From Classical to Popular Arts.
Most classical Thai art originated
in or under the patronage of the royal courts. It is
an amalgam of the finest cultural traditions of Asia,
blended and stamped into unique forms instantly recognizable
as Thai. Classical art encompasses Buddhist
art as represented in religious architecture,
decorative murals,and Buddha images. The art reflected
the complex formal structure and etiquette of court
culture, with its heavy Indian
influences, and expressed both religious and intellectual
impulses. Entertainment was considered to be of secondary
value in this category of art.
Another category is popular art, which
arose from age-old village realities and the rites associated
with birth, death, and the seasonal cycle of crop cultivation.
When speaking of Thai art in general
one is able to distinguish between these two groups.
On the other hand, different as they are, they are complementary
and mutually reinforce each other. Much classical or
court-inspired art later evolved into simpler forms
which found popular appeal. Classical drama, for example,
moved into the realm of popular culture in the form
of comic folk-operas.
classical dance dolls.........
Traditional Thai Manual Arts
During the Ayutthaya period,
writers, painters, dancers, sculptors, architects, musicians
and skilled craftsmen came under the royal patronage
of kings and the nobility. Thai architects and artists
were responsible for building and decorating palaces,
monasteries, and shrines in conventionally acceptable
forms and styles. Unlike their Western counterparts,
they were not expected to display revolutionary originality
or inventiveness. Thus art and craftsmanship were transmitted
from generation to generation according to rigid discipline.
In an attempt to provide general training
to Thai craftsmen, especially those who worked in the
palaces, the Krom Chang Sip Mu
[Organization of the Ten Crafts] was established. According
to Prince Pradit Worakarn, who was given charge of the
Chang Sip Mu Department during the reign of King
Rama V, the original organization in fact covered
at least 13 different craftsmen: drawers, paper-makers,
engravers, figure-makers, modellers, plasterers, lacquerers,
metal beaters, turners, moulders, wood-carvers, sculptors,
Bangkok period, these were grouped into 10 divisions:
drawing [which included draughtsmen, painters,
muralists, and manuscript illustrators], engraving
[woodcarvers, engravers on metal, precious metal inlay],
turning [lathe-workers, carpenters and
joiners, glass mosaic workers], sculpting
[paper sculptors, decorative fruit and vegetable carvers],
modelling [beeswax moulders and bronze casters,
and puppet makers], figure making [dummy
and prototype makers], moulding [craftsmen
in bronze and metal casting], plastering
[bricklayers, lime plasteres, stucco workers and sculptors],
lacquering [masters of lacquerware
and mother- Of-pearl inlay], and beating
[metal beaters and finishers of metal articles].
Contemporary Thai arts and crafts,
though modernized to some extent through improved technology,
are still very much inspired by tradition. Ranging from
delicately wrought silverware
to numerous utilitarian items of everyday life, they
are part of the kingdom's rich cultural heritage.
Classical Thai painting was confined to temple and palace
interiors and book illustrations. Mural painting was
developed to a high degree in the belief that walls
should enhance the beauty of the religious and
royal objects they surrounded.
Traditional Thai painting was typically
Asian in that conventional perspective was ignored and
figures were large or small depending on their importance.
Shadows were unknown and space was neutral rather than
Figures were two dimensional and landscapes
were merely sketchily treated backdrops for detailed
action. A technique of pictorial composition called
"apportioning areas" was employed, comparable
to the "bird's eye view" of Western painting.
By this method, the positions of the key scenes were
assigned first and then closed off with "space transformers"
that effectively isolated them from considerations of
perspective by doing away with any surrounding intermediate
or middle ground.
The traditional Thai painter had five
primary pigments, the close equivalents of scarlet lake,
yellow ochre, ultramarine blue, pipe-clay white, and
pot-black. With these he was able to produce as many
other colours. All were tempera colours, finely ground
powders that were stirred into bowls containing a glue
binder, using sticks to work it to the desired strength
and consistency. With these colours the traditional
artists created uniquely beautiful compositions in the
form of temple murals, cloth banners, and manuscript
The earliest surviving murals are characterized
by earth colours made from natural pigments. They depicted
excerpts from the Jataka stories, episodes from the
Buddha's life, scenes of Buddhist heaven and hells,
rows of gods, and scenses of contempora ry Thai life.
