A FASCINATING account of Siamese craftsmen and their social organization is given by Bhikku P. C. Jinavaravamsa, in the Ceylon National Review for July, 1907. There were ten groups of artists and craftsmen organised under one State Department of Art and Craft. The ten groups consisted, briefly, of builders, wood-carvers (architectural), wood-carvers (small work), painters, imagers, gilders, stucco- workers, turners, repoussers, and goldsmiths. Twenty-eight other departments were separately constituted under chiefs or under one of the ten main departments according to the king’s wishes. Amongst these were founders, puppet makers, tailors, goldsmiths, enamellers, tanners, inlayers with mother of pearl, makers of glazed pottery and tiles, stone-carvers, etc.

“Just as in mediæval Europe the art of decorative painting was taught in the ecclesiastical buildings; so here drawing and painting are taught in Buddhist temples; some branches are also taught in palaces.

“There is no such thing as a regular course of lessons or organized training among the different crafts. Examples are given by the master for the pupil to ‘look at’ and ‘copy.’ The master seems to criticise the pupil’s work rather than direct him, and the pupil’s endeavour is to imitate the master; this is the nature of the training. Apprentices are generally the master’s own children or those of relatives or even neighbours; the pupils crowd round the work on which the master is engaged, and are told to ‘watch’ and to ‘try to do the same,’ and are employed in grinding and mixing colours and paints, and also help in handling the work and in any other labour connected with it. In this way I have learnt to do many things from my childhood.

“The only real school of arts and crafts is the residence of the head of the Department of Ten Crafts, where all kinds of work are almost always going on, and, in cases of working against time, by night as well as by day. Of course, only such kinds of work as are portable are done here, or work which can be done in sections and afterwards put together in situ, such as a bedstead.

“When any of the apprentices show aptitude for any particular craft, he is set to do the simplest work first, such as painting the ground, filling up spaces, washing in the sky and water, and finally tracing the outline of figures and other objects in the picture; illumination and shading are the last stage.”

The following extracts are given to show the characteristic methods of the Oriental craftsman in Siam:

“In the case of water colour painting on a plaster surface, the surface is first sized with a decoction of tamarind seeds and leaves in two or three coats; the object of this is to neutralize the alkali and to make the surface firm and non-absorbent.

“The subject being decided upon (generally a Jātaka, or the Rāmāyana, or some other popular legend), the master painter takes a selected piece of bamboo charcoal (or even a rough piece of charred wood), and proceeds to mark out by zigzag lines the divisions between successive scenes. Within the spaces thus marked out he next makes a rough sketch of the subject, and gradually develops it into a detailed drawing. Then he, or his best pupils, outline the figures or design in some dark colour, often the sediment of the water in which brushes are washed, with a lining in brush, inserting all detail. The figures are then filled in with white paint, and the ground painted in with appropriate colours representing earth, sky or water. The figures are then finished in colour and detail added in red, or black, or gold. ... The painter’s tools consist merely of some half-a-dozen brushes made of the hair of cow’s ears, bound in a crow or goose quill, two or three flat brushes made of bark, and a ‘foot-rule’ generally one cubit long, and sometimes divided into inches by mere saw-cuts.

“If the painting be of the nature of a regular pattern or consist of repeated figures, the artist resorts to perforated paper patterns. A thick native-made black paper is used, pieces being joined together if one is not large enough. The designer roughly sketches the pattern on it with a soft limestone pencil (greyish-white or light-yellow) cut to the required size and pointed at both ends. If it is necessary to rub out any lines, the artist uses his finger, moistened in the mouth, but if a large area is to be erased, a piece of the same paper, dipped in water, is used. When the design is thus completed, it is lined in white with a fine brush; corrections can be made in black.

“The stencil thus made is placed on a cushion and closely pierced or pricked along the design with a needle. It is then ready for use. It is laid on the surface to be decorated, and which has been pre- pared, and powdered chalk (in a cloth bag of loose texture) is rubbed or dusted over it, so that the pattern appears on the prepared surface as a series of faint dotted lines.

