Be my guest
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Be my guest

Navin Rawanchaikul's ambitious new project tells the multilayered story of the Indian diaspora in Thailand

Photos © Khaek Pai Krai Ma
Photos © Khaek Pai Krai Ma

Some arrived by boat, others by air. Some came when the British still ruled their homeland, others were driven by the bloodshed of The Partition. Some came with numerous gods, others with the one and only Allah. Some came from near Bombay, others from in and around Madras. Some came with the intention of returning, others arrived knowing that there was no going back.

A million "guests" arrived with a million stories, and to encapsulate them all is what Navin Rawanchaikul is doing in his expansive and intimately self-retrospective exhibition. Opening tomorrow at Warehouse 30, Charoen Krung Road, "Khaek Pai Krai Ma" is a study, a survey, a documentation, an anthropological expedition, and, above all, an art exhibition about the lives and times of Thailand's diverse Indian diaspora.

Navin is a Thai artist of Punjabi descent who has long pondered his own ancestral roots in his art. But "Khaek Pai Krai Ma" (khaek is a colloquial term used to refer to Indians or Arabs, but also a formal word meaning "guest") seems destined to be the show that rules them all.

Capturing the kaleidoscope of Thai-Indians is to acknowledge the heady multitudinousness of India itself. So, in addition to the art exhibition, the artist is also throwing in a book, a comic book, a guidebook, talks, academic conferences, a film programme, two documentaries and even a tour. One of the focal points of his show at Warehouse 30 will be a 30m-long painting, in Navin's eye-popping Bollywood film collage style, featuring literally hundreds of faces and personalities whose stories he has spent years trying to record and recount. It's called, in Navin's characteristic jokey tone, Khaek Are All Around.

"I see this more as an educational project than just an art project," said Navin. "I hope that people, especially young people, will learn more about Thai-Indians and the Indian culture in Thailand."

Navin belongs to a generation of Thai-Indians whose parents moved east to Siam around the time of World War II; his grandmother, a Hindu, was five when her Muslim neighbour helped put her on a train to escape the violence during the Partition of India in 1947. His grandparents made their new home in Chiang Mai, where Navin would later grow up in. Throughout his career, the artist has explored the narrative of immigration, homeland and communities through various shows, such as "Diaspora", "Places Of Rebirth" and "Once Upon A Time In Little India".

For "Khaek Pai Krai Ma", Navin and his team spent three years travelling throughout Thailand to record the oral history of Thai-Indian families. The trip took him from his home in Chiang Mai to other northern provinces, down to Songkhla and doubling back to the Northeast, from the garment district of Phahurat where fabric-wallahs made their homes to Haroon Mosque near the Mandarin Oriental, where Indian Muslims had settled over 150 years ago. His plan was to create an archive of stories and images of Thai-Indians, a countrywide anthropological record about when, where and how they -- or, more likely, their ancestors -- arrived on these shores.

Artist Navin Rawanchaikul. Photo credit

From over 500 hours of footage, Navin will debut a two-hour documentary edited from his research trip at "Khaek Pai Krai Ma". He has also made a five-minute short film, starring himself and his friends, which recounts the history of Indians in Thailand through colourful songs and dance (possibly in Bollywood style).

Besides the 30m-long mural, Navin will also put up a full-scale recreation of his family's Chiang Mai fabric shop, the O.K. Store, which was founded by his great-grandfather who migrated to Thailand in the early 20th century. The O.K. Store featured prominently in Navin's landmark show "A Tale Of Two Homes" in Chiang Mai.

"My work is often about my own family," he says. "But with this new one, I look out further, from my own biography to the communities around me, from Chiang Mai to the whole of Thailand.

"Some Thai-Indian families have been here for three or four generations. They still look khaek, and they think people still regard them as outsiders -- I think this happens more in the provinces than in Bangkok, where assimilation is easier. But most Thai-Indians I talk to don't have an inkling of doubt that this is their home."

Prior to the opening, Navin adds, some of his research subjects have raised concern over the use of the term khaek in the title, since they believe it still carries a mild connotation of mockery and derision.

"That may be," Navin says, "but that's what I want people to talk about. This is the discussion. Khaek means 'guest', a positive term, and Thai-Indians have been here for such a long time that the term should have ridden out its original ridicule -- or maybe not."

Historically, the Charoen Krung area was one of the first foreign settlements in Siam, where many Indian migrants -- Hindu, Sikh, Islamic and Jain -- began their lives, bringing with them their ancestral trades in fabric, jewellery, tailoring, shipping and cooking as well as scholastic and administrative skills that earned them status and respect in various fields. The choice of Warehouse 30 on Charoen Krung as the main venue, along with several talks at Thailand Creative and Design Center nearby, means the exhibition revisits the heart of the diaspora, the beginning of a million stories that will continue to be told for a long time.

"Khaek Pai Krai Ma" opens to the public from Sunday to Jan 19 at Warehouse 30, Charoen Krung 30. At 3pm, there will be a talk between Navin Rawanchaikul and project collaborators. On Saturday at 1pm there will be a pre-opening symposium, "Transcending Borders: Indian And South Asian Heritage Of Thailand And Southeast Asia Venue", at Thailand Creative & Design Center (TCDC), Charoen Krung Road. (For programme details and registration please visit facebook/CUSouthAsianStudies)

For the project, Navin and his team spent three years travelling to record the oral history of Thai-Indian families across Thailand. Khaek Pai Krai Ma

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