The murals in Bangkok's Wat Suthat and Thon Buri's Wat
Suwannaram are particularly fine examples.
The traditional painting technique
continued into the Bangkok period, when colours became
richer thanks to pigments imported from China. Around
the middle of the 19th century, artists began using
chemical pigments and Western perspective. Spatial va
lues were eschewed for atmospheric effects, and opulent
gold leaf and bold primary colours radically altered
the delicate harmony of the old subdued earth colours.
Thai painters with distinguished works
generally reach scholarly professional level of artistic
skill. Some of them have been recognized and awarded
with the Hariphitak, Chalerm Nakeeraksa, Sanit Dispandha
and Tawee Nanthakwang.
Besides, Thai painters, though trained
in the traditional style, have been currently influenced
by Western style and technique. However, some have been
able to integrate the various styles and thus create
their own expression of art. Chakrapan Posayakrit, for
example, while best known for his portraits is also
a painter of scenes and characters based on Thai literature
which manage to convey a flavour that is at once modern
Another internationally contemporary
artist is Thawan Dachanee, who has experimented extensively
with his medium.
Phra Atchana, the seated Buddha at Wat Si Chum, is one
of the finest examples of Sukhothai sculpture.
Thai sculptors of the past concentrated
almost exclusively on Buddha images, producing works
that rank among the world's greatest expressions of
Buddhist art. Tsese have ranged in size from Sukhothai's
seated Buddha at Wat Si Chum, which measures 11 metres
from knee to knee, to tiny, fingernail-sized Buddhas
worn as amulets. Their greatest achievements were during
the Sukhothai period, when
the smoothness and sheen of cast metals perfectly matched
the graceful elongated simplicity of the basic form.
To emphasize the spiritual qualities of Buddhism,
Thai sculptors eschewed anatomical details such as muscles
and bone structure, realizing that these would only
distract from the enigmatic serenity that was their
The statue of King Rama I by Corado Feroci,
better known as Silpa Bhirasri, the founder of Silpakorn
Thai sculpture received a boost in
1933 when an Italian sculptor, Corado Feroci founded
the Fine Arts School which in 1943 became Silpakorn
University. Having first arrived in Thailand in 1924
to work with the Royal Fine Arts Department on the cre
ation of monumental sculptures, Feroci is today remembered
as the father of modern art in Thailand. He became a
Thai citizen in 1944, changing his name to Silpa Bhirasri,
and served as Dean of the Painting
and Sculpture Faculty un til his death in 1962.
Many of his students have been awarded
with the "National Artist" status. These include,
for example, Paitoon Muangsoomboon, Chit Rianpracha
and Pimarn Moolpramook whose works have appeared in
various places such as at the Benjasiri Gardens in Bang
kok. Another artist who is well-known among the Thais
and abroad is Misiem Yip-in-tsoi. She took up painting
first, and then sculpture. She achieved great success
in the latter field. Examples of her works, much of
which depict children, can be seen i n many private
collections as well as in a sculpture garden she established
in Nakhon Pathom near Bangkok.
A modern sculpture by Misiem Yip-in-tsoi at
Rai Mae Fa Luang, Chiang Rai Province.
Many modern Thai sculptors have experimented
with the artistic possibilities of new methods borrowed
from industrial technology to create works both simple
and incredibly complex in meaning and effect. Others
have taken objects out of their ordinary environment
and turned them into arresting works of art. In one
exhibition at the gallery of the National Museum, buffalo
horns and hides, rice sacks, dried rice stalks, sickles
and other implements were used to create the essence
of being on a farm.
and Mother-of-Pearl Inlay
The art of making lacquer originally came to Thailand
from China, probably by way of Burma-now Myanmar, but
over the centuries distinctively Thai designs and techniques
were evolved. It became a notable handicraft in the
northern province of Chiang
Mai and is still made there in a number of households.
