For the late King, a life recalled

Art August 31, 2017 01:00


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Murals for the royal crematorium are almost finished, glorious depictions of His benefial projects

MORE THAN 300 volunteer artists have almost completed the majestic murals that will adorn the Phra Thinang Songtham – the Royal Merit-making Pavilion at the crematorium being readied for the funeral in October of His Majesty the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

The Office of Ten Divisions of Traditional Thai Crafts said this week the huge murals for the pavilion where members of the royal family will assemble were about 90-per-cent complete. The work is being done at the agency’s premises in Nakhon Pathom.

The cremation rites are scheduled for October 26 at Sanam Luang in Bangkok.

The main structure among the ceremonial pavilions adjoining the crematorium will be adorned with painted depictions of projects initiated by the beloved late monarch for the benefit of the country and its people.

There are 46 key events depicted in all, showing King Rama IX directing and revisiting the projects. The individual scenes forming the large composite murals are based on sketches by renowned artist Montien Chuseuhung.  

For this most solemn of occasions, the Phra Thinang Songtham has been conceived as a contemporary structure with a unique design. About 200 metres in length, it has the rectangular shape of a formal assembly hall.

Its primary function will be to shelter His Majesty King Maha Vajiralongkorn as he presides over the funeral ceremony. Joining him there will be other members of the royal family, visiting heads of state, Cabinet ministers, senior officials, foreign ambassadors and other honoured guests. The hall is equipped with 2,500 seats.

The magnificent murals on canvas will occupy three walls of the Phra Thinang Songtham. The first wall is the largest, covering 93 square metres. For this, artisans of the Office of Ten Divisions of Traditional Thai Crafts have painted scenes from 19 royally initiated projects in and around Bangkok. 

They include the agricultural testing grounds at Chitralada Palace, the use of the Chaipattana aerator that the late King invented, and the “monkey cheek” scheme for retaining water he devised for times of flood and drought. The Rama XIII Bridge over the Chao Phraya River is shown, as is the Khlong Lat Pho Floodgate on its eastern bank. 

The second wall, 71 metres square, is being prepared by artisans of the Office of Traditional Arts and art students from Rajamangala University of Technology Rattanakosin. It features 13 more royal projects, these found in the North and Northeast. 

The third wall, also 71 square metres, is under the purview of Bunditpatanasilpa, the College of Fine Arts, whose artists have shown 14 royal projects in the South and elsewhere in the Central region. 

Artist-lecturer Sanan Rattana noted that painting for a royal cremation is by necessity time-constrained. “We have no time to waste,” he said. “Everything must be done perfectly and on time, and we have less than two weeks to go.”

That was during a visit to the Nakhon Pathom studio early this month. The mural panels are to be completed within the next week or so, so they can be transported to Sanam Luang and fitted in ample time to ensure there are no problems.

“For the artists,” Sanan said, “this is like taking a final exam, but we’ve passed this type of ‘exam’ three times before – painting panels for the funerals of Their Royal Highnesses the Princess Mother in 1996, Princess Galyani Vadhana in 2008, and Princess Bejaratana Rajasuda in 2011. The Gaew Galaya – the floral embellishment we designed – is now instated in the study of traditional Thai art.”

The work requires great effort and an intense unity of spirit, Sanan said. 

“The artists are all volunteering their time, and many of them are quite famous. They’ve come together whole-heartedly, eat and sleep here on the premises, sine sometimes they prefer to work at night. We all want to do this for our beloved King.”

What distinguish the work, he said, is that a lot of research is required. They tracked down the exact times and places of each event depicted and studied photographs to see who was there and what they looked like, where they stood and what they were wearing, even their insignia of office.

“For example, during His Majesty’s visit to the flood-prevention project in Chumpon, we used as reference a photo showing him, Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn and then-Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai, who is a College of Fine Arts graduate and even helped with the painting,” Sanan said. 

Chumpon also happens to be Sanan’s hometown, so he’s been able to depict the trees there exactly as they look. 

Saknarin Koonsawat, who’s responsible for the likenesses of the late King, said he’s truly honoured to be involved in the funeral preparations. He showed an old photograph of His Majesty visiting the Hup Krapong Royal Project. 

“It’s important to convey the correct facial expression, the walk and the movement,” he said. “His Majesty is our greatest role model in life. Even if he’s no longer among us, his virtues remain in our hearts.”

Other well-known artists participating include Rattanachai Chairat, Pichit Paidan, Wathana Kreethong, Karn Rattanajul, Jeerapong Khunpaew, Boonpan Wongpakdee and Booncherd Khemngan.



 Also nearly finished are paintings of celestial beings intended for the royal crematorium itself, the Chak Bang Phloeng. These too have been the responsibility of the Office of Ten Divisions of Traditional Thai Crafts.

Artist Kiattisak Suwannaphong said this week the panels were on schedule to be framed early in the coming month ready for transporting to the site in Sanam Luang.

The remarkable west panel has had something of a royal blessing: Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn decorated the central jewels on the god Narayana’s headdress with the nine auspicious colours. 

The artists have finished the multihued dresses of the goddesses and angels, filling in their jewellery with gold leaf.

What visitors will see are eight scenes from the lives of the Vedic deity Narayana, pointing to the late monarch’s divine status. The cremation is viewed as his return to the realm of the gods, and these murals employ what’s been termed the “King Rama IX style of art” with, for example, a distinctive way of depicting musculature. 

“The facial expressions are calm and tranquil, as if they’re deep in meditation,” Kiattisak says. “According to ancient belief, they come to attend the royal cremation and will escort His Majesty to Heaven.”

The murals are double-sided. On the reverse side are gorgeous lotuses in bloom, montha thip flowers arranged in the feunguba pattern, and the late King’s monogram. The scenes are brought to life with depictions of creatures living in the lotus pond, such Nile fish, dragonflies, grasshoppers and butterflies. 

Former Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai, a talented artist, has spent months painting panels for the staircases leading up to the main crematorium. 

In a tribute to Her Majesty the Queen, patron of traditional craftspeople, he has costumed his angels in garments of classic woven materials, bearing famous patterns from all four regions of Thailand.