Asian and African studies blog

10 posts categorized "Photography"

24 April 2014

Romeo and Juliet in Thai

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If you were in Bangkok about a century ago and you were going to a theatre performance, the last thing you would expect is a play by Shakespeare. But you might be surprised to find out that this was very much a possibility, and it was equally possible to recognise the Thai king as one of the actors on stage.

King Vajiravudh (Rama VI, 1910-25) was a true fan of Shakespeare and translated several of his works into Thai. He also made great efforts to ensure that Shakespeare’s plays found their way into Thai theatres and by doing so he introduced Western/modern forms of theatre into Thailand. He often stood on the stage himself as he had a passion for acting that he had developed as a young student in England. Immediate family members were encouraged to join him on stage.

The Cheltenham Chronicle and Glo’shire Graphic reported on 30 August 1902 about the young Crown Prince Vajiravudh that “the Prince has recently appeared in another role – that of amateur actor and playwright - at an ‘At Home’ at Westbury Court… The stage name of the heir to the Siamese Crown is ‘Carlton H. Terris’, and he actually performed in three plays – ‘In Honour Bound’, ‘Old Cronies’, and ‘The King’s Command’, the latter being from his pen.”      

King Vajiravudh during his coronation ceremony in 1910. Source: Chotmaihet Phraratchaphithi borommaratchaphisek Somdet Phraramathibodi Srisinthon Maha Vachiravut Phramongkutklao Chaoyuhua. Bangkok, 1923, p. 1 (Siam.183)


King Vajiravudh was born on January 1, 1881 being the second son and successor of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V). At the early age of 12, he was sent to Sandhurst Royal Military College and then moved to Oxford University to study history, administration and law. Altogether, he spent nine years in England. Following the death of his elder half-brother, Crown Prince Maha Vajirunhis in 1895, Prince Vajiravudh succeeded as Crown Prince and eventually ascended the throne after his father King Rama V deceased on 23 October 1910. He was the first Thai king to be educated abroad. The long time as a student in England had a considerable and lasting influence on his love of literary and performing arts. In many of his works, he emphasised the value of the press, and of reading in general.


Romeo and Juliet in Thai, translated by King Vajiravudh. The book was printed in 1922 and bound in a lavender coloured silk cover embossed with gilt (Siam.279)


His most important translations into Thai are Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” (Siam.279), “As you like it” (Siam.330/421), and “The Merchant of Venice” (Siam.275/7). His excellence in this field earned him the name “Maha thiraraja”, meaning “philosopher king”. Due to the fact that many of his contemporaries did not see the purpose in his activities as an author, playwright and actor – the latter being indeed very unusual for a Thai king - he decided to write and perform under different pseudonyms, like for example Si Ayutthaya, Asvabhahu, Tom Toby, or Carlton H. Terris. Altogether, King Vajiravudh used more than 40 pseudonyms (known to date).


Beginning of the first act of Romeo and Juliet in Thai, translated by King Vajiravudh (Siam.279, pp. 4-5) 

The publication of Thai literary works and translations of Western literature and theatre plays into Thai reached a first climax with King Vajiravudh as author and translator himself.  He stood out for his considerable contribution to Thai literature and the performing arts, and was the first one to classify Thai theatre into two types, the Khon and Lakhon.

In "A Descriptive Catalogue of the Siamese Section at the International Exhibition of Industry and Labour" (Turin, 1911) he wrote: “The theatre where the Khon and Lakon are performed ... possesses the beautiful simplicity of an ancient Greek theatre ... neither stage nor scenery is required ... Costumes and properties however, are very elaborate, and are made as accurately as possible. The costumes are made to resemble those worn in Siam in olden times, and have not changed during successive generations, because they have been found most picturesque and suitable. Queens or royal personages wear crowns or coronets; others have various kinds of headdresses suitable to their rank and station. Character parts, such as demons, monkeys, or yogis wear distinctive masks of different colours and designs. Each mask is a good example of Siamese decorative art, and is distinctive and characteristic, so that each character may at once be recognized by the mask worn by the actor.” 