Lacquerware begins with finely-woven
bamboo basketry or well-seasoned wood which has been
carved or shaped on a lathe into the desired shape.
To this is first applied a basic coating material called
samuk, consisting of the ashes of burnt rice-paddy husks
or ground clay mixed with rak, or black lacquer, obtained
from a tree which grows in the northern hills. When
dry, this is polished with soap-stone and then another
coating is applied. This process is repeated again and
again for up to fifteen times, building up a rigid base
of durable lacquer. At the end, a final polishing is
given with a sandpaper-like leaf called bai-nod.
The object is then ready for several
coats of pure black lacquer, from three to six coatings.
The final layer is polished with water and powdered
fired clay, giving it a glistening shine.
A design is then applied by either
the method called "lai kud" or the one
called "lai rot nam". If the object is
to be in colour, lai kud is used, while lai
rot nam is for objects with gold designs. At the
end of the process the colour or gold stands out against
a background of glossy black.
The use of mother of pearl to adorn
objects has a long history in Thailand. Stucco pieces
embedded with bits of shell have been found at monuments
dating back to the Dvaravati period (6th to 11th centuries
A.D.), and same form of the art may have exi sted even
before along the coastal region.
But these early efforts were crude
compared with the magnificent works achieved by techniques
perfected in the late Ayutthaya and early Bangkok periods,
when temple doors and windows, manuscript boxes, alms
bowls, and numerous other items were splendi dly decorated
by the painstaking process the Thais call khruang muk.
The craft continues to thrive today in the production
of exquisitely detailed furniture, mirror frames, boxes,
and trays that are the pride of many owners both in
Thailand and ab road.
The Thai mother-of-pearl inlay technique
involves the patient cutting of the luminescent muk
fai, or flame snail, indigenous to the Gulf of Thailand.
The outer surface of this shell is removed with a special
knife and the pearly inner shell i s cut into fairly
flat pieces, each about two and a half centimetres long.
Sanded flat, they are glued to wooden surfaces to form
patterns or scenes and the area in between filled with
Handsome pots dating back more than 5,000 years have
been found at Ban Chiang in northeastern
Thailand, and the art of shaping and firing clay has
continued to the present day. Simple earthenware vessels
are still used for cooking and storage, while more sophisticated
glazed pottery is also being produced by methods introduced
from China 700 years ago.
Almost every region of the country
has its own traditional pottery. The North, for example,
makes fine low-fired pots and water jugs, lightly glazed
with terra cotta and oil to make them capable of holding
liquids; by northern custom, one of these pots is placed
outside most temples and private homes so that thirsty
strangers can stop and refresh themselves. Dark brown
pottery in a wide variety of shapes, from flower pots
to fanciful animals, is produced at kilns near the north-eastern
city of Nakhon Ratchasima and Ratchaburi, west of Bangkok,
is noted for its beautifully decorated water storage
jars, yellowish-green in colour and adorned with dragons
and swirling floral motifs.
According to tradition, the art of
making delicate, blue-green celadon began at the end
of the 13th century, when King Ramkhamhaeng of Sukhothai
brought 300 Chinese potters to his kingdom. Within a
short time, the high-fired stoneware was being trade
d throughout Southeast Asia, all the way to the Philippines
The celadon industry declined with
Sukhothai but has been revived in recent years in the
northern city of Chiang Mai. The technique is still
the same as in ancient times, using a clear glaze made
from feldspar, limestone, ash, and a mall amount of
re d clay. The wood used for firing the kilns comes
from a small jungle tree that grows north of Chiang
Mai, the ash of which is supposed to help impart the
typical celadon colour. Several companies are now making
the stoneware, which is becoming a noted T hai export
Thai Silk to Homespun Hilltribe Cloths
The gorgeously irridescent, nubby Thai silk may have
originated in northeastern
Thailand, where cloth weaving is a traditional folk
craft. Rearing their own silkworms and spinning and
dyeing the yarn, northeast village women use primitive
hand looms to produce shimmering bolts of cloth for
sale in faraway markets.
