Friday, February 21, 2020

Even classical culture can have fun riding a bike

Sep 23. 2016
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Maybe I’m not the best person to be speaking intelligently about the controversial music video “Tiew Thai Mee Hay”, but it’s got everyone else talking about it. The video, depicting Ravana (Thotsakan) from the Ramayana/Ramakien doing whimsical things lik
Unless you believe that each of us has the right to comment on our culture, you might be spared frustration over the Culture Ministry requesting substantial editing to the video. You can just leave the verdict on all such creativity to the civil servants. 
The ministry boffins don’t think Thotsakan should be depicted so light-heartedly, not even in a video meant to bring in more tourists (especially not if that’s the case, apparently). But a lot of people who feel just as protective of Thai culture as the ministry beg to differ.
In the ministry’s view, khon – the masked theatre that presents the Ramakien tales in costumes just like the actors in the video wear – is high art and thus deserving of more respect. The Ramakien is high-class literature and shouldn’t be treated so casually. 
In the more flexible view espoused by a mostly younger crowd, the “Tiew Thai Mee Hay” video is delightful, well suited to Thailand’s culture and international image and, anyway, why not? Also, as one online commentator pointed out, “When Thai kids admire Western culture you chastise them, but when a Thai work is created that appeals to youth, you ban it!”
Is it really “degrading” for Thotsakan, great king of the giants, to be seen making kanom krok, the rice pudding? The traditionalists in the crowd argue that such a powerful figure would never stoop to making pudding – or riding a go-kart or jet-ski. 
My take is that the critics are way too serious about this little fun film. First of all, every activity depicted in the video is what tourists are likely to see when they come here, if not actually enjoy themselves. That includes kanom krok, a star of our dessert menu for aeons. Go-karting and jet-skiing are big draws here, outdoor pastimes that for the most part never cause anyone harm. And Thotsakan was specifically chosen because of his immense popularity among Thais.
The amusing video struck a chord with young people plugged into the social media, where it was previewing before the Culture Ministry wet its pants. 
Until the ministry “red-flagged” the video, it had earned viral status. Once officialdom stepped in and asked the creators to edit out all that modern “inappropriate” stuff, interest shot up again.
Exactly what is appropriate and what isn’t? 
Somebody really ought to decide – except that it’s not possible. Culture is dynamic, not fixed. And it’s the people who shape culture, so who is best positioned to judge on such anomalies as this if not the people? Not even khon has remained stagnant, evolving from royal-eyes-only performances during the reign of King Rama IV to the theatre of Everyman today, with many loud side trips to the temple fairs.
The ministry has been accused online of trying to “hog the blanket”. If it monopolises any form of art, drains it of involvement by the common man, that art is likely to go extinct. My friend Chana Sevikul, the veteran songwriter and art teacher, sees culture as a big tree of many branches. If we keep cutting off the branches, he says, one day we’ll be left with a bonsai, pretty but forever stunted.
Artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, who built the renowned Wat Rong Khun (White Temple) in Chiang Rai, loves the khon music video. “I didn’t see anything wrong with it,” he says, recalling his own youthful battles over perceived inappropriateness. “We could hardly ever come up with any great ideas for fear that they’d be disapproved by phuyai.”
He persevered, obviously, and the White Temple, which merges classical Siamese architecture with contemporary art, draws millions of tourists annually. 
Had he and others not been eager to experiment, Thai architecture would be much poorer than it is today.
Chalermchai says that, for art and culture to flourish is a sustained way, a two-pronged approach is needed. They should maintain authenticity and at the same time be modern-minded, always exploring new ideas.
The ministry needs to consider its role. Does it want to be the sole authority on culture, or is there benefit to be gained from including everyone? If the latter, its officials need only consult the social media and hear out what’s being said.
 This is my last column for 
The Nation. Thank you for reading and sharing your opinions – whether you’ve agreed with me or not.

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