Some people say that a nation’s taste is measured through its art and culture.
If we are to accept art and culture as a scale of measurement and grade our nation, with a maximum possible score of 10, Thailand is most likely a ten given its artistic and cultural history. From its majestic palaces and temples, cuisine, costumes, accessories, to daily wares – all of these indicate the wisdom, taste, level of care, and artistic skills of its people.
And I’m not quite sure why we only rarely open the box in the first place.
That said many people – the younger generations as well as the not-so-young ones – are unaware of Thailand’s artistic and artisanal creations. They are like treasures kept in a large box, which will only be opened once in a blue moon. When that happens, the opener doesn’t even tell us about how the treasures came about or why they remain to lie there in the box.
Did you ever get stopped walking down the street by rattan basket vendors? A middle-aged uncle or auntie carrying tens of baskets in the street, under the glaring sun, selling them for 100 or 200 baht each. They don’t look that different from the baskets we commonly saw when we were young. Although you have no idea what to do with it, you buy one anyway as you want to support them. You couldn’t help but wonder how many baskets they sell each day. Minus the cost, how much do they make daily?
Wouldn’t it be better if we actually bought these baskets because we liked them and appreciated their true value? Not only because you wanted to help the vendor.
Grandma Thongmuan and silk scraps
At a small village in Buriram, Grandma Thongmuan showed us silk fabrics dyed with jackfruit heartwood, teak leaves, myrobalan bark, the heartwood of cockspur thorn, sappan wood, and golden shower, and Indian mulberry roots. Her silk fabrics are different from the ones we’ve seen before – the delightful colors reflecting the maker’s taste, the combination of meticulous patterns, and the delicate silk fabrics that indicate exquisite weaving. That said, the prices of her silk fabrics are not different from others available in the same province. They are even considerably cheaper than silk fabrics sold in Bangkok.
Grandma Thongmuan has a friend who is also a weaver. Now in their 70s, they have both been in this profession since they were teenagers. To this day, they continue to weave for a living – as much as their current physical condition allows. Although sometimes younger weavers, aged 40-50, give them a hand, no one can weave the patterns as these two elderly ladies can. They say: “It’s too difficult.” These patterns need to be learned and practiced, but no one wants to invest in this profession. Weaving is time-consuming and labor-intensive and requires acquired skills, expertise, experience, attention to detail, and a high level of care. However, the compensation for such hard work is hardly attractive enough to get people to learn or take it up as a serious profession these days.
Once when we visited Grandma Thongmuan at home, the bamboo litter for the guests to sit had a stain on it. She excused herself and returned shortly with a small scrap of silk to clean the stain with it. We teased her then: “How posh…cleaning cloth made of silk!” She smiled at us and said, “it was a scrap left over from sarong making. People around here use these scraps to clean stuff.”
Auntie Nuan’s granddaughter, Teacher Jamorn’s teachers
At a small village in the northeastern province of Maha Sarakam, while showing us the fabrics woven by the villagers, Auntie Nuan; head of the local weavers, told us that no one in the village knows how to make some of the patterns that she weaves. Her granddaughter who was around 5 years old and following us around then asked: “Well, why don’t you start a school and teach them?”
To that, Auntie Nuan answered, “I’m too old.”
Immediately the little one said, “Fine. I’ll do it when I grow up.”
Meanwhile, Teacher Jamorn, a young teacher at a district school in Buriram, is a member of the group of weavers of natural-dyed silk. However, he is no expert in weaving. The group consists of several elderly masters, weaving exquisite fabrics, while Jamorn is in charge of colors, design, and sales.
Jamorn told us he plans to get all the skilled weavers together to teach those who are still novices in weaving. But more importantly, they need to find markets and customers. Because without buyers, his dream of keeping the weaving profession alive will never be realized.
We couldn’t help but wonder…
What if we woke up one day and realized that we knew nothing about our own past?
What if we woke up one day and found that we knew nothing at all about our ancestors?
What if we woke up one day and found that we knew absolutely nothing about the way of life of those who lived before us?
Some people say that we can learn about a nation from its people. While the chaos in Thai politics and society in the past several years have left so many heavily bruised, with even some of them cast aside, there are still people and things that have endured the whirlwind and are standing strong.
Jim Thompson continues to make Thai silk known globally.
Doi Tung Development Project keeps Thai artisan skills and culture alive and kicking through its products that include clothing items, accessories, and other daily life wares.
Alexander Lamont is a good example of how to create value for Thai crafts.
Meechai Taesuchariya of ‘Baan Kam Poon’ in Ubon Ratchathani, has revived and improved Isan weaving techniques for decades, creating value and selling products at the unbelievable price.
Not to mention several other designers and artists, such as M.L. Pawinee Santisiri (of Ayodhya) and Suwan Kongkuntian (of Yothaka) who turns Thai wicker ware into incredible design work, Plernchan Winyarat (of Mook V) who creates décor items, artworks, and fashion using local textiles, Rush Pleansuk whose porcelain creations are both daily wares and art pieces at the same time; Nattiya Suksathan (of Nadyn Jadyn) who breathes a new life into Thai basketry and weaving, or Jiraroj Pojanawaraphan whose website vttthai.com is now an online market place selling Thai handicrafts worldwide.
These people are just a handful of those in Thai society who hand down local artisan skills, making sure they continue to live on. Learning from masters before them, they hand them down to future generations. It’s our shared responsibility to do this, to make sure Thai crafts have a rightful place in our daily life. And not just lie around in a treasure box.
Photos: courtesy of the mentioned brands, Siriwan Tempati, and Suwit Wongrujirawanich.