Artist Navin Rawanchaikul explores the roots of Thailand’s Indian community
The first time I met Navin Rawanchaikul was a decade ago in Chiang Mai when he was preparing a multimedia art project called Mahakad Festival. The Chiang Mai-born artist was hanging his trademark Bollywood poster-like paintings inside Warorot Market, the northern capital’s oldest surviving market, to document and celebrate its rich multicultural history.
Inside his busy shophouse studio, he showed me a massive painting that presented a panorama of Warorot Market’s exterior in muted hues and sharp detail. Dozens of figures stood in the foreground of the painting as if gathered together for a community portrait, representing a cross-section of market denizens from days past and including Thais, Chinese, Mon, Shan and a sprinkling of Sikhs, Indian Muslims and Hindu Punjabis. All were portraits of real people who were once market principals, Navin told me, whose faces he painted from historical photographs.
“I like to use art to open doors, to get people to meet each other, consider the texture of the community, and to share memories and experiences,” Navin says.
Navin’s latest work combines art and social anthropology to apply this leitmotif to the Indian diaspora elsewhere in Thailand, including Bangkok. It’s also a personal exploration of his own roots. Navin’s Hindu Punjabi great-grandfather migrated to Thailand in the early 20th century, and his father was later born in Lampang. Eventually, the family established a fabric shop adjacent to Warorot Market in Chiang Mai. Navin’s mother, also a Hindu Punjabi, fled India with her family just days before the violent 1947 partition of India and Pakistan.
“My father passed away earlier this year,” says Navin,” so a lot of my work is related to preserving and sharing the legacy that he and I, and every Indian Thai, are part of.”
Navin calls the project Khaek Pai Krai Ma, a Thai saying that evokes hospitality towards khaek—literally ‘guests’, which also happens to be a Thai colloquial term for people of Indian and Arab descent. The word is often used derisively to imply outsider, driving a wedge between non-Buddhist Indian Thais and the majority of Thai Buddhist society. Boldly titling the exhibition in this way allows Thai speakers to contemplate the opposing semiotics of khaek.
For the last two years, the 50-year-old artist has travelled the length and breadth of Thailand to meet and interview Indian Thais in every region of the country. The trips yielded over 500 hours of video footage as well as thousands of images that capture the collective memories of the communities whose ancestors have migrated from India over the generations.
Opening this time in Bangkok rather than Chiang Mai, ‘Khaek Pai Krai Ma’ is centred at Warehouse 30 at the heart of Bangkok’s ‘Creative District’.
“I chose Warehouse 30 first of all because I needed a very large space,” says Navin. “Not only for my larger paintings but so that I have enough space to re-create my father’s Chiang Mai OK Store fabric shop here as an example of the 20th-century Indian-Thai experience.”
Navin also chose the neighbourhood because it was once home to a sizeable community of Indian Muslims who originally arrived from Tamil Nadu with the British under the reign of Rama IV (1804-1868) to work in the shipping business. Their legacy is still visible in the many Muslim restaurants and gem shops in the neighbourhood.
Tucked down a narrow alley off Charoen Krung Soi 36, just a 10-minute walk from Warehouse 30, stands Haroon Mosque, one of Bangkok’s oldest Muslim places of worship. Though originally established by Indonesian Muslims, the neighbourhood has attracted immigrant families from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Malaysia. An even earlier Indian mercantile settlement was established directly across the river when families belonging to the Dawoodi Bohra sect of Islam immigrated from Madras.
“These Dawoodi Bohra were the first to bring phaa laai (printed fabrics) to Thailand,” says Navin. “They originally sold only to the royal family, but later branched out to fabric shops and department stores around the capital.”
Further south, off Silom Road, stands Sri Mariamman Temple, a large Hindu shrine built in the 1860s by Tamil immigrants devoted to the goddess Maha Uma Devi (also known as Shakti, Shiva’s consort) and her sons Khanthakumara and Ganesha. Not far from here are two Jain temples, supported by a small Indian Jain community who handle the majority of the diamond cutting and polishing business in Bangkok.
Navin was so impressed by the strong Indian-Thai presence in this part of Bangkok, that the exhibition is distributing a small guidebook he wrote for touring Indian heritage points in the neighbourhood, including eateries, temples, gurdwaras, mosques, and the sizeable Phahurat fabric market area, sometimes locally referred to as Little India.
“I designed the guidebook like a passport, so you can collect stamps along the Indian heritage routes,” says Navin. “And when you’ve filled the book, bring it back to Warehouse 30 to claim a surprise prize.”
The centrepiece of the exhibition is a 30-metre-long mural that integrates Rawanchaikul’s journey with that of the Indian communities he encountered in Bangkok and elsewhere in Thailand. Created by a team of researchers, designers and skilled painters, the huge polyptych contains over 300 interlocking canvases that took over a year to finish.
A video installation tells individual stories through documentary footage, while a music-themed film created by local Indian-Thai musicians, singers and performers explores the relationship between India and Thailand. A retro, Thai-style comic book created by the
artist’s studio also weaves the history of Indian communities and their influence upon Thai life through the ages into a thrilling ghost tale. Meanwhile, Warehouse 30’s Documentary Club will screen a series of films about Indian history or directed by Indian filmmakers.
Khaek Pai Krai Ma runs until January 19, 2020, 1pm to 7pm, except on Mondays when it’s closed. Admission is free.
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