The perfection of humour

Of Beggars And Buddhas: The Politics Of Humor In The Vessantara Jataka In Thailand By Katherine A. Bowie University of Wisconsin Press US$53.34 on Amazon

The story of Vessantara, or Wetsandon, is perhaps the most famous and best-known tale in Thailand. Although originating among the jataka tales of India, most think it a local creation (Thais call it chadok). There is a Pali version in the early Buddhist texts, and official Thai-language adaptations since the 15th century. But the story also lives in popular memory, in pictures on wat walls, and in performances at annual festivals, and in these forms there is great scope for creative adaptation.

In this unique and wonderful book, the anthropologist Katherine Bowie traces the career of the story, especially in the Bangkok era. She has read the literature, attended performances all over the country, dug out old recordings, and interviewed many performers and spectators. The book is not only very good but also very funny.

Vessantara is important because it is the story of the Buddha-to-be’s last life when he acquired the perfection of generosity that enabled him to be reborn as the Buddha. It has been so successful in part because of the perfect arc of the tale: Vessantara abandons his kingdom, gives everything away, and then gets everything back and is restored to his home. It is so popular, also, because it is about family — a husband, wife and children tragically torn apart and then joyfully reunited. Besides, it has a great raft of secondary characters, and a string of set pieces that everybody knows.

Thai kings who want to be identified as Buddhas-to-be have long promoted the story. Royally-sponsored recitations were prominent in early Bangkok and elsewhere, especially the central region. But the court worried about two things. First, local monks performed the story with risqué humour, buffoonery and dressing up — threatening the story’s status and sacred meaning. Second, the story had become entwined with beliefs about the future Maitreya Buddha, which provided the ideological fuel for millenarian revolts. The early Bangkok court tried to clean up the story by banning the buffoonery and the millenarian associations.

Then from the mid-19th century, the court began to see the Vessantara story and the whole jataka tradition as an impure form of worship. They turned to the “canonical texts”, stopped sponsoring performances, and tried to close the whole thing down.

Ironically, this disdain did not kill the story but set it free. Bowie shows how the story remained popular in the Central Region, Northeast and North, and how each region developed it differently in the timing of performances, choice of chapters and creative extensions.

The Central Region retained the classical story, and its popularity was restrained by the court’s opposition. But in the North and Northeast, first brought under Bangkok control in the 19th century, the story became a vehicle for expressing subtle opposition to this new domination.

Partly, this was through choice of chapter. In the Northeast, performances focused on the Kumarn and Matsi chapters, about the family being pulled apart and then reunited. A mass re-enactment of the joyful finale became the centrepiece of the annual Bun Pha Wet ceremony. For villagers whose families were torn apart, first by forced corvée labour and later by labour migration, this story had real personal meaning, and the annual ceremony became a strategy for keeping the village together.

The main expression of resistance to Bangkok’s domination came through humour. In the Northeast, the story became entwined with a tradition of trickster tales about local smart alecs tricking the king. The scene where an old Brahman persuades Vessantara to give away his children was no longer played for tragedy but for laughs.

In the North, this use of humour went much further. In the classic version, the old Brahman Jujaka, or Chuchok, is clearly the villain. In the northern version, he became the hero. His chapters were the most popular. Local performers added long passages to the story, giving him a past and painting him with pathos. His transformation from being a down-and-out to being entertained by a king became something celebrated. His death from overeating was tragicomic.

Part of this subtle resistance lay simply in capturing a royally-patronised story and making it their own by transforming it with earthy humour. Bowie reproduces long excerpts from local performances, which are hilarious.

From 1900 on, Bangkok tried to quiet this all down through closer control over the monkhood. Modernity has delivered a bigger blow. Especially since the 1980s, with the transfers of population from village to city, the rise of television and secular education, and the spread of a po-faced middle-class ethos, the tradition of local performance has steeply declined and the humour has mostly gone.

And yet the story lives on in new ways. Officialdom has again adopted the story as a part of “national culture” and a focus of tourism. Bowie has sat through some of the resulting performances with a sinking heart. Nobody laughs anymore. More extraordinarily, the Brahman Jujaka has been adopted by the makers and buyers of amulets promising worldly success and prosperity. If Jujaka could persuade a king to hand over his children, he must have some power that can be tapped by others today. Shrines have begun to appear, including one in Bangkok favoured by coyote dancers.

Bowie has collected a mass of detail on the way the tale has been adapted and performed. The book is elegantly organised and a joy to read.

There has been a resurgence of academic and popular interest in jataka stories in recent years. Bowie argues that this interest has focused too much on the texts, which are static, and not on how the story lives and changes in memory and performance. In this book she goes a long way towards correcting this bias, and she gives us all a treat.