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Dance Theatre

Timeless Legends

Asian folk icons in performance and pop culture


Published: 17 Aug 2018

Time taken : >15mins

Asian folk icons in performance and pop culture

There is no doubt that every good story needs a stellar cast of characters. Every now and again, however, a character who can carry entire stories on end comes along, stealing every spotlight in sight. We take a look at a few legendary figures that have consistently excited and inspired audiences through the ages.

Ji Gong

Timeless Legends Jigong

Featured in: Chinese opera and theatre
Origin: Song dynasty, China

Also known as Dao Ji or “The Crazy Monk”, Ji Gong is an eccentric monk who is commonly portrayed in Chinese opera and theatre as a legendary folk hero. Dressed in rags and even eating meat on occasion—in defiance of Buddhist monastic tradition—Ji Gong purportedly possesses a range of supernatural powers, which he frequently uses to help those in need.

Legend has it that…

When a group of monks wanted to build a temple in Hangzhou but could not find any suitable wood, Ji Gong proceeded to pull out log after log from a nearby well. Once they had enough, they yelled for him to stop—midway through pulling a last log out. The monks then built a shrine over the well, dubbing it the “Divine Teleportation Well”.

You might have seen Ji Gong in…

The Legend of Crazy Monk, a 274-episode Chinese drama starring Fann Wong that spanned over four seasons and was aired back in 2010 on Mediacorp’s Channel 8.

Ji Gong also makes an appearance at Esplanade in the Hokkien opera presentation Ji Gong, the Living Buddha – The Legend of the Snow Fox at Moonfest – A Mid-Autumn Celebration on 21 Sep 2018.

Rama and Sita

Timeless Legends Rama and Sita

Featured in: Traditional Hindu dance, theatre and drama
Origin: 7th to 4th century BCE, the Ramayana, India

Rama is the seventh incarnation of the Hindu god, Vishnu, and often represents the prototypical human protagonist in theatre, constantly subjected to ethical questions and moral dilemmas. His wife, Sita, is an incarnation of the Hindu goddess, Sri Lakshmi, and embodies the epitome of feminine virtue. The story of Rama and his wife, Sita, is closely interlinked with that of the demon-king, Ravana.

Legend has it that…

While Rama was distracted by a hunt, Ravana abducted Sita. Following the demon-king in hot pursuit, Rama gained the favour of the monkey king, Sugriva, who offered the services of his general, Hanuman, and his army. An immense battle between Rama’s forces and Ravana’s demons ensued, with Rama eventually striking the killing blow on Ravana. He shot an arrow that pierced the demon, flew around the world and landed back in his quiver.

Did you know?

There are shrines dedicated to Rama and Sita in Hindu temples around Singapore, including one of the oldest and biggest, the Sri Mariamman Temple along Chinatown. Both feature on the magnificent gopuram (a monumental gatehouse tower, usually ornate, at the entrance of a Hindu temple).

The Ramayana is also one of the most popular mythologies in Asia. The millennia-old Indian epic has spawned over 300 versions all over the continent, in countries including Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, Japan and China.

Some of the more important adaptations include the Burmese Yama Zatdaw, the Khmer Reamker, the Lao Phra Lak Phra Lam, the Old Javanese Kakawin Ramayana, and the Thai Ramakien, all of which have also been incorporated into regional classical dance and theatre forms.

Timeless Legends Rama Sita Dance
Timeless Legends Balinese

Portrayals of Rama and Sita in Javanese (first image) and Balinese (second image) versions of the <em>Ramayana</em>

At Kalaa Utsavam – Indian Festival of Arts 2018, find out how our hero Rama manages to enlist the simian army of Kishkindha, in Adishakti Theatre's Bali.

Radin Mas Ayu

Timeless Legends Radin Mas

Featured in: Bangsawan (traditional Malay opera) and theatre
Origin: 13th century, Singapore

Radin Mas Ayu was an actual Javanese princess who sailed to Singapore, then known as Temasek, with her father, Pangeran Adipati Agung, after the death of her mother. Known for her stunning beauty and good heart, her story of sacrifice has seen her firmly entrenched in Singaporean folklore, with a school and a constituency named after her.

Legend has it that…

After reaching Temasek, Pangeran remarried. Her stepmother, jealous of Radin Mas’ beauty and singing prowess, attempted to marry her off to her nephew, Tengku Bagus, threatening to harm Pangeran if she refused. The plot was soon uncovered and for fear of revenge, Tengku Bagus lunged at Pangeran with his kris. Radin Mas dove in front of her beloved father, taking the fatal blow in his stead.

Did you know?

Radin Mas Ayu’s tomb still lies at the foot of Mount Faber in Singapore. In recent years, a shrine has been built over it and is open for public visits.

Princess Otohime

Timeless Legends Otohime

Featured in: Traditional Japanese theatre
Origin: 8th century, Japan

Princess Otohime appears in the tale of Urashima Tarō, a fisherman who saves the life of a turtle by the sea. The captivatingly beautiful Otohime appears to Urashima, inviting him to stay with her at the Sea King’s palace that lies beneath the sea. Seduced by Otohime and a life of eternal pleasures in the palace, Urashima forsakes his life ashore and marries the princess.

Legend has it that…

After what seemed like a few days, Urashima Tarō eventually grew guilty for leaving his aged parents uncared for at home. As he left the Sea King’s palace, Princess Otohime gave him a mysterious ornate box called a tamatebako (a mysterious treasure box) with specific instructions to never open it under any circumstance. When he gets back to shore, he realises that a few hundred years had passed. Obsessed and desperate to get back to Otohime, Urashima Tarō opens the box, which ages him hundreds of years over, punishing him for his disobedience.

You might have seen Princess Otohime in…

The long-running anime series One Piece, in which Otohime is a mermaid queen who lives in the underwater kingdom of Ryugu, which resembles the Sea King’s palace. Otohime was also hauntingly brought to life at Esplanade in a mesmerising retelling of Urashima Tarō at Flipside in 2018.

Timeless Legends Urashima Taro

The story of Otohime and Urashima Tarō was brought to life through puppetry at Flipside 2018.


Timeless Legends Ravana

Featured in: Traditional Hindu dance, theatre and drama
Origin: 7th to 4th century BCE, the Ramayana, India

Ravana is a ferocious demon-king and the main antagonist in the ancient Indian epic poem, the Ramayana. He represents evil in its most lawless of forms and when portrayed in dance, theatre and drama, often embodies the true essence of the anti-hero.

Legend has it that…

Ravana had a formidable form with 10 heads and 20 arms. Due to his devotion to the creator god, Brahma, the demon-king was by all definitions of the word, invincible. He was able to shapeshift and possessed so much power that he could conjure up devastating storms and earthquakes.

You might have seen Ravana in…

The Dungeons & Dragons universe, in which he is part of the expansive pantheon and revered by fearsome Rakshasas—demonic creatures that also appear in the Ramayana.

Esplanade Presents | Kalaa Utsavam – Indian Festival of Arts

[Screening] Anjaneyam – Hanuman’s Ramayana

Follow the life and exhilarating adventures of Hanuman, the monkey god of the ancient Indian epic The Ramayana, first presented at Kalaa Utsavam in 2017.  Watch for free or pay for a ticket if you can. Proceeds from ticket sales go to Apsaras Arts, the arts group featured in this production.

24 – 31 May 2020
Free or pay for a ticket
Get a ticket
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