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SIAMESE LITERATURE AND ART.
AT the head of the Siamese writers of profane history stands, I think, P'hra Alack, or rather Cheing Meing, — P'hra Alack being the generic term for all writers. In early life he was a priest, but was appointed historian to the court, and in that capacity wrote a history of the reign of his patron and king, P'hra Narai, — (contemporary with Louis XIV.) — and left a very curious though unfinished autobiography.
Seri Manthara, celebrated as a military leader, wrote nine books of essays, on subjects relating to agriculture and the arts and sciences. Some of these, translated into the languages of Birmah and Pegu, are still extant.
Among a host of dramatic writers, Phya Doong, better known as P'hra Rhein Lakonlen, is entitled to the first rank He composed about forty-nine books in lyric and dramatic verse, besides epigrams and elegies. Of his many poems, the few that remain afford passages of much elegance and sweetness, and even of sublimity, — almost sufficient to atone for the taint of grossness he derived from the licentious imagination of his land and time.
While yet hardly out of his infancy, he was laid at the feet of the monarch, and reared in the palace at Lophaburee. Some dramatic pieces composed by the lad for his playmates to act attracted the notice of the king, who engaged teachers to instruct him thoroughly in the ancient literature of India and Persia. But he seems to have boldly opened a way for himself, instead of following (as modern Orientals, timid or servile, are so prone to do) the well-worn path of the old Hindoo writers. In his tragedy (which I saw acted) of Manda-thi-Nung, "The First Mother," there are passages of noble thought and true passion, expressed with a power and beauty peculiarly his own.
The entertainments of the theatre are devoured by the Siamese with insatiable appetite, and the popular preference is awarded to those intellectual contests in which the tragic and comic poets compete for the prize. The laughter or the tears of the sympathetic groundlings are accepted as the expression of an infallible criticism, and by their verdict the play is crowned or damned. The common people, such is their passion for the drama, get whole tragedies or comedies "by heart." Every day in the year, and in every street of Bangkok, and all along the river, booths and floating sales may be seen, in which tragedy, comedy, and satirical burlesques, are enacted for the entertainment of great audiences, who are thrilled, delighted, or amused. In compositions strictly dramatic the characters, as with us, speak and act for themselves; but in the epic the poet recites the adventures of his heroes.
Judges are appointed by the king to determine the merits of new plays before they are performed at court; and on the grand occasion of the hair-cutting of the heir-apparent (now king) his late Majesty caused the poem "Kraelasah" to be modernized and adapted to grace the ceremonies.
P'hra Ramawsha, a writer highly esteemed, did wonders for the Siamese drama. He translated the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and portions of the Cambodian lyrics into Siamese; introduced masks, with magnificence of costume and ornament; substituted theatres, or rather sales, for the temporary booth or the open plain; and elevated the matter and the style of dramatic compositions from the burlesque and buffoonery to the sentimental and majestic. He was also the first to impart spirit and variety to the dialogue, and to teach actors to express like artists, and not like mere animals, the strong human passions of anger, love, and pity. The plays of P'hra Ramawsha are highly esteemed at court. In his management of amorous incidents and intrigues, he is, if not positively refined, at least less gross than other Siamese dramatists.
The dress of the players is always rich, and in the fashion of that worn at court. The actors and actresses attached to the royal establishment make a splendid display in this respect, large sums being expended annually on their costumes, jewels, and other adornings.
The development of native genius and skill, in the direction of the fine arts, has greatly declined, if it has not been absolutely arrested, since the reign of P'hra Narai, the enlightened founder of Lophaburee; and almost all the vestiges of art, purely national, to be found in the country now, may be traced to that golden age of Siam. The Siamese, though intelligent, clever, facile, and in a notable degree susceptible to the influences of the beautiful in nature or in art, by no means slow or awkward in imitating the graceful products of European taste and industry, are yet fettered by a peculiar oppression in their efforts to express in visible forms their artistic inspirations. No Siamese subject is to be congratulated, who by his talent or his skill has won popular applause in any branch of industry. No such man, having extraordinary cleverness or taste, dare display it to the public in works of novel utility or beauty; because he and his inventions may alike be appropriated, without reward or thanks, — the former to serve the king, the latter to adorn the palace. Many ply in secret their dangerously graceful callings, and destroy their work when it is done, rather than see it wrested from them, and with it all that is left to them of freedom, to serve the whim of a covetous and cruel master. All that P'hra Narai did to foster the sciences and arts in his land has been undone by the ruinous selfishness of his successors; and of the few suicides recorded in the annals of Siam since his time, one of the most remarkable is that of a famous painter, who poisoned himself the day after his installation at court. Thus all natural ambition has been stupidly extinguished in the breasts of the artists of a land whose remaining monuments attest her ancient excellence in architecture, sculpture, and painting.
The most remarkable examples of Siamese painting are presented in the cartoons to be found on the walls of the ancient temples, decorated with the brush before the introduction of wall-paper from Birmah. One that is still to be seen in the Watt Kheim Mah, or Mai, is especially noticeable. This temple was built by the grandmother of the late Maha Mongkut. The plant kheim mai (indigenous to Siam), which bears a lovely little blossom, was one of her favorite flowers, and she called her temple by its name. Being a liberal patron of the arts, she employed a promising young painter named Nai Dang to decorate the Watt. The man would hardly be remembered now but for a poem he wrote and dedicated-to the queen mother, in which her beauty and goodness are extolled. I could learn of him no more than that he was self-educated, and by unaided perseverance attained a respectable proficiency in drawing and design. He had also a fair knowledge of chemistry as it is practised in the East; but, aspiring to fame and fortune, he abandoned that study and devoted himself exclusively to painting. For years he struggled desperately against the discouragements of poverty in himself and ignorance in his neighbors, but found his reward at last iu this engagement to embellish the walls of the Watt Kheim Mai.
