About 100 children and adults wearing red jongkraben were learning Thai classical dances at Ban Plainern, the private residence of Prince Narisaranuvattiwongse _ the Great Craftsman of Siam. Here in the lush tropical gardens around the beautiful traditional Thai wooden house in Klong Toey, classical dances are taught in the morning and traditional Thai music in the afternoon every Saturday.
Prince Naris poses with Italian artist Corrado Feroci, who was chosen as the court artist of Siam and became Professor Silpa Bhirasri, the founder of Silpakorn University.
"My grandfather's palace was filled with the sounds of music and the performing arts. For over a century, the teaching of traditional music and dances has been practiced within our family," said MR Chakrarot Chitrabongs, a grandson of Prince Naris and secretary-general of the Naris Foundation. He added that the prince liked to organise and watch cultural performances in Suan Kaew in Tha Phra Palace, now Silpakorn University, before moving to Ban Plainern.
"At the age of three, I remember hearing the sounds of pipat music performed for my grandfather's funeral services every seven days. When I turned six, I was taught to play the xylophone. Traditional Thai performing arts have always been taught in the palace. Even after our move from Tha Phra Palace to Plainern, the theatre troupe moved along with some leading music masters," he said.
The performing arts have long been taught at Ban Plainern. The first batch of students were the prince's children and grandchildren, but some outsiders later wanted to join.
It all began with cultural performances in the residence's garden by outstanding art students who received scholarships from the Naris Foundation on Naris Day, the prince's birthday, on April 28.
The Chitrabongs family started to provide training for other youths to perform music, dances and plays for celebrations on Naris Day.
Later, more people became interested in the training and requested that the residence teach their children as well. The current students are the third generation. However, only a limited number of students can be enrolled there and need recommendations from current or former students because the school adheres to the traditional teaching method which requires one-on-one training.
Training is done according to the original approach with different difficulty levels of music and dances which allow the students to exercise their muscles and memory step by step.
All the instructors are from the Fine Arts Department. The teaching is categorised by levels of ability, not age. All the students have the opportunity to perform on stage on Naris Day every year. The minimum age of students is six. Each academic year runs from July to April. The school is open on Saturdays only and welcomes donations from its students without demanding tuition fees.
"The children have so much fun learning how to perform traditional dances and plays while their little siblings come along, play around and will later develop a love for what they see," MR Chakrarot said with a smile.
The performing arts were among Prince Naris's favourite cultural interests. They earned him fame along with the fine arts, architecture and design. He was also a composer and playwright.
In the reign of King Rama V, the monarch assigned Prince Naris the task of creating new forms of performing art to welcome his royal guests from Europe. In 1888, the prince, who was still serving in the Defence Ministry, organised a concert featuring musical pieces and songs which graphically told stories. The music was performed by a military band and sung by a chorus of women from Chao Phraya Dheves Wongs-vivat's theatre troupe. These concerts were adapted from ancient music for traditional dance-drama.
Next the prince experimented with the tableau vivant, setting still-life scenes of fully costumed dancers to narrative concerts. Eventually, he brought the dancers to life and developed the Lakhon Duek-damban. This new form of entertainment was inspired by Western operas, which made an impression on Chao Phraya Dheves Wongsvivat during his visit to Europe. The genre, in which performers act, speak, sing and dance, became very popular. At that time, Prince Naris was responsible for composing plays and music while his friend Chao Phraya Dheves Wongsvivat was in charge of casting. Among the prince's most famous scripts is Khavi _ The Tale Of The Tiger Cub And Calf.
Every year, on April 29, a day after Naris Day, Ban Plainern is open to the general public all day. Admission is free, but donations are welcome. Visitors can admire the beauty of the traditional wooden house and the prince's works of art and collection of ancient artefacts.
Stepping into the residence, visitors will see the prince's pencil drawings on the walls and his portrait bust sculpted by renowned artist Professor Silpa Bhirasri.
In the eastern part of the Reception Hall are pastel drawings of the walking Buddha, a disciple and an angel which served as the blueprint for the murals in the ordination hall of Wat Rachathiwat. On the left is the prince's palanquin, used as a seat for a preaching monk, while seats for monks are on the right.
The western part of the Reception Hall used to be the dining area. Now it boasts a carved wooden busabok throne and gold lacquer paintings. The area is used for the annual wai khru ceremony to pay homage to great artists and teachers.
