Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Manit Sriwanichpoom on Mae Nak Prakanong


Manit Sriwanichpoom. “Portraits of Mae Nak,” in Siamrath Weekly News, Yr.53, Vol.1, 26 May – 1 June. 2549 / 2006

1/ Many months ago, The Puzzling Hour, a documentary about magic, superstition, mystery and ghosts on Channel 7 Color TV (for you!) aired a show about the shrine of Mae Nak Prakanong.

2/ What really struck me was not the story of the famous starlet, Peet Tongjer, who claimed to be a direct descendent of Mae Nak. Not at all. It was all the portraits of Mae Nak, dozens of them, hanging in this shrine.

3/ I have studied picture making, and have been hired to do illustrations for the theses of senior friends in times past so I could pay my way – in those days – till I got through my studies - can’t make pictures anymore since I abandoned paper, pencil, color and brush long ago and picked up the camera instead. I became interested in the history of all these images of Mae Nak. Where did they come from?

4/ Last week I asked my friends to check out the portraits of Mae Nak Prakanong at Wat Mahabutr, Soi Orn Nut.

5/ The people come here to ask for help from the gods or to fulfill their vows. Some dreamed of her and hired someone to make a drawing. The old uncle who looked after the shrine helped me deal with my doubts. “What you see here is only part of it all. The rest [of the pictures] are collected away; no place to put them up.”

6/ The more interesting answer came when the famous painter, Chatchai Puipia, one in the group of friends who came along, asked, “If I make a picture, will you put it up?”

7/ “Why would you make a drawing? Did you have a dream? Or are you fulfilling a vow? If you bring it, I must ask to see it first. Is the picture good enough to show?” The brusqueness of the old man’s speech made Chatchai’s chuckle stick in his throat.

8/ Very interesting, to ‘dream of’ or to fulfill a vow. The reply of the old uncle reflected that ‘not just anybody’ feeling of Thai people. They will pay someone to draw a picture of Mae Nak and freely offer it to the spirit of Mae Nak at the shrine. They ask that it be displayed for worshippers of Mae Nak to enjoy. Whether it is created by a world famous artist or not, by Chatchai Puipia or not, if there was no dream, or if it is not in fulfillment of a vow, don’t ask the shrine to receive the artwork.

9/ The 20+ portraits of Mae Nak hanging in the shrine, the figure of Mae Nak is covered in gold. She lifts her little infant on her lap. There are two groups – pictures of the face of Mae Nak on a smooth background and of Mae Nak with her baby and the background of a traditional Thai house. These pictures are totally different in technique, method and materials used. Some use oil color; some use water color. Some use colored chalk, some colored pencil, some use ordinary pencil. Some use black thread on cloth with a poem accompanying.

10 / The style of picture making is sometimes realist (good skill) by young artists such as Chakraphand Posyakrit – looking sweet and gentle. The face of Mae Nak looks like the old movie stars – like Aranya Namwong. The pictures are beautiful, in the way that Chakraphand does them. The person who pays might hire an artist to do the job. But there are other pictures made by people who haven't studied picture-making. The lines and elements and proportions of the face – the eyebrows, the eyes, nose, mouth and body. The shadows in the image – they look distorted, childish. We call this ‘naïve art’; it is sincere and charming.

11/ At the same time, the frames vary considerably. The pictures in the style of Chakraphand use wire frames in the gold ‘Louis’ style. They look very lavish. [But] the naïve images have awkward frames, very ordinary dark brown. The artists had little money to invest.

12/ There is some confusion generally about the legend of the love story of Mae Nak and Poh Mahk. It probably happened during the 4th Reign (the film Nang Nak by Nonsri Nimitrbutr depends on that time period for its scenes and constumes). Unfortunately, these two lovers were poor farmers. They had no money to have their photo taken. So we don’t know what Mae Nak actually looked like. Was she like the drawings or like the hired artist’s imagination?

13/ For this reason, we don’t have a photo to use as proof. So, it leaves all possibilities open. Unlike the case of the 5th King and เสด็จ เตี้ย Krom Luang Chumporn. They had many photos taken as proof of their appearance, which [therefore] cannot simply be dreamed up just by anybody.

14/ In the image of Mae Nak, the farm girl, her face is clear, white, smooth, fresh and unblemished. She is a young woman who has never been burned by the sun. Her hair is sometimes short, sometimes long. As for her clothing, sometimes she is dressed poorly, sometimes richly. Sometimes she is bejeweled like wealthy gentry. This seems far from realistic - Mae Nak in the legend.

15/ I don’t know who brought movie posters about Nang Nak – 15 of them - to show on a website. Mae Nak in these posters looks very scary and aggressive. You feel like blocking the view and not looking.

16/ “Uncle…why are the pictures of Nang Nak in the shrine different from in the movies? In the shrine the images are sweet and kind, modest and orderly. Gentle. But in the movie she is fierce and frightening.” I asked the old uncle who takes care of the shrine.

17/ “Oh, those movie-makers…they should have done better. She is fierce at all,” says Uncle wearily.18/ It may be true as he says. Mae Nak must be a kind-hearted ghost, really. Her shrine is full of portraits of longhaired women with bulging eyes, swollen with long arms and legs, ugly and scary as we see in the posters of Thai movies rather than images of a lovely young woman, modest mother and homemaker.

19/ And if she is not kind? There are shops selling ritual items – fortune tellers’ stalls, dozens of them in the vicinity. Mae Nak might chase them all away. Not counting the seekers after winning lottery numbers: the people come and rub the Takien tree near her grave in hopes of finding the right number. This is not kindness, but what would you call it?

20/ I am not a student of parapsychology (ghosts) or a social scientist. I am not able to explain the ways of Mae Nak’s ghost and Thai society. But I would like to observe that while these images of Mae Nak Prakanong are shown and passed on in the film world, celluloid or digital, it never seems to let up. She tricks people now and then – it is in newspapers from time to time. It’s hair-raising. But this feeling will be dissipated by the portraits I have just been discussing. Those who don’t dare to prostrate themselves before her image plastered in gold leaf will feel better when looking up to see the lovely lady’s face in a Thai-style dress in the various pictures in her shrine.

21/ If you think about it, ghosts are a set of beliefs created by society as instruments by which to control and direct the behavior of the lives of people in the area. The love stories and stories of the faithfulness of Mae Nak for Poh Mahk; though she died in childbirth, she refused to let go. She became a ghost and haunted the house – one love, one heart. This is about women in Thai society – Mae Nak Prakanong.

22/ The portraits in her shrine serve to carry on and influence the value of femininity in the ideal of Thai culture in the midst of the globalizing world outside this shrine.

23/ “Will you draw a picture of Mae Nak?” I asked Chatchai before jumping into the car.
24/ “Think I will have to wait for a dream,” he replied, smiling.

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