Thai Govt. Censores Ramayan

Bangkok: Thailand’s new military-appointed government is threatening to shut down an operatic version of classic Ramayan epic, ostensibly over fears one of its scenes may bring bad luck, the opera’s composer said. The opera, Ayodhya, premiered on Thursday night and is scheduled for a repeat performance on Saturday, albeit with the ‘offensive’ scene toned down after pressure from Culture Ministry officials.

The composer, Somtow Sucharitkul, said Friday that ministry officials approached him a few days before the show’s opening to complain about a scene involving the on-stage death of a key character, the demon-king, Thotsakan. The officials, whom Somtow did not identify, said that portraying Thotsakan’s death on stage was taboo in Thai culture and would be a ”bad omen,” the 53-year-old composer told The Associated Press.

Somtow said the officials told him that ”If anything happened to anyone in power in Thailand, it would be blamed on this production.” The idea that depicting death will bring misfortune is usually applied to traditional Thai masked dramas known as ”khon,” according to theater scholars. It is not known to exist in other Asian countries.

Somtow and the opera’s stage director, Hans Nieuwenhuis of the Netherlands Opera Studio, agreed to modify the scene so that the audience would not actually see the character die, though ”not a note or word of the libretto was changed,” Somtow said. The following day, however, the ministry sent over a new contract including ”a broad clause saying that if anything in the opera offended the morals of Thailand, they had the right to close down the opera immediately,” said Somtow, who signed it.

Somtow, a fervent monarchist who staged the work as a personal tribute to King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who this year celebrated 60 years on the throne said the pressure ”seems to involve nationalism I’m not sure what it is a desire to control the arts that is not really the Culture Ministry’s mandate.” ”This opera was not designed to be political in any way,” he said.

Somtow a prolific composer, writer and musician is not one to be cowed by a challenge. In addition to composing two Thai-themed operas, as well as five symphonies and a ballet, earlier this year brought to Bangkok Southeast Asia’s first professional production of ”Das Rheingold” the prologue of German composer Richard Wagner’s famous four-part ”Ring” cycle. The censorship incident comes as the new government of interim Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont is facing criticism at home and abroad for its restrictions on democratic freedoms.

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