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.
A battle of words ensued. Finally, Somtow's mother Taitow was asked to mediate in the conflict. Somtow agreed to go along with the revision so that Thotsakan would die - offstage.
"Ayodhya" was allowed to premiere in Bangkok after Somtow was obliged to sign a contract that his Bangkok Opera's production would not harm Thai culture and morals, otherwise the culture authorities would reserve their authority to shut down the production.
Yesterday, Somtow clarified the matter to The Nation that he and the director of the opera have been exemplary in their sensitivity to the concerns of the Culture Ministry and they have also gone far to make sure that the work would not upset Thai traditionalists.
"Any traditions cited by the ministry have nothing to do with opera. The traditions of khon do not apply to opera in any way," Somtow said.
He added that khon experts disagree as to whether the taboo against the onstage death of Thotsakan is an ancient tradition - or whether it was merely established in the early 20th century.
"This is not a matter on which the ministry's experts hold the sole, unanimous opinion. So, even if the traditions of khon did apply to opera, the argument can work both ways," he said.
"My personal problems with this matter have nothing to do with the death of Thotsakan at all - as I have said, both the director and I did a great deal to accommodate the tradition as it was stated to us. My personal problems as an artist are that the Ministry feels it has the right to impose a blanket restriction on a work of art. This is a chilling and positively Stalinist concept," Somtow said.
"The word culture is a holistic thing. It is about ancient traditions, but it also about modern explorations of tradition. A culture is alive precisely because it grows and is continually reinvented. Our job as artists is to mirror society and the human condition, and, most of all, always to speak the truth no matter what the cost."
To the Ministry of Culture, however, the matter has ended.
"In the three performances, the final scene was adjusted [to avoid Thotsakan's death onstage]. The matter has ended rather well. We never thought there would be any further problems. But we do not understand why Khun Somtow has raised this matter again with the media," said Prisana.