RE: The Uncertain Musical Evidence in Thailand’s Temple Murals

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The response paper below is written for SE3224: Thai Drawing and Painting.

The Uncertain Musical Evidence in Thailand’s Temple Murals, by Terry E. Miller, situates the development of music in this Indochina country within its history, culture and aesthetic sensibilities. It documents the challenges that temple murals have went through and continue to face, as well as the thoughts of a researcher attempting to put together a history of Thai music. Reading this article has engendered a greater appreciation for the murals, as well as increase an awareness of the difficulties a Thai art researcher has to face.

A More Nuanced Appreciation

Understanding the socio-cultural history of Thailand provides me with the background information to interpret, locate and appreciate the temple murals. I can go beyond the simple admiration of the artists’ skills – those meticulous strokes, painstaking patterns and gold-gilded figures. Knowing who the painters are, when the murals were created, which musical instruments were played and what stories are conveyed encourage me to understand the temple paintings within their historical and religious milieus. As such, I can look at one painted figure, guess what he is doing and why, allowing my imagination to be excited.

This sense of wonder is enhanced by knowing what the paintings have gone through and survived, be it the invasions by the Burmese, the ambient humidity and high temperatures, “water damage from leaky roofs and windows”, physical damage from human touching and furniture abrasions, as well as local communities who prefer to have bright new murals rather than faded ones. To see these artworks, to picture what challenges they have gone through and continue to face, is a thought-provoking exercise.

A beautiful mural, worn out by the rain.
Miller compares the aesthetic sensibilities of Thai art with that in Western art. He describes the wall paintings as “a fluidity of events” akin to the “flowing of a stream”, with no receding perspective and the viewers being placed in an “apparent aerial position”. His descriptions are broad – perhaps somewhat reductionist – but, nevertheless, useful.

From a very young age, I have imbibed a Western-oriented sensibility from a British-based education system. Turner’s landscapes with desolate sweeps of paint, Rothko’s canvases with fields of colours, Hirst’s installations of preserved animals, these works are among my favorite. It has been a challenge to derive the same intensity of pleasure from the cultural heritage of South East Asia, including Thailand. Through reading these research papers then viewing the temple murals, sculptures and architecture, I understand that I have been gauging these works according to the Western-biased lens colouring my vision. It is important not to solely evaluate an artwork according to a foreigner’s rubric. The local conditions influencing an artwork’s aesthetics and content must be justly considered as well.

The Problematic Extraction of Information

In the past, there was no photography. Documentary evidence pertained mostly to “official matters”. Non-Thai sources were usually written by non-specialists and “couched in ethnocentric terms”. Given the scarcity of documentary evidence, visual representations are important in constructing an understanding of how Thai citizens led their lives.

The scenes of day-to-day living – also known as ‘phaap kaak’ – are considered less sacred and placed lower on the hierarchy, at “more reasonable levels”. As such, they are veritable troves of information, simply waiting to be discovered by the wandering attention of a lay visitor (including students interested in Thai drawing and painting).

What happens in Thailand, stays in Thailand.
Miller’s research details the instruments found within the temple murals. There are people playing trumpets, xylophones, drums, cymbals and a plethora of other instruments. The number of times these instruments appeared in the murals and inside which temples were dutifully noted. The painted images of the instruments were hesitantly assigned to various ethnic groups and geographical origins.

The aforementioned task was not easy. First and foremost, the instruments may simply be poorly painted, thus impossible to recognize and describe. Also, the assumption that murals are painted in the same period of temple construction is a popular misconception; multiple restorations throughout the centuries may have caused the original details to be lost.

I imagine the author poring through images, sieving through the field data before coming up with a coherent narrative. Given that there is a dearth of literature on Thai art history, the efforts of researchers working in this field are all the more admirable. It has been insightful to understand how the history of Thai art is assembled from the perspectives of a researcher himself.

A Confluence of Expectations

At one point, Miller laments the uncertainty that some paintings may have been “reimagined”, not “restored”; that the original artists’ intentions and styles may have been lost over successive repainting. He then goes on to share his experience encountering a dismal restoration of an Ayuthaya temple before concluding that “since most temples are mostly under local control, the abbots can take whatever actions they wish with regard to restoration and change”.

While I share Miller’s desire for the protection of these historically significant murals, I suspect that both of us are speaking from a faraway vantage. We are privileged outsiders who wish to be dazzled by centuries of religious and aesthetic heritage. But who are we to impose our outsiders’ views? The locals have to use these temples frequently; these are sites where they perform religious rites, celebrate special occasions and gather as a community. Miller is an American academic based in the States while I am an undergraduate studying in a Singapore university; it is likely that we would only visit these temples a few times in our entire lives. Expecting the local community to leave their temple walls, gray with exposed stucco and rain stains, such that the consumptive desires of sporadic visitors may be fulfilled seem somewhat unreasonable.

Faded murals just aren't that nice.
The locals want their temple murals to look hot.
So, what about the locals who have to use these sites frequently? How to balance their expectations with the wishes of tourists, history lovers and the State? What about preserving these sites for the successive generations yet to be born? How to balance this confluence of expectations? The current conservation plans, as directed by the country’s Fine Arts Department, sits uncomfortably with the laity’s expectations. Since the lifeblood of a temple depends on attracting and keeping devotees, the latter’s concerns matter. Perhaps there is a way to reconcile the needs of all parties, a way to preserve these temples and, at the same time, respond to the needs of people who actually use them. Maybe hand-stretched canvas can be displayed over historically-significant works so that the latter may be shown as and when required?

Concluding Thoughts

All in all, this article has answered many questions about how to appreciate Thai art and what concerns researchers have as they construct a country’s art history. However, there are many questions raised throughout the field trip that this article is unable to answer, simply because it is not written with these questions in mind. For example, is religious tourism actively promoted by the State? Why there are so few visitors compared to the European churches? Is there any decline in the number of temple visitors due to the current political volatility? Are these Thai artists, ‘artists’? Or are they ‘craftsmen’ imitating one another? Is it even fruitful to class them so? These are questions that could be answered by turning to other sources, in another time.

Bibliography

Miller, Terry E. The Uncertain Musical Evidence in Thailand’s Temple Murals, Music in Art XXXII/1-2 (2007).

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