27 November, 2006

Thai opera ‘Ayodhya’ censored: Is this "Stalinist" repression? …or fear of Thaksin?

The above headline is rather like one of those "Have-you-stopped-beating-your-wife-yet?" questions, isn't it?

The interim Thai government’s Ministry of Culture has pressured Thai opera composer Somtow to eliminate a 'controversial' scene from his new opera. Somtow has protested that such treatment is Stalinist, artistically invalid and insensitive.

The opera is roughly based on Thailand's “Khon Theatre” traditions centering on the figure of Rama, a reincarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu who is the hero in the Hindu epic Ramayana and its Thai version Ramakian. Its western equivalent might be epic poems such as Homer’s Iliad, Milton’s Paradise Lost, or Dante’s Divine Comedy, etc.
Battle scene from the Ramakian.

The Ramakian is concerned with the war between Rama the righteous king and Thotsakan the king of demons – the old ‘good vs bad’ theme. The drama is touched off by the abduction of Rama's beloved consort by the Demon King. The drama is therefore full of love, magic and war scenes – all activities dear to the hearts of Thais. There is nothing more that a Thai likes than to perve on a gory accident scene, ghost pictures, or a photo of a mangled suicide victim still trapped under train wheels – witness a typical photo from today’s Thairath newspaper [the blood has been partly air-brushed out, but there's still enough to sell the newspaper like hot-cakes]:
This picture is a mild one by comparison to some: Thai people seem to have few qualms about the sight of blood.

After the first opera performance, however, the Thai Ministry of Culture lectured the composer about the danger of including a scene where the heart of the ‘bad guy’ Thotsakan is thrust through with a sword after being dunked in a pot of blood. Thotsakan then falls to his death – Good overcomes Evil yet again. So where’s the problem?

The minister complained: "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… In Thai traditional dance, Thotsakan is held in high regard - because he is also another angel." (Nation Multimedia News; my emphasis)

Composer Somtow retorted by claiming that opera tradition has no necessary connection to Khon tradition, ie, the same old arguments that raged in the 17th and 18th century in Europe’s halcyon operatic days. But he finally agreed to an off-stage death of Thotsakan.

The Real Reason
for the censorship is that the current Thai government is still extremely wary of ex-PM Thaksin, whose name is by coincidence disconcertingly similar to that of the fabled demon-angel Thotsakan. The current Thai King (Bhumibol) also happens to be one of the Rama Dynasty (Rama the 10th), so the pre-coup tensions between the King Rama and Thotsakan... sorry, Thaksin... are still fresh in peoples' memories. Therefore the military coup chappies are simply insuring themselves by publically crystal-balling that any "catastrophe" befalling Thailand would retrospectively be blamed retrospectively on this opera, and by logical extension, NOT on the military government. On their minds might be a possible counter-coup attempt, or maybe the de-stabalising of Thailand by the untimely return of Thaksin.

Gosh, how I love this country... superstition is alive and well, and politicians ruthlessly exploit it to the hilt.

PS: By way of anecdotal footnote, the majority of Thais do strongly believe in angels. The guy who supplies the internet connection to our apartment excitedly showed us a photo he had recently taken during a group meditation. Dotted over the night-sky were small splotches of light… normal random refractions which are the bane of amateur after-dark photographers. Sam was ecstatic that angels had descended on his meditation circle, even though he couldn't see them at the time. I wowed along with it good-naturedly, but cast my mind back to my own photo of a (very secular) carnival at the Thai town of Huahin:

Check all the ‘angels’ floating in the sky. I’m damned sure no self-respecting angels would have showed up that night, given the 150-decibel music.

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