Nai Dang's must have been an original and independent mind, for his conceptions in this cartoon are as bold as his handling is vigorous and effective, while his colors are more true to nature than any that I have seen in Chinese or Japanese art.
He has grandly chosen for his subject the Birth of Buddha. The mother of the divine teacher being on a journey, is overtaken with the pangs of childbirth. Her attendants and slaves have gathered about her; but she, as if conscious of the august nature of the babe she is about to bestow upon the world, retires alone to the shade of an orange grove, where, clinging to the friendly boughs, with a look of blended rapture and pain, she gives birth to the great reformer. A few steps farther on, a circle of light is seen glowing round the feet of the infant, as it attempts to rise and walk alone. Next we find the child in a rustic cradle; a branch of the tree under which he is sleeping bends low, to shield him from the fierce rays of the sun, and his royal parents, beholding the miracle, kneel and adore him. Now he is a youthful prince, beautiful and gentle, troubled with pity for the poor, the afflicted, and the aged, as they rest by the roadside. And finally, as a hermit, he sits in the shade of a boh-tree, rapt in divine contemplation.
It is a great work, full of imagination, truth, and power, if justly contemplated by the light of a semi-barbaric age. Every figure is instinct with character and action, and the whole is rendered with infinite naiveté, as though it represented undisputed and familiar facts.
On the opposite wall another great cartoon represents the Hell of the Buddhists, with demons whose hideous heads are those of fabulous beasts and creeping things. As a work of imagination and force this is worthy to be the companion of the Birth of Buddha.
The roof is painted as a firmament, — stars in a blue ground; and here it is that the charm of pure feeling and noble treatment is most apparent. With five colors the artist has produced all the variety we see. No cast shadows are shown, the forms themselves are but partially shaded, yet wonderful harmony and beauty pervade the whole. All honor to Nai Dang! who alone, amid the national decay of art and culture, preserved this germ of glorious life and strength, wrapped in his own obscure, neglected life!
The practice of decorating walls and ceilings with paintings may be traced to a remote period in the history of Siamese art. In an ancient temple at Lophaburee is a glourious picture, of less merit than those of Nai Dang, representing the marriage of Buddha with the princess Thiwadi, beside many of the transmigrations of the Buddhas; and there are elsewhere one or two pictures well worthy of notice, by masters whose names have not been kept in remembrance. Thus art in Siam has degenerated for want of kind, fostering patrons, and faithful, sympathetic chroniclers, till it has become a thing of mere tools and technics.
Nevertheless, they still paint with some cleverness on wood, cloth, parchment, ivory, and plastic material, as well as on gold and silver, — a sort of enamelling. They also retain a fair knowledge of effect in fresco, tracing the outline on the wet ground, and laying on the color in a thin glue; in some of their later work of this kind that I have seen, the idea of the designer is expressed with much vigor.
Their mosaics, executed in colored porcelain of several varieties, glass of all kinds, mother-of-pearl, and colored marbles, represent chiefly flowers and sprays on a brilliant ground. The most remarkable work of this kind is, I imagine, that which is lavished on the temple Watt P'hra Këau, — the walls, pillars, windows, roofs, towers, and gates being everywhere overlaid with mother-of-pearl and ivory, and profusely gilded. The several facades are likewise inlaid with ivory, glass, and mother-of-pearl, fixed with cement in the mortar, which serves as a base. In all cases these works are characterized by a touching simplicity, which seems to struggle through much that is obscure and illegible to get nearer to nature and truth. Most of the tiles employed in the roofing of temples and palaces are colored and gilt.
SPIRE OF THE TEMPLE WATT-POH.
Among the older pictures, one in the Royal bedchamber of the abandoned palace deserves a parting glance. It is a cartoon (much defaced, and here and there retouched by clumsy Chinese hands) of The First Sin. In the foreground a newly created world is rudely represented, and here are several illuminated figures, human but gigantic. One of these, discontented with his spiritual food, is seen tasting something, which we are told is "fragrant earth"; after which, in another figure, he appears to be electrified, and here his monstrous anatomy is depicted with ludicrous attempts at detail. No one could tell me by whom or when this cartoon was painted, and the painting itself is so little appreciated that I might never have seen or heard of it but for a happy chance.
A characteristic effect in the few great works by Siamese painters appears in their management of shade. They impart to darkness a pervading inner light or clearness, and heighten the effect of the deeper shadows by permitting objects to be seen through them. In addition to the pictures I have described, one or two of some merit are to be found in the Watt Brahmanee Waid.
The florid style of architecture seems to have been familiar to the Siamese from a very early period. Their palaces, temples, and pagodas afford innumerable examples of it, many of them not unworthy of European art.
They build generally in brick, using a cement composed of sand, chalk, and molasses, in which the skin of .the buffalo has been steeped. Their structures are the most solid and durable imaginable. When the masons building a wall round the new palace at Ayuthia found their. bricks falling short, they tried in vain to detach a supply from the ruined temples and walls of that ancient city.
In the art of sculpture the Siamese are in advance of their civilization. Not only in their palaces, temples, and pagodas, but in their shops and dwellings likewise, and even in their ships and boats, all sorts of figures are to be seen, modelled and finished with more or less delicacy.