Friday, 4 May 2012

Puppets and art at Baan Silipan

Children sit, crosslegged and spellbound, as three black-clad men bring large wooden puppets to life, spinning and dancing in a traditional rendition of an age-old story. These are the puppet masters of the Kamnai Troupe, based at The Artist's House at Baan Silapin in the backwaters of Bangkok’s peaceful klongs. 

This riverfront gallery, studio cafe and performance space, located in a lovely 100-year-old teak building on Klong Bang Luang on the Thonburi side of the Chao Phraya River, is somewhat of a local secret, beloved by locals but relatively unknown by tourists. 

Built around a 200-year-old Ayutthaya-style chedi, the old house once belonged to a family of goldsmiths, but was taken over by artist Chumpol Akpantanon who renovated the two-storey building and turned it into gallery space in 2009.
For celebrity Australian chef David Thompson - the man feted for bringing traditional Thai cuisine back to the Thais - this is one of his favourite places to visit, to sit and while away the afternoon, sip on sweet Thai-style coffee, catch up with reading and to absorb the tranquil ambience. 
The longtail boat which has ferried us from the other side of the river drops us at a temple landing, from where we pick our away along a wooden deck, past residential houses and quirky shops to the gallery, a fascinating sneak peek into the lives of river dwellers. At the Artist's House, we take a seat on the sculpture-adorned deck to watch life pass by, browse the displays of woodcuts, lithographs, jewellery and paper art, and wander through the upstairs gallery where workshops are held on the weekend. 

But it’s the puppets the schoolkids are here for - and we too watch transfixed as ex-puppeteers from the famed Joe Louis Puppet Theatre bring characters from the Ramayana to life. These colourful metre-high wooden puppets have been a part of Thai culture since the Ayutthaya empire, when performances were exclusively for members of the royal family. Later, the Hun Lakhon Lek (‘traditional small puppets’) was adapted for the general public, and has since become one of the most iconic forms of Thai theatre.
There’s cheeky Hanuman, the monkey god, cavorting around the stage with abandon; and Banjakaya, a niece of the demon king Ravana, face turned away shyly from her manic lover. While Western tourists may not be as familiar with the epic ancient Sanskrit story as Thai visitors, there’s no denying the mastery as the supple puppeteers - wearing all black and faces covered with masks - manipulate the puppets as if they were real people. It’s a charming slice of Thai culture, and a celebration of a unique artform.

                                                                (pics Julie Miller, 2012)

The Kamnai Troupe’s free performances take place every day at 2pm at Baan Silapin.

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