Believers’ Paradise must be among the most amazing art exhibitions presented by Karachi’s Koel Gallery. It features three renowned artists – Panuwat Sitheechoke, Arthit Amornchorn and Kriangkrai Kongkhanun – and is worlds apart from the usual statement-orientated work of contemporary Pakistani artists.
It was, however, the work of Kriangkrai Konghkanun that stole this show. Like many Thai artists he is strongly influenced by Theravada Buddhism, and particularly by the teachings of the renowned meditation master Buddhadsa Bhikku. Here as in other schools of Buddhism, believers try to follow the path of spiritual practice leading out of samsara, the endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth to enlightenment.
The Thraibhumikatha, or The Book of Heaven and Hell, sets out a spiritual worldview dating from the 14th century according to which man lives in the Realm of Sensation, and it is partly from the vivid description of its deities, devils and hellish animals that Kriangkrai gets his ideas of how these creatures affect and represent the world we live in. Thus it is far from surprising that they inhabit his dreams!Another influence on his art is the pictorial symbolism of Buddhist mural painting, something from which many artists traditional studying traditional Thai painting draw rich inspiration.This artist, however, also happened to study in Europe, where he became familiar with Christian ideas of heaven and hell, and with the works of 16th century artists like Pieter Brueghel the Elder and Pieter Brueghel the Younger, with their mad and depraved scenes that show each person in the crowd doing some crazy thing. Then there is the 19th century artist Gustave Dore’s illustration of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. “It is important to point out that whereas in the Christian hell the damned are subjected to eternal torment, those trapped in any of the multitude of Buddisht hells (some number them at 136) may redeem themselves and rise to a higher level of existence in their next rebirth.”In a more immediate sense, the point of departure for Kriangkrai’s work is, however, the knowledge that negative human traits such as anger, hatred, selfishness, which figure in the Buddhist list of ten negative emotions, are so deeply present in human consciousness that they always re-surface. This indeed is why it requires eons of striving to reach the state of enlightenment. And this is where Buddhism and Christianity agree that hell is something that we create within ourselves.
In Karachi Kriangkrai’s exhibits were titled ‘High Temper’, ‘Spiritual Disease’, and ‘Touching an Ignorance’. Ignorance is, by the way, prominent among spiritual faults in the Buddhist view, particularly where it concerns our persistent idea of the existence of the self. “I’ve tried to paint my nightmares, my dreams,” Kriangkrai told viewers. “When we see a nightmare, it evokes a lot of feelings in us. You become fearful, on other occasions angry. You don’t easily figure out your dreams. There are lots of things in a human being that aren’t revealed. As to my use of the colour black, well, dreams are not colourful.”The various animals and fantastical creatures, the weird plants and insects in this artist’s work all have their own identities: the spider represents lust, the snake wickedness, the naked woman sexual desire. However, in his ‘Spiritual Disease 4′, we see a monkey carrying a one-eyed goat on his shoulders while his belly is stuffed with human heads with wide, staring eyes. Now and then one wonders if these eyes actually represent the seeds of wickedness. The monkey, naturally swift and supple, dances upon the head of another one-eyed creature, its head sprouting one-eyed flowers, while out of its snout an evil insect takes flight. Are the cup-like appendages to these flowers collecting poison, or are they fly-catchers, intent upon consigning escapees back to hell?
The goat carried on the monkey’s shoulders embodies attachment to the psychological baggage of this life, and to the bad karma that we have accumulated over eons and must strive to correct. Perhaps it also shows a soul that has not yet evolved past the stage of the monkey, since we clearly see the tail, the prehensile feet, the hair of the monkey’s coat, together with a human face.In light of the jaatakas – the collection of 547 stories about the repeated births, deaths and rebirths of the Bodhisattva (destined to become the Buddha in his final life) – the above considerations are far from irrelevant. In each of these stories the Bodhisattva is naturally the wisest and most highly evolved.The spider represents lust, the snake wickedness, the naked woman sexual desireInterestingly, the Bodhisattva himself is believed to have spent many thousands of years in one or another of the Buddhist hells, though time in the spiritual world is not to be equated with time on terra firma. Though never actually born into a hell, in Jaataka 538 he recalls time spent in the Usada Hell, one of the lowest of the Niraya Hells which are the worst of all. In particular The story of Temiya, the Dumb Cripple, features repeatedly in Thai temple art, appearing in Wat Yai Intharam in Chonburi, for example, and in Bharut, as well in Myanmar and Sir Lanka, among other places.The eye is a tantalizingly prominent symbol in Kriangkrai’s work. Generally the eye equals knowledge, and perhaps in this artist’s work it carries the knowledge that these souls have gone astray and must find the path out of their plight. The eye embodies also the function of the jury which evaluates the individual’s life in terms of karma: and since karma is a law of cause and effect, we are left to be our own juries.Some of Kriangkrai’s creatures are one-eyed, a fact which in certain cultures marks then out to be of limited intelligence. The four-headed goat, for instance, in ‘Spiritual Disease 1′, possesses only a single eye in each head. In ‘Spiritual Disease 3′ the plant exhibits one eye in the centre of its flower head, yet the myriad petals composed of a despairing human face bring to mind the thousand-faceted eye of the dragonfly.
One of Kriangkrai’s pictures shows an oriental dragon-like creature. This dragon is entirely different in nature from its Western counterpart, for it is of an auspicious nature and is gifted with wisdom. It also features in the oriental 12-year cycle, where each year is represented by a different animal. In Kriangkrai’s picture, mind you, this creature has wide, snapping jaws, sharp teeth, and is surrounded by the seeds of evil, by weird, miniscule creatures, and encircled by a snake – symbol of wickedness, remember. With one hand he grasps the snake above his head, while with his other arm he tries to immobilize a smaller one. Actually, this creature is part-lion, his mane being composed of closely placed circles, each with a human head entrapped in it, while a couple of misguided soils make a tortuous progress through his guts. What a genius Kriangkrai has for competition, managing to put so much into each of his woodcuts without making them seem overloaded, without letting them lose their balance or harmony.It is finally worth mentioning that Kriangkrai’s work is widely seen as a landmark in the history of Thai art. A truly prolific artist, exhibiting all over the world, he is poised on the verge of greatness, and his many admirers are waiting to see where he will go from here.
Noor Jehan Mecklai