A disturbing intervention by the Thai Ministry of Culture may have important consequences for the future of contemporary art in Thailand. I have decided to reproduce in full a story from yesterday’s edition of The Nation.
The importance of being earnest with Thotsakan’s death
Somtow challenges Culture Ministry’s opinion on ‘khon’ tradition and slams as ‘Stalinist’ its restriction on a work of art
Although the opera “Ayodhya” has completed three performances to a warm reception at the Thai Cultural Centre on November 19, the row between the Ministry of Culture and composer Somtow Sucha-ritkul remains thick in the air.
Over the weekend, Associated Press wrote a story about this conflict.
Today, Kraisak Choonhavan, a former senator, will be raising his concern over the Ministry of Culture’s restriction on artistic freedom with other artists in town.
The focus of the case is “Ayodhya”, in which Somtow and his director were obliged to conform to the khon tradition at the expense of his artistic freedom. After some behind-the-scenes wrangling with the Ministry of Culture, Somtow had agreed to alter the controversial final scene of his opera.
The culture authorities viewed the final scene of “Ayodhya” as unacceptable, for, according to the original libretto, Thotsakan’s heart was to be thrown into a vessel full of blood before a sword would be thrust through it – and Thotsakan would fall to his death.
Somtow has adapted his “Ayodhya” from “The Ramayana”, one of India’s greatest epics. Thotsakan was one of the main characters representing evil, whereas Rama and his army of monkey giants represent the virtuous force.
Having learnt about this libretto, the cultural authorities sought an opinion from Seri Wangnaitham, the National Artist, Sirichaicharn Phuk-chamroon, the director-general of the Fine Arts Department, and other experts in the field. They concluded that although “Ayodhya’s” final scene might be featured in a contemporary form, the death of Thotsakan on stage was too violent.
“Most important, the khon tradition would not feature the death of Thotsakan on stage anywhere. For it is believed that this would be a bad omen and might bring about calamity to the country,” said Prisana Phongthatsirikul, secretary-general of the National Culture Commission.
“In Thai traditional dance, Thotsakan is held in high regard – because he is also another angel. He is also a teacher of Thai traditional dance,” she explained.
The culture authorities told Somtow that they had no problem with the overall production but they would like him to revise “Ayodhya’s” final scene to avoid disturbing Thai sensitivity.