“A special craft connected with painting is the art of making transparent pictures for what Europeans call, though incorrectly, ‘shadow pantomime.’ This is a show of moving transparent pictures over a screen illuminated by a strong bonfire behind. The scenes represent the favourite Indian drama of Rāmāyana, and are accompanied by music and intoned recitation, and sometimes singing. The method of preparation of these pictures is very interesting. A cowhide is scraped to the required thinness (generally about 1-16 inch), evenly stretched and allowed to dry hard. It is then roughly shaped oval for a group and long rectangular for a standing figure the pieces measuring generally from 2½ to 5 feet in height or diameter. A design is drawn on native-made black paper, perforated and transferred as already described, and then outlined in black upon the hide. Flame kanaka or other appropriate ornaments or flowers or trees are introduced to connect together the different pieces or projecting parts of a figure, so that when the ground is cut away the hide is held together by these connections and will also hang evenly without buckling. Sky or other open space is represented by small even patterns of a very open character with inconspicuous connections.

“The hide, after cutting in this way, is appropriately coloured with fast bright dyes which penetrate the leather, and are fixed by lime-juice or native vinegar, which help also to brighten the colour.

“The greatest difficulty is to estimate how much light will, as they say, ‘eat up’ the figure; for the appearance of the figure is altered by the light from behind, some colours being weakened and others intensified. If, for instance, a human figure is drawn (generally dark) in good proportion, with dress and ornament and the colour of hair and skin correctly represented, the picture will appear badly proportioned when lit up. The artist must be a man of great experience, and the worst of it is that he does not seem able to explain his art nor to set forth in black and white the proportion of this or that colour which will absorb or transmit the light most. It is amusing to see young artists’ attempts at making these apparently simple transparent pictures, with thick white paper beautifully illuminated, but turning out a complete failure when exhibited. The pictures are held up before the screen by four pieces of split bamboo just strong enough for the purpose, and fastened to the picture, two in front and two behind, the lower ends serving as handles. The hide is flexible, so that it can be rolled up round the two sticks. The performer must be himself a trained dramatic artist and dancer to music. He acts the scene, as he would on the stage, with every part of his body except the two arms, engaged in holding up the picture. He seems to live in the picture, and is absorbed in the representation he is trying to produce. It is most amusing to see the artist’s attitude and observe the very intense expression of his face as he performs and watches the motion of his picture. The same remarks apply to the puppet-show man described below.

“The puppet-shows also deserve some mention. The construction of moving figures and puppets is carried to a considerable degree of perfection. Beautiful little figures, 6 inches to 18 inches high, representing the characters of the Indian drama of Rāmāyana, are made for exhibition at royal entertainments. They are perfect pieces of mechanism; their very fingers can be moved and made to grasp an object, and they can be made to assume postures expressive of any action or emotion described in poetry. This is done by pulling strings which hang down within the clothing, or within a small tube attached to the lower part of the figure, with a ring or loop attached to the end of each, for inserting the fingers of the showman. The movements are perfectly timed to the music and recitation or singing.

“One cannot help being charmed by these lilliputs, whose dresses are so gorgeous and jewelled with the minutest detail. Little embroidered jackets and other pieces of dress, representing the magnificent robes of a Deva or Yakkha, are complete in the smallest particulars. The miniature jewels are sometimes made of real gold and gems.

“Such a thing as this I believe to be only possible when a man has almost unlimited means, both in time and money, to devote to his hobby for months (as was the case with the late and last so-called ‘second king,’ whose puppet-show was the most famous ever called into existence), to complete the work.

“In their artistic taste the Siamese seem to be guided by an instinctive appreciation of beauty, rather than a self-conscious striving after it. They understand form, and especially curves and their combinations, very well, and use them to advantage. They understand well the filling of space with appropriate ornament, so that odd or awkward spaces become restful and even, or form a contrast to the more ornamental part of the work, making it stand out clearly, fulfilling the function of light and shade in modern work. Composition, or the proper disposition of spaces is carefully studied—if the criticism one constantly hears passed upon this or the other work may be called study. The Siamese artists show accurate judgment of size and distance, light and level; men with such accurate judgment are called ta jang, i.e., eye of an expert.

“An excellent artist is referred to as nakleng (hobbyist, connoisseur, ‘well-trained’), and even when the term is applied in the case of bad habits, as to a connoisseur of good wines or to a gourmet, it is a complimentary term. It is also applied to collectors in general. It is, however, understood to imply a morally weak man, one who gives way to passion, but decidedly a jolly good fellow. A rowdy or immoral man, or one noted for quarrels, is also called nakleng, in a bad sense.”1

  • 1. “Ceylon National Review,” No. 4, 1907.