An exhibition at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre shines the spotlight on royal traditions of the past
Even as we mourn the passing of Thailand’s beloved Monarch, His Majesty the King Bhumibol Adulyadej, there is much we can learn about the kingdom’s rich culture, particularly the traditions and protocols surrounding funeral and cremation ceremonies.
Five rare photographs depicting the royal cremations of King Rama IV and members of his family are among the highlights of “Unseen Siam”, which is currently on show on the ninth floor of the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre. The exhibition comprises 150 old photographs of historical moments in the Kingdom of Siam from 1860 to 1910.
Co-curators MR Narisa Chakrabongse, King Rama V’s granddaughter, and Paisarn Piammettawat have authorised the publication of the images, the negatives of which are kept in foreign archives, for the Bangkok show. They were taken by both foreign photographers and Thais who were later appointed Siamese court photographers.
This Sunday starting at 2pm, Paisarn will talk about the photographs and the history behind them as part of a discussion focusing on royal funeral and cremation ceremonies. The panellists include Koson Teenason from the Royal Household Bureau and veteran independent historians Sawaohol Suvanich and Pattaraphol Piewnim. The talk will be followed by a guided tour of the exhibition.
Siamese photographer Francis Chit and Swiss lensman Pierre Rossier, both later appointed royal photographers to King Rama IV’s court, took the images of the royal crematoriums of King Rama IV at Sanam Luang, as well as the Phra Meru of Queen Debsirindra and that of Princess Prabai Bannabilas, a daughter of King Rama V.
Chit, who captured the photo of King Rama IV’s crematorium, wrote that the major funerary ceremonies started on February 10, 1867. The images was published in “L’illustration: journal universel” the following day.
Another of his photos shows the urn containing the remains of Princess Prabai Bannabilas being lifted down from the funeral chariot before her cremation at Wat Rajabhopit.
The caption written by the two curators for the exhibition reads: “The smaller funeral carriage was pulled by horses, unlike the large funeral chariots, which were hauled by teams of men. The shophouses in the background are on Feung Nakhon Road and are still there to this day”.
Rossier captured the Phra Meru built for the cremation of Queen Debsirindra (1834-61) in 1862.
The caption reads “According to The Straits Times (6 June 1863, Singapore), the remains of the queen, who died in September 1861, were not placed in the meru until April 1862. In 1863, Henri Mouhot reproduced two engravings based on similar photographs. Judging from the height of the funeral carriage (approximately 10 metres) on the right of the photograph, it can be estimated that the spire was almost 80 m high.”
Besides the royal cremations, the show also highlights portraits of King Rama V and King Rama IV, nobles and commoners; architecture and landscapes of the past 100 years; chronicled events and royal ceremonies; citified and provincial life; traditional dance, Khon (a masked performance), and Likay (dramatic performance).
In addition to Chit and Rossier, the photographers include Abbe Larnaudie, Fedor Jagor, Carl Bismark, John Thomson, Henry Schuren, Gustave Richard Lambert, Max Martin, William Kennett Loftus, Fritz Schumann, Joaquim Antonio, Robert Lenz, Emil Groote and Kaishi Isonaga.
To connect the history to today’s culture, the centre’s curator Pichaya Suphavanij is also showcasing contemporary artworks by nine artists whose works capture the rapid changes of the kingdom with a focus on social-economic particularities, the modern way of life and pop culture.
n “Unseen Siam: Early Photography 1860-1910” runs on the ninth floor of Bangkok Art and Culture Centre until November 6.
n To accompany the exhibition, River Books has published a book of the same name written by art historian Joachim K Bautze, who is attached to the universities of Heidelberg, Tokyo, and Berlin. It is available at the BACC bookshop and from River Books (www.RiverBooksBk.com).