It is with great sadness that I must report Dr Pattana Kittiarsa, an extraordinary scholar, passed away on Wednesday, after battling pancreatic cancer.
Pattana was in Singapore, where he was an associate professor in Southeast Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore. He was born in 1968 in Nong Khai and he maintained his roots in this Lao-speaking region.
As a child he was attracted to muay Thai, but although he did not pursue a career in it, he would go on as a scholar to produce a fascinating study, ``The Lives of Hunting Dogs'', about the significance of muay Thai in understanding male gender identify in Thailand, particularly in rural areas.
In the introduction to his latest book, Mediums, Monks & Amulets, which grew out of a dissertation he did for the University of Washington (UW), he describes in moving detail his experience as a temporary monk in Nong Khai.
He ordained, following Thai custom, to make merit for his late mother. In his account, he tells how he met her again during meditation.
Pattana began his anthropological career as a student at Khon Kaen University. There, he became a luksit (apprentice) of Ajarn Suriya Smutkupt.
The relationship he forged with Ajarn Suriya (also a graduate of UW anthropology) became truly kin-like and Pattana considered him to be as close a relative as any in his own family.
Ajarn Suriya, now retired and living in Chiang Mai, commuted between there and Singapore on a regular basis over the past year and a half after learning of Pattana's cancer diagnosis.
Late last year he accompanied Pattana to Germany and Denmark to give what would prove to be his final public presentations. Ajarn Suriya was with Pattana in Singapore when he passed away.
In Khon Kaen, Pattana met and married Rungnapa. They have two children, Nan and Nonthan. Rungnapa became a lecturer in Thai at the National University of Singapore. I know from emails that she and the children had been sources of strength and inspiration for Pattana during his illness.
After Pattana graduated from Khon Kaen, he pursued an MA in anthropology at Ateneo de Manila University.
He then enrolled in a PhD programme at the National Museum of Ethnology in Japan, but left in order to complete his PhD at UW.
After Pattana completed his PhD in 1999, he first took up a position as a lecturer at Suranaree University in Nakhon Ratchasima.
As Ajarn Suriya had himself previously joined Suranaree, he and Pattana became co-researchers as well as colleagues.
Over the next few years they produced an extraordinary number of monographs on Thai rituals, material culture, gender and popular culture. Some of this work became the basis for Pattana's many articles and books in English.
His English-language works have covered subjects not only related to Thailand, but also a number of wider theoretical themes such as religion and modernity, narrative, and transnationalism. He had recently finished a new book based on research conducted among Thai workers in Singapore.
I feel greatly honoured to have had Pattana as my luksit, but I also see myself as his luksit as since I have learned as much from him as he learned from me.
I also came to feel a deep sense of kinship with him that goes well beyond our academic relationship. His death is a great personal loss, but I take some solace in knowing his karmic legacy will continue for a long time to come.
Charles Keyes is Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and International Studies,
University of Washington.
About the author
- Writer: Charles Keyes