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Star-Bulletin Features

Tuesday, October 17, 2000

"Ramayana in the Arts of Asia"
Garrett Kam, shown in costume as a refined prince from
the Mahabharata epic, was first introduced to Ramayana
when he played the role of Hanuman at the University
of Hawaii in 1978.

Art & Soul

Being intrigued with
Asian dance and his roots
put Garrett Kam on the
road to Ramayana

By Nadine Kam

GARRETT Kam understands the appeal of sex and violence to youths, but he doesn't understand why they flock to mass media for instant gratification, when stories representing their heritage may be equally bawdy.

Take the Ramayana, for instance, an Indian epic that scholars say may date as far back as 8th century B.C. The complex story involves -- as epics do -- extended, dysfunctional families of gods, demigods and mortals; adultery; betrayals; curses; reincarnation; and battles with assorted demons, ogres and strange simians.

"If only somebody could make a special effects movie out of it," Kam muses, "maybe Spielberg."

The dancer, Fulbright scholar and author has just completed a nearly 300-page book, "Ramayana in the Arts of Asia," which contains more than 400 photographs of the story as interpreted by storytellers, artists and performers throughout the world.

"Ramayana in the Arts of Asia"
Hanuman exhales the moon and stars.

The story of how Kam's (no relation to this writer) work came to be is an epic in itself, representing more than 25 years. It took about that long to learn the intricacies of the Ramayana, which worked its way to North, West and Central Asia, transcending political and religious divisions and incorporating morals and mores befitting the various Hindu, Buddhist and Islamic societies. The story has many interpretations, but at its heart is the love story of Rama and his wife, Sita, who is abducted by the Demon King Ravana. The tale follows Rama's adventures and alliance with the Monkey Commander, Hanuman, as Rama sets out to rescue the woman he loves.

Kam was introduced to the Ramayana when he took on the role of Hanuman in a 1978 production of the story at the University of Hawai'i. Before studying dance and theater, he had been studying textiles, a result of the 1971 dock strike that cut the supply of clay to his Roosevelt High School ceramics class. His teacher brought in small hand looms, which Kam put to use making belts as gifts for friends.

"Ramayana in the Arts of Asia"
Court string puppets from Thailand.

"When I got to the UH I discovered floor looms. I could make pieces of fabric 3 feet wide instead of 3 inches. It was an eye opener. And then I discovered batik and I wanted to find out how people wore it."

His study of batik drew him into the world of Javanese court dance.

"It's a dance that's very stylized, very refined, with elaborate movements. But it was the costumes that interested me first. I wanted to figure out how they wrapped the garments. I suppose I could have asked somebody, but I actually learned the dancing."

By then, he had already tired of the European dances which he'd studies since joining the German club in high school. In one of those smack-yourself-on-the-side-of-the-head moments, he realized, "I'm Asian; I should be doing Asian dance.

"It sounds funny now, but this was before people became interested in their roots. I found myself doing things in dance I hadn't done before, using all my fingers, my wrists, my elbows, learning all these different gestures which had specific meanings.

"More important, I was learning the stories. I realized I could only do the dances convincingly if I knew the characters."

"Ramayana in the Arts of Asia"
Modern manifestations of the traditional art
include this phone card which uses the ogre
Virakara lifting weights as an advertisement.

In the summer of '79, Kam set off with five friends to study dance in Java. After three months, his friends returned home. Kam stayed. "I had just begun to learn bits and pieces. I wasn't satisfied. I needed a year. After a year passed, I decided that still wasn't enough."

Three months turned into three years, about what one might expect to learn the intricacies of the Ramayana.

Kam had no problem financing his stay. "The cost of living was low. I could get a meal of rice with vegetables and chicken or fish for 10 or 15 cents. I rented a room in a house with a family for $12 a month."

Returning home in 1982, Kam took a job at his brother's fish market in Palolo while contemplating his future. After a year of making poke and sashimi, he took a job at the East-West Center and returned to school, earning a master's degree in Southeast Asian Studies from UH in 1987. And then he went back to Asia.

Throughout his travels in the region, Kam was intrigued by the living arts. "It's very much a part of society, whether it's in street performances or at the temples where you see paintings and statues depicting deities and heroes. It serves a utilitarian function, to make things look more beautiful, but it also keeps stories alive for people.

"In many areas there are no books or television, so the performances teach rights and wrongs and good behavior. It's a way of educating the younger generation."

Certain stories are universal, such as the trickster stories in which the trickster, "usually a smaller animal, outwits stronger creatures by using their brains, not muscles," Kam said. "It's the common people who outwit the big shots."

Cambodia has its own version of the tortoise and hare fable. In it, a rabbit wants to drink water out of a pond, but fails to ask permission of the snail that lives there. For a drink of water, the snail challenges the rabbit to a race and the rabbit accepts, thinking it will win easily. But the pond is full of snails and every time the rabbit looks, another snail shows its head. The rabbit gives up because it believes it's going to lose.

There are several lessons taught in this short fable, but Kam said American youths seem to be losing the ability to read between the lines because they've never been encouraged to think. He expects the ability to distinguish right from wrong will further disappear now that media has become the new teacher.

"Kids today are seeing a lot of violence and greed," Kam said. "Films are so simplistic and thrive on violence and visuals. There's no plot, no moral lessons to learn. It's all about whoever has the biggest gun, the most money."

Kam attended a six-week Asia-Pacific Performance Exchange at UCLA this summer with 24 performing artists from around the world. He noted Americans in the group who had not lived abroad could not tell a story. "It was the people who came from countries that had very little, who could really tell stories that had such a richness to them."

With the clarity of someone who has lived outside of Hawaii for a long time, Kam said he feels a similar loss here. "It goes beyond what you can see and hear. It's reflected in how you live," he said. "The younger generation is forgetting its heritage. They're not talking to their elders.

"There's something about having contact with people in their 70s or 80s who know their history and have pride in the skills they learned from their parents or grandparents. You can't show that on videotape or CD-ROM."

And yet, society seems dismissive of the arts, considering it a luxury to be enjoyed only during good times and only by a privileged few.

"The UH doesn't seem to focus on the Asian programs anymore because of the budget cuts," Kam said. "When I was going to school, there was so much music and dance, performances on the mall, and there were all these wonderful things you could study, and people would come from all over the world because of the Asian programs.

"Hawaii really is a crossroads of the Pacific, and we're losing out on something that could make this a more lively place with scholars visiting, grant money for students and more tourist traffic. It's all linked together. I think that just tells us people better start paying attention. A civilization that loses its stories loses its soul."

On stage

Bullet What: "Journeys in Javanese Dance," Garrett Kam will perform dances from the royal town of Yogyakarta and talk about Javanese dance
Bullet Date: 3 to 4:30 p.m. Thursday
Bullet Place: Earle Ernst Lab Theatre, University of Hawai'i
Bullet Admission: Free
Bullet Also: Kam's book, "Ramayana in the Arts of Asia" (Select Books; about $50), is available online at Singapore's
Bullet On television: "Ramayana Indian Epic" airs at 11 p.m. Mondays on Oceanic 52

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