for film. Whereas to see a performance of the Ramayana by a Laotion traditional dance troupe is appropriate only for the medium of film.
Jarrod’s expertise also shapes our agenda. He lived for many years in South India, speaks Bahasa, and has close connections with Cambodia and Vietnam. Given that, he can facilitate shooting and find the sorts of manifestations we are looking for more easily. Access, scheduling and budgets are realities that also constrain us. All these practical concerns played a role in our planning and managing the scope of the project.
What’s been the most striking thing so far?
The classical Javanese dance of the Ramayana, the Balinese Kecak Dance (or “Hanuman Dance”) and the shadow puppet performances of S’bek Thom of both epics in Cambodia are some of the most visually stunning manifestations of these epics that we’ve come across. We both get giddy when we think about being present to film these.
What made these epics spread so far and have so much influence?
There are two ways to answer this. The first is like this: People often forget that India was and continues to be a major cultural force in Southeast Asia. Sumatra was conquered by the South Indian Chola empire; Malaysia’s first sultan was half Chola. Brahmanism exists today in a unique form only in Bali. Angkor Watt in Cambodia first housed a Siva-lingam before Buddhism came to Southeast Asia, itself another Indian import. We can go on. So, cultural and political influence can account for their spread.
The enduring influence of these texts, however, cannot be explained by the account above as India is no longer a major cultural player in Southeast Asia outside its pop culture. We’d like to think that these epics, with their accounts of human perfection and imperfection, moral dilemmas and human wantonness as well as greatness, speak to something inherent in all of us. These are stories that speak to the fundamental questions of what it is to be a human in this world, and that is why today they continue to be retold time and time again by story-tellers, puppeteers, artists, musicians, architects and even filmmakers.
Is there a distinction to be made between the Ramayana and the Mahabharata in terms of their influence and reach?
Yes. The Ramayana is by far more prevalent and well known. Most striking is the valorisation of Hanuman as the faithful servant. Some will say this is because of machinations of the state, but the ever-faithful Hanuman seems to offer an archetypical figure of devotion that transcends cultural and religious sensibilities. Perhaps the sheer volume of the Mahabharata made it less popular, although episodes, particularly of Arjuna and Krishna in the chariot and the battle at Kurukshetra, are common in art, and the story of the five brothers is still told in song and shadow. The Bhagavad Gita does not have any particular value as a separate text apart from the Mahabharata except in places like Bali where they are still treated as fundamentally religious texts. The chariot and charioteer motif so common in India is notably lacking. In most of the cultures we will be exploring, India and Bali being the exceptions, these texts are cultural artefacts, rather than a canon of religious truths.
When can we watch the film?
We will complete the initial fund raising reel within the next three months, and it will be fund raising and grant writing for most the year after that. We’re also working on establishing a non-profit organization to support our work moving forward. We are now planning to shoot the film in mid-2012 and hope to release it in late 2013. You can have a look at a very rough teaser here. And we also have a Stories Without Borders YouTube channel here.
For more about Stories Without Borders, have a look at the blog or the website and you can email them at ‘info at storieswithoutborders.info’. The project depends entirely on donations and supports by individuals and is actively fundraising; if you’d like to contribute, either financially or in any other way, visit the website or click here
The images used in the article show (in order):
– A mural scene from Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha), Thailand which depicts the monkey army crossing the sea to Lanka in the Ramayana
– Javanese Wayang Kulit performance (Wayang Kulit Jawa) of a section of the Javanese Mahabharata called Babad Alas Mrentani – The Opening of Mrentani Forest.
– A detail from the Ramayana bas relief at Angkor Watt, Kingdom of Cambodia, showing one of the army monkeys attacking one of Ravana’s demon’s horses.