In addition to these traditional theatre forms, he helped to popularise modern dance-drama, spoken drama (lakhon phut) and sung drama (lakhon rong) in Siam as a way to prepare the people of his country for the modern world.

The British Library has a collection of over 120 first editions and reprints of King Vajiravudh’s works, including the above mentioned three translations of Shakespeare’s plays into Thai.

Jana Igunma, Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian ccownwork


Further reading

Paradee Tungtang: Shakespeare in Thailand. PhD dissertation, University of Warwick, 2011 (SFX 537761) 

Walter F. Vella and Dorothy Vella:  Chaiyo! King Vajiravudh and the development of Thai nationalism. Honolulu, 1978 (X.800/32387)


17 March 2014

The road to Mandalay

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The name of the British Library is in some ways a misnomer - we hold amazing collections from around the world, as the entries on this blog show. With a global collection that's important to so many people in so many places, comes a responsibility to work to enable people around the world to access the collections. Digitisation can be a wonderful way of enabling anyone, anywhere, to read manuscripts, books, or newspaper, and to see works of art, without having to come to London. Sometimes, library staff also travel, to tell people about our collections and encourage people to find out more about them.

Among the millions of items in the British Library are around 2,000 Burmese manuscripts – one of my favourites is Or.16761. There are also around 20,000 books from Myanmar, as well as photographs, newspapers, and the records of the Burma Office and India Office. We have long been in touch with colleagues in libraries in Myanmar, but last month we were able to do something that hasn't been possible for a number of years: to travel to Mandalay and Yangon, taking with us two displays about our collections.

The opening of a 19th century Burmese manuscript illustrating a variety of royal entertainments (Or.16761, ff 1-3r)

The displays featured two sets of material - photographs taken in Myanmar in the 19th century, and early books printed in, and about the languages of, Myanmar. Because we knew that one of the displays would be outdoors, the displays used images rather than including the original books and photographs, but the high-resolution scans and photographs used meant that the facsimiles could be extremely high-quality, and enabled people to get up close and examine the images in detail. We’ve done similar ‘facsimile’ exhibitions recently – as you can see on previous blog posts – in Kabul and Delhi.
LitFest visitors
Visitors at the displays at the Irrawaddy Literary Festival, Mandalay. © British Library

The first venue for the displays was the Irrawaddy Literary Festival, which this year took place in Mandalay. Despite a last-minute change of venue from the Kuthodaw Pagoda to a nearby hotel, thousands of people came to the literary festival. It was probably the first time we've done a display in a car park, but the response from the estimated 3,500 visitors who came to see the Library's displays made all the hard work (and the heat and dust outside) worth it. Many of the photographs and books in the pictures had not been seen in Myanmar before, or not for some years, and people often stopped to ask us questions, or to take photographs of the displays for future reference. Some visitors returned the next day with their friends and families, and at one point a group of tour guides came to see the old photographs of the places to which they regularly took tourists.
Two monks getting up close to see the details of the old photographs. © British Library
After a busy three days, we packed up the displays and drove to Yangon, to set up in our second venue: the Universities' Central Library on the main campus of the University of Yangon. The campus has been closed for years, and only recently reopened to students, but there's already significant investment in improving the facilities, and rejuvenating the campus and faculties. The Universities' Central Library has its own hugely important collection of books and manuscripts, and cases in the marble-clad lobby showing some of these. After we had been treated to a tour of the library and its collections, we installed the displays in lobby and welcomed friends old and new to the opening ceremony.

UCL staff
Staff of the Universities’ Central Library previewing the exhibition before the opening ceremony. © Universities’ Central Library

UCL visitors
Students and other visitors enjoyed the displays at the Universities’ Central Library. © Universities’ Central Library
Thousands of visitors came to see the displays in Yangon, and we’ve left the panels there, so it’s possible that they will be shown again in the future, perhaps in other venues. Meanwhile, we're starting to think about what's next - and looking forward to future projects in partnership with our colleagues in Myanmar, whether they involve digitisation, displays, or something else entirely. Watch this space!

Catherine Eagleton, Asian and African Studies


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