Though it prospered in early Bangkok,
the silk industry went into a long decline starting
in the latter part of the 19th century when cheaper,
factory-produced fabrics from China and Japan began
to flood the market. An attempt to improve production
was made during the reign of King
Chulalongkorn, when Japanese experts were brought
in and a Department of Sericulture was established,
but the effort enjoyed limited success. A few years
after World War II, an American named Jim Thompson revived
the industry and made the silk known to international
markets. There are a number of silk companies today,
many of them in or around Bangkok, but the Northeast
is still the main centre of production; near the northeastern
town of Pak Thong Chai, the company Jim Thompson founded
has built the largest hand-weaving facility in the world.
Besides plain and printed silks of various weights,
a number of special weaves have become celebrated. One
of these is called mudmee,
a kind of ikat which is a specialty of the Northeast.
Thanks to the encouragement of Her Majesty Queen Sirikit,
mudmee is now in wide
use. Another sought-after silk is richly brocaded with
gold and silver thread in traditional Thai patterns.
This requires the most time and skill to make and is
therefore the most expensive, used mainly on such ceremonial
occasions as weddings.
Thai silk is today the best known of
all the country's handicrafts, found not only in countless
local shops but also throughout the world. It is exported
worldwide in plain lengths, plaids, brocades, stripes,
prints, and checks and is supported by a massive manufacturing
and sales infrastructure, a far cry from its humble
Supple handwoven Thai cotton is also
popular. Made in a variety of weights for both clothing
and home furnishings, it is being exported in increasing
Fine embroidery is one of the traditional
crafts of the northern hilltribes, with the Hmong and
Yao people being particularly skilled at creating splendid,
boldly-coloured geometric designs. In long strips, these
are used to edge a skirt or jacket, i n squares to enhance
a vest or shoulder bag, in larger pieces to make a handsome
quilt. Her Majesty Queen Sirikit has long been an admirer
of tribal embroidery and has helped to promote the craft,
particularly on homespun cloths such as cotton and local
hemp that produces a fabric resembling linen, among
fashionable ladies in Bangkok and in other countries
Though silverware is made in several parts of Thailand,
the most famous centre is Chiang Mai, where it has been
a prominent local handicraft for at least a thousand
years. In ancient times, it was concentrated in a village
called Wua Lai, just outside the city wall; the village
has long been absorbed by the modern city but the area
where it stood is still noted for its silver.
Northern silversmiths have applied
their skills to a great variety of objects, from goblets
to swords, but their most common products have been
ceremonial bowls and boxes of assorted sizes. These
are usually adorned with elaborate decorations, either
figures or traditional Thai motifs.
A Thai classical music ensemble.
The wai khru ceremony in Thai classical music
Since ancient times, the Thai people
have known how to make musical instruments or to copy
the patterns of others and adapt them to their own uses.
In fact, there are several kinds of musical instruments
which the Thais apparently devised before they came
in contact with the culture of India, which was widespread
in Southeast Asia before they migrated there.
Later, when the Thai people were establishing
their kingdoms and had come into contact with Indian
culture, particularly with Indian instruments which
the Mon and Khmer cultures had absorbed first, they
assimilated this musical
culture into their own.
From this contact, the Thais created
several new kinds of musical instruments such as the
phin, sang, pichanai, krachap pi, chakhe, and thon,
which are mentioned in the Tribhumikatha, one of the
first books written in Thai, and on a ston e inscription
from the time of King Ramkhamhaeng of the Sukhothai
period. Some songs of the Sukhothai period are still
sung at present, such as Phleng Thep Thong.
During the Ayutthaya period the instrumental
ensemble was composed of four to eight musicians. Songs
became much longer and singing technique was improved.
Many Ayutthaya songs were composed in a form of musical
suite called Phleng Rua, which was a series of songs.
Poets contributed lyrics in the form of short stories,
mostly from the Ramakian. Many Ayutthaya songs are still
employed in Thai plays today.
In the beginning of the Bangkok period,
after a long period of war, there was a remarkable revival
of Thai arts, especially music and drama.
The size of the instrumental ensemble was enlarged to
12 musicians and several maste rpieces of Thai literature
were produced as theatrical performances accompanied
by music. Beautiful lyrics written by contemporary poets
were fitted into melodies of the Ayutthaya period.