The northern section of the hall, which once served as the duty room for attendants, now houses a collection of khon masks and wooden sculptures.
A must-see is the studio which displays Prince Naris's work table and his works of art ranging from his famous painting of the Sun God riding his chariot to his pencil drawings and sketches of some temple buildings, tales and praying fans.
The westernmost part of the house is the bed chamber with an ornate bed that once belonged to Princess Bhanarai, the prince's mother.
On the bed is a plaster model of the statue of King Rama I designed by the prince and sculpted by Prof Silpa Bhirasri. There is also an oil painting of Princess Bhanarai by Italian artist C Regoli.
Recently at the Siam Society and Silpakorn University, the prince's grandson MR Chakrarot gave lectures on the subject of the life history of Prince Naris, his self-acquired skills in all areas of the arts and his masterful achievements.
"This year is special, of course, because it is his 150th birthday anniversary. The prince has already been recognised as one of Unesco's important persons," his grandson noted.
The prince was born a phra ong chao (a class of prince/princess lower than chao faa) on April 28, 1863, and died on March 10, 1947. He was one of the 43 children of King Mongkut (Rama IV) and he attained the highest rank of somdej chaofa at the age of 80.
In his youth, all the children of King Mongkut had to appear in the king's presence and recall what they remembered from the previous day. Prince Naris was particularly fond of a pair of large globes presented by Britain's Queen Victoria. He would always spin the globes.
The other duty was to be in the presence of the monks when they were given food. Prince Naris would sit in the ensemble and began to learn about Thai music. He also went to the royal chapel to see paintings of the Ramakien and talk to painters. After some months, he tried to draw the paintings he had seen.
''This child was born at the right place in the right time. Unfortunately, as a son of a king, he was not given professional training. He was self-taught by watching the professionals. He learned very quickly,'' his grandson said.
In 1877, when the prince was 13, the king announced a painting competition on the subject of Thainess. The prince submitted a painting entitled Pone Chang (Capturing A White Elephant) and took the first prize. This painting combines Western-style perspective and shows light coming from behind the elephants and catchers, which is different from flat traditional Thai art. Art by the prince combined traditional Thai and Western techniques according to the perspective principle, human anatomy and the laws of gravity.
Despite his passion for art, Prince Naris had to undergo military training like other royals. He entered the cadet school, became a captain and continued to serve in the military.
Later, he met Prof Silpa Bhirasri, or Corrado Feroci, an Italian who served as the court artist of Siam. Siamese officials at first did everything to get rid of him. With the help of Prince Naris, who posed for Feroci to sculpt his statues and a statue of King Rama VI, who was then crown prince, Feroci was finally accepted by the officials as a fine artist.
Later, from 1924, the prince issued the Dosajataka series of pencil drawings for Songkran Day. He painted a picture based on the jataka (tales about the previous lives of the Lord Buddha) and had 100 copies printed, which were given to people who visited him during Songkran. More and more people came in subsequent years. He managed to complete only eight of the 10 jataka tales. While he failed to complete the ninth jataka, the prince designed the last one, Maha Vesantara, as a mural for Wat Rachathiwat.
Among Prince Naris's achievements are his designs of the Marble Temple, the ordination hall of Wat Rachathiwat and many royal crematoria. His design for the royal cremation of King Rama VI was acclaimed as the most beautiful busabok crematorium.
To celebrate the prince's 150th birthday anniversary, the Chitrabongs family are preparing to publish a book of his works that have never been seen by the public before. These include the preliminary design studies, drawings and sketches that have accumulated in his private residence for over half a century.
The books will not be for sale but presented as gifts to those donating money to support the Naris Foundation.
''Prince Naris was a very gentle man. Very kind and diligent at any work he ever undertook. His motto was to be very careful with everything you do or it would become a monument of shame,'' his grandson said.
For more information about the Naris Foundation, write to 1164 Rama IV Road, Klong Toey, Bangkok, 10110, or call 02-249-4280.
These pencil drawings depict a scene from the Maha Chanaka episode of the jataka in which the angel Manee Mekkhala helps Phra Maha Chanaka after his ship capsizes. Prince Naris always ensured human figures must be in good proportion—one of his sons even had to jump into a canal in Klong Toey as a model for the prince to paint.
Ban Plainern, the private residence of Prince Naris, has been a hub of classical dance and music teaching for more than 50 years.
About the author
- Writer: Pichaya Svasti
Position: Life Writer