November 20, 2006

The Wrath of Khon

If you remember, a few weeks back the military took over the government of Thailand, with the support of jazz saxophonist, composer, songwriter, and, oh, yeah, King Bhumibol Adulyadej. So, um, how's that coup going, anyways?
Thailand's new military-appointed government has threatened to shut down an operatic version of the Hindu epic Ramayana, ostensibly over fears one of its scenes may bring bad luck.
That's from an AP report about Somtow Sucharitkol's new opera "Ayodhya," which premiered in Bangkok last week. The Thai Culture Ministry (hmmm, army generals controlling the ministry of culture, no comedy there) objected to a scene containing the on-stage death of the demon king Thotsakan (that's him at the right), the principal antagonist in the Ramakien, the Thai version of the Ramayana. Supposedly the depiction of Thotsakan's death is taboo, although really the restriction only applies to Khon, a highly stylized form of theater-dance in which all the characters wear masks and don't say anything—raising the possibility that the leaders of the junta are simply unusually catty critics.

The best part of the story? The composer "said the officials told him that 'if anything happened to anyone in power in Thailand, it would be blamed on this production.'" Applying theatrical superstition to future national misfortunes like some sort of post-dated karmic check—those Thai generals are really on the cutting edge of political spin, aren't they? Look for Dick Cheney to pre-emptively pin the blame for the next two years of the Bush administration on the Washington National Opera's production of "Macbeth."

Somtow is quite a guy: he conducts the Siam Philharmonic and the Bangkok Opera in addition to composing. In the 1980's a "severe case of musical burnout" resulted in his writing over 40 mostly science-fiction and horror novels. (His bio, which includes a pleasantly surreal testimonial calling him "the J.D. Salinger of Thailand," also manages to name-drop Wolfgang Wagner and Takashi Miike.) Somtow himself warned that the new opera, inspired by American action movies, might "appall" some of his fellow Thais. You can listen to a bit of "Ayodhya" on Somtow's website, and it is grand and fun in a late-Romantic Hollywood sort of way. Somtow keeps a house in Los Angeles as well—enterprising movie producers might want to look him up.

Update: ANABlog has a nicely pithy take on this. And the AP report has been updated to include reported comments from Thai Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, who regards the whole situation as silly as we do.

3 comments:

Tim Footman said...

Somtow as Salinger? Hardly. The guy's bloody everywhere.

And the whole Thotsakan brouhaha looks daft from a Western perspective, but a lot of people here in Thailand do take this sort of thing very seriously. Building foundations have to be laid on auspicious days, spirit houses are needed to keep ghosts in check, people can take time off work if they need their cars exorcised.

Different strokes for different folks. I mean, there are plenty of people in the United States who think that standing up and saying nice things about a flag before school starts is the only thing that stands between the country and abject barbarism. Is that any less crazy?

Good site, btw. Was directed here by M.A. Peel at Blog Potato. Will be back.

Matthew said...

No less crazy at all, and I hope I poke as much good-natured fun at similar homegrown American behavior as its Thai counterpart. I've been fascinated following the news from Thailand since the coup (not that all the news has been fun, but I can't help enjoying learning new stuff), because every time I come across a goofy story, I dig down and it's always more complicated and human-nature interesting than I expect (something that hardly ever happens here).

And I have to say this is a perfect instance of Internet benefits: I freely admit I had only heard Somtow's name before this, and in a day, I heard a fair chunk of his music, read his bio and press clippings, and ordered a couple of his books.

Thanks for the compliment. I started reading Blog Potato on your recommendation, so pass along my good wishes!

multisubj yb said...

Ramayana's original foundation is from a superstition that inhaling the smoke from the sacrificial fire containing the omentum (fat) of a horse, 1. removes all sins 2. blesses with children. www.ramayanayb.blogspot.com