Why artistic freedom matters
A few weeks ago, I was asked to be the keynote speaker at the annual SEAWrite Awards Ceremony at the Oriental Hotel. The reason I was asked was that the advertised speaker, Nobel Prize laureate Wole Soyinka, had pulled out at the last minute to protest the coup, saying that he wouldn't speak in a country that was no longer free.
In my speech, I vigorously defended our country and berated Mr Soyinka for boycotting the awards to protect my freedom. I proudly insisted that having returned to the country of my birth after having spent some 50 years abroad, I had never felt more free. I spoke about my new opera, "Ayodhya", which opens today and which I've created as a personal tribute to His Majesty the King and to the country from which I've drawn much inspiration over the last 50 years. I talked about how artists must dare to show the truth in people's hearts, and I exhorted the winners of the SEAWrite Award never to lose heart and always to protect and respect each other's freedom.
This week, however, my feelings of artistic freedom received a bit of a jolt when I was visited by some officials of the Ministry of Culture, who wanted me to change the libretto of my opera (which they had not read) and intimated that they might want to censor it. The request came not in some brutal, repressive way as might happen in a Stalinist country. It was very polite and conciliatory. It was something like, "Please, ajarn, couldn't the death of Thotsakan happen off-stage? It's a tradition in the khon not to show this scene. It's never been shown in 500 years. We're worried it might bring bad luck."
I thought back to the first khon performance I ever saw. I was a child and my family was temporarily back in Thailand for a few years, and it was at the National Theatre, which was then a spanking-new venue. The khon performed by the artists of our Silapakorn (Fine Arts Department) was one of the most moving performances I've ever seen. The episode in question was the "Sacred Horse", which comes from the rare Seventh Book (or kanda) of the Ramayana, and which speaks of Rama and Sita's relationship many years after the war between Rama and Thotsakan; of their inablity to re-ignite their relationship because of jealousy; about their separation and their final reconciliation.
The Silapakorn's production began with a prologue depicting the end of the war, and the part of the production which moved me to tears was the scene of Thotsakan's death. The dancer who portrayed Thotsakan, the narrator who spoke the dying phrases which are in such gorgeous Thai poetry, and the bittersweet quality of the music made a profound impression on me. I have to say now, that looking back, it is this moment in classical Thai drama that provided the spark that inspired my opera, 40 years later. Therefore, I must admit I was quite astonished when the officials told me that the death is "never shown on stage". I remembered it perfectly. It had lived with me for all this time. And yet, memory does play tricks. Did Thotsakan actually expire, or was he carried away a few heartbeats short of death itself? When the officials told me of this convention in the khon, I had to believe them, yet why was it that I remembered the death clearly, as though it had actually happened? I tried to cast my mind back to that exact moment, so pivotal in my development as an artist. I realised, suddenly, that I could not actually recall the moment of death itself. And yet that scene was the direct source of Ravan's dying aria in my opera, and it is to my experience watching the khon as a child that the scene owes the emotional impact and poignancy I have endeavoured to endow it with.
I had a long talk with the officials from the ministry. It was a very emotional one because this aria is the heart of the opera, and to change the music would be an artistic outrage. At the same time, whether Thotsakan dies on stage or not is a matter of stagecraft, not of music. In opera, truth is in the music, not in what is said or shown. I cannot now recall whether, in the khon I saw as a child, the death was onstage or off. But what my eyes did not see, my heart saw.
I believe I have understood their point of view very well. I'm not an insensitive foreigner hell-bent on destroying cultural icons. I want to say that with this opera I have made the Thai nation a gift of my innermost emotions and that it is an opera about the things we as human beings care most about: love, betrayal, jealousy and, ultimately, redemption.
I do want to say that I have been forced to sign a document giving the officials of the cultural centre the right to immediately shut down the opera in mid-performance if, in their sole opinion, a breach of "tradition" occurs. The world is watching Thailand very carefully right now. Most of my colleagues and friends agree that the foreign press has been unfair in its reaction to recent political events. But of course, our country will not look good in the world's eye if it starts to think we are a country of artistic repression.
I would like to encourage all of you to come and judge for yourselves. I have in fact agreed to show on stage only that which some arbitrary person has defined as being within the decent boundaries of tradition. The most important question is this: What do your eyes see and what does your heart see? Only my audience can tell me whether I have compromised my integrity or not.
I will tell you why I am glad to be home. I am grateful, and I say it without irony. I am grateful even for this. I am flattered that people think what I have to say is meaningful enough, and important enough, that it might be worth trying to silence. If my work stirs people, if it causes them to genuinely reflect and change, then and only then is it really art.
Special to The Nation
Somtow Sucharitkul is composer and artistic director of the Bangkok Opera.