All Thai musicians in the past received
their training from their teachers, through constant
playing and singing in their presence. With nothing
else to rely upon except their own memory, it was only
through much hard work that they gained their technical
experience and practical knowledge in playing and singing.
Later when Thailand began to have contact
with Western European nations and the United States,
the Thais adopted such Western instruments as the bass
drum, the violin, and the organ.
To save the national music from extinction,
modern Thai musicians are trying to devise a system
in which this traditional music can be rendered into
Western notation and later edited. According to a book
written by Sir Hubert Perry, entitled "Evolution
of the Art of Music".
"The Thai scale system is...extraordinary.
It is not now pentatonic, though supposed to be derived
originally from the Javanese system. The scale consists
of seven notes which should by right be exactly equidistant
from one another; that is, each st ep is a little less
than a semitone and three-quarters. So that they have
neither a perfect fourth nor a true fifth in their system,
and both their thirds and sixths are between major and
minor; and not a single note between a starting note
and its octav e agrees with any of the notes of the
European scale...Their sense of the right relations
of the notes of the scale are so highly developed that
their musicians can tell by ear directly a note which
is not true to their singular theory. Moreover, with
th is scale, they have developed a kind of musical art
in the highest degree complicated and extensive."
In all, there are about 50 types of
Thai musical instruments, including many local versions
of flutes, stringed instruments, and gongs used for
all kinds of occasions: festivals, folk theater, marriages,
funerals, and social evenings after harvesting.
The best known Thai musician for both
the revival and conservation of the Thai music are Montree
Tramote and Khunying Phaitoon Kittivan. Both of them
were also awarded the status of "National Artists"
in Thai music.
Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri
Sirindhorn is an accomplished performer of several Thai
classical musical instruments. She has become an active
leader for the movement to revive interest in the rich
cultural value of Thai music among the youn ger generations.
The Western classical music tradition
was introduced to Thailand before the turn of the century.
Its development was nurtured by Phra Chen Duriyang,
who had studied the stringed instruments and piano with
his German father. Phra Chen established Thailan d's
first orchestra in the Royal Entertainment Department
and taught many young Thai musicians. By the late 1920's,
other small orchestras had been established as part
of the branches of the Thai armed services, and in 1934
Phra Chen's orchestra was tran sferred to and became
the nucleus of the Fine Arts Department. Thai musicians
have shown marked improvement in style and technique
over the years and they have taught a new generation
of musicians. Following a drive spearheaded by the musicians,
the Ban gkok Symphony Orchestra was established in July
1982 and gave its first public concert in November of
Popular Western music, introduced in
the 1950's, was also widely accepted by the Thai people
and today there are a large number of modern groups,
some producing music that combines elements of both
pop and traditional Thai.
Music plays an important part in the
life of the Thai royal
family. His Majesty
King Bhumibol Adulyadej is an internationally-recognized
jazz musician with numerous original compositions to
his credit, one of which was featured in a Broadway
show in the 1950's.
The crowning success for His Majesty's
music came in 1964 when NQ Tonkunstler Orchestra played
a selection of his compositions at the Vienna Concert
Hall. These were also broadcast throughout Austria where
they enjoyed resounding success. Two days later, the
world's renowned Institute of Music and Arts of the
City of Vienna conferred its Honorary Membership upon
His Majesty the King in recognition of his o utstanding
musical achievements. He became the 23rd Honorary Member
of the Insitute since its extablishment in 1817, and
the first Asian composer to receive this honour.
Up to now, the music world has recognized
His Majesty the King as one of the great living composers.
His works will surely keep his place among those of
the great masters of music and will not only delight
the present day audience but it will also do so for
generations to come.
The Music Association of Thailand whose
objectives are to promote Thai music and safeguard the
welfare of musicians, is under the royal patronage.
In the purely classical form, Thai drama and dance
See also the history of Thailand...|
The cultures of Thailand
| The four areas | The
Thai tribes | Animism
| The history arts and
literature of Thailand | Modern
art in Thailand | Art training
in Thailand |