Always passionate about traditional Thai arts and culture, Surat Jongda, or Khru Kai (Teacher Kai), has a love of learning, creating, and performing that has led his life and career through interesting paths. Although he mainly teaches at the College of Dramatic Arts, Bundipatanasilpa Institute, under the Ministry of Culture, he actively contributes not only via education, but also in production.
“Growing up in Khon Kaen’s rural society, I was surrounded and exposed to cultural activities all year round,” he recalls of his youth. “It can be just religious ceremonies or folk festivals at home or in the temple, or full-scale festivals like Songkran, Rocket Festival, and Kathin (new monk robes) Festival. I observed our lifestyles and crafts, such as pottery and basketry, and constantly absorbed all these customs and traditions during those times.”
“Everyone came to watch TV in one or two households,” he goes on to say, remembering when electricity and television transmissions reached his village. “We watched TV dramatic series based on folktales or Jataka (Buddha’s past lives) tales, with all these fanciful costumes as well as some documentaries. These TV programmes expanded my mind and made me interested in the arts and culture. When Bangkok celebrated the Bicentenary, with the royal barge procession and khon (mask dance drama) performances, these events were etched in my memories.
“During my high school years I could have chosen to study agriculture to help my family, but a new branch of the College of Dramatic Arts was opened in Kalasin province. I decided to major in khon and studied the role of phra (male human and deities). However, it was much harder than I thought. Traditional dance training requires long hours and hardships for the performers to endure, because we hold and dance in certain positions for long periods. I had to learn both classical and folk music and theatrical arts of lakhon (drama) and kithasilp, or piiphat (traditional Thai musical orchestra). We learned international music and dramatic arts too, such as music theory and choir singing”
At that time, Isaan folk music was revamped with new ponglang (wooden xylophone) bands and became in fashion. The Tourism Authority of Thailand used this music to promote tourism. With his diploma, Surat had opportunities to tour and perform with these bands at travel fairs across Thailand.
Then Surat relocated to Bangkok to study, learning the more technical sides of the trade—such as making costumes and khon masks, but more importantly, puppets. With Chakrabhand Posayakrit, a national artist, and Valapis Sodprasert, another puppet maker, he got to restore old ones and create new ones.
“I’ve always loved puppets,” he explains. “These large puppets, like Hun Luang (Royal puppets), can dance and have hand gestures. We manipulate them with strings and hone their movements. We perform in many festivals and the audience enjoys the comical scenes and the battles with riders on horses.”
While Surat continued to teach at the institute, he furthered his studies at the Faculty of Fine Arts, Chulalongkorn University. Besides making the costumes and accessories, he learned more about prop making for stage and screen productions with big events like the Asian Games and a well-known Hollywood movie: Anna and the King.
“These works make me read, research, and discuss more,” Surat says. “I have to collaborate with other experts, such as Khru Big—Peeramon Chomthawat—who creates beautiful costumes for dancers. Then we assisted in the production of the royal-sponsored khon performances by Queen Sirikit’s Support Foundation. With the same mission, other experts combine their knowledge, skills, and technical expertise to recreate world-class productions of khon performances. We research the designs and ancient styles through old photos and documents, and use intricate textiles together with finer sequins and metal threads for these costumes.”
Also known for the stunning Thai costumes in the Sri Ayodhya TV drama series, Surat and his team recreate Ayutthayan-period costumes, accessories, and headdresses for the royalty, courtiers, and dancers, with brocade and printed textiles and materials from India, China, Japan, and Thailand. The dances in the series are also performed in the Ayutthayan choreography.
“Even younger generations yearn for the past; we all have nostalgia,” Surat points out, citing the reasons why this TV series has proved to be so popular. “That’s why retro styles continually re-emerge. It’s important to know how we’re going the make the past relevant in the present.
“Traditional arts and culture need the patronage system. It requires sponsorship and good marketing communication to motivate the audience. Not only do they want to be entertained, but they also have to understand. With creativity, we can make them appreciate the aesthetics. The arts and culture is not about the price, but about the value. Look at the Royal Crematorium, with the events and performances that took place. One cannot quantify their worth. They are too invaluable because they are our national treasures.”