Inside the artisan workshops gearing up for the Thai King's funeral

Updated 24th October 2017
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Inside the artisan workshops gearing up for the Thai King's funeral
Written by Oscar HollandKocha Olarn, CNNBangkok, Thailand
Preparations for the late Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej's cremation have been underway for the past year. In an old and cluttered studio outside Bangkok, sculptor Chatmongkol Insawang has been hard at work.
The smell of clay and instant coffee hangs in the air as he carefully shapes the trunk of the elephant-headed god, Phra Phikanet (the Thai name for Ganesha). The Hindu deity forms just a small part of his multi-layered clay artwork.
"Phra Phikanet is the god of art, the god of success," Insawang explained. "Phra Phikanet is (also) the god who will send the king to heaven."
Insawang is one of hundreds of artists -- both professionals and amateurs -- who have been enlisted to create sculptures for the king's funeral. Tasked with crafting more than 500 works for this week's extravagant five-day ceremony, some of the sculptors have been working daily for almost a year.
Volunteers who are not artists can be found cleaning up and assisting with equipment. From time to time, members of the public appear at the studio, offering meals and snacks to the artists. No effort has been spared honoring a king who attained god-like status in Thailand.
"When we are working, we always think of His Majesty," Insawang said. "His name, Bhumibol, means 'power of the land,' and he was indeed the power of our land ... So while we are working and (when) we touch the soil, we feel we are always connected to him."

Remembrance through art

Most of the completed artworks -- the largest of which took between three and five months to complete -- have already been transported to the royal funeral pyre. Built to resemble the sacred center of the Hindu universe, Mount Meru, the lavish 166-foot-tall pyre has been erected in central Bangkok, next to the Grand Palace.
While Thailand is predominantly Buddhist, many elements of the funeral -- including Insawang's sculpture of Phra Phikanet -- draw on Hindu traditions. In addition to religious references, the artworks depict a variety of real-life scenes and figures, such as infrastructure projects built during Bhumibol's 70-year reign and his two favorite dogs, Khun Tongdaeng and Khun Jo Cho.
More than 500 sculptures to honor Thai King
Artists have been racing to finish their works ahead of the funeral. Some artists commuted up to four hours every day to reach the workshops across Bangkok, while others claim that they worked deep into the night, sometimes sleeping in their studios in front of their works.
As well as working on sculptures of all sizes, artisans have been producing embroidery and other decorations for the pyre. Supervising painter Kiattisak Suwannaphong has overseen the creation of eight cremation panels, a series of detailed paintings that will cover the urn. The vibrant fabric panels feature the royal emblem and scenes inspired by the late king's life.
"The king liked sweet and bright colors, so we decided to use pink, orange and yellow," Suwannaphong said.

A complex operation

While state funerals have been held for other Thai royals in recent years, this week's is set to be the biggest in living memory. The Thai government has set aside 3 billion baht (about $90 million) for the ceremony.
It will be the fourth royal funeral that 56-year-old artist Sanan Rattana has contributed to. Having previously worked on cremation panels, Rattana was charged with producing a huge painted mural this year.
Traditionally, such a work would show ancient or religious scenes. But Rattana's mural features some of the late king's accomplishments, including the Royal Chitralada Projects, a series of agricultural research initiatives carried out at Bhumibol's official residence.
"I invited people I know (to help with the mural) -- some are my former students," Rattana said. "They all have their own experience from their daily work. But to make this look like the work of one artist, they have to lose their egos."
All of the participating artists have been approved by the Department of Fine Arts, the government body overseeing the process. According to officials, artists' previous work was taken into consideration, with practical tests for more complex appointments.
Some artists have been afforded creative freedom, with head sculptor Prasopsuk Ratmai telling CNN that he carved the face of the deity Narayana to resemble that of the king as a young man. But most of the them have followed strict briefs from the organizing committee, said Rattana.
One artist, according to Anand Chuchote, Director General of the Fine Arts Department, was forced to remove Apple, Facebook and Google logos from his statue, after he had decided to honor the king's penchant for technology.
"Each individual artist has his or her own style (but) they must lose their style and stick to the approved sketch," Rattana said. "There could be 100 to 200 artists working on this mural, but the work must become one piece. There are supervisors who will make sure that it comes in the same direction."

An artist's 'highest honor'

The extensive artwork is just one part of a fastidiously organized ceremony expected to bring hundreds of thousands of people to the streets of the Thai capital.
The funeral proceedings begin in earnest on Wednesday. Banks and shops will close across the country on Thursday, when Bhumibol's body will be transported to the crematorium from the Grand Palace, where it has lain since his death last October.
Some of the senior artists involved in the ceremony have been included on the guest list, alongside senior Thai officials and foreign dignitaries. It has yet to be announced what will become of the artworks after the funeral, though this will be of little consequence to their creators.
"I feel this is the highest honor in an artisan's life," Insawang said. "We have a chance to serve (the late king). For this extremely important event, I feel very proud. But at the same time, I also feel great loss.
"I am doing this with a determination to produce the best work I can -- and for the king's pride and honor."