The revival of Thai’s ‘mudmee’ silk industry is the subject of a new exhibition at New Delhi’s National Museum
Between the 14th and 18thcentury, the Kingdom of Ayutthaya (present-day Thailand) began importing various kinds of Indian textiles for the local market and royal court. These included block-printed or painted cotton from Masulipatnam (Andhra Pradesh), silk brocades from Banaras, and Gujarat’s patolaor double ikat silk—the latter was believed to have been commissioned for the Ayutthaya king during the 1660s.
While the origin of silkworm breeding and silk weaving in Thailand remains unknown, the early hybridization of Indian-made textiles with Siamese (dated term for Thai people) royal court patterns began to take place sometime during the Ayutthaya kingdom, according to a new art exhibition at New Delhi’s National Museum. Adorned with flame motifs, which is a quintessential form of Thai visual art seen in local paintings and architecture, the textiles began to be commissioned exclusively for the royal court.
For the general Siamese public, textiles with simplified patterns (perhaps keeping in mind the cost), including Indian influences, were also produced. These Indian-Thai patterns and motifs can still be seen in mudmee silk of contemporary Thailand, which is the subject of the exhibition, titled ‘Mudmee: A Shared Silk Heritage’.
“The diamond lattice structure filled with lotus-bud-shaped motif…[was] favoured by the Siamese (Thai) court in the past. The structure…is often referred to as Mughal Indian inspiration upon the Siamese court taste,” reads a note in the exhibition catalogue, on an early 21st century natural silk dye from Surin Province. The exhibition, unfortunately, does not highlight the artistic and historic influence of other neighbouring countries, such as China, on Thailand’s textiles.
Presented in collaboration with the Royal Thai Embassy and the Thai Khadi Research Institute, the exhibits document the history and monarchy-led revitalization of the Southeast country’s mudmee silk, that involves tying off silk yarns, to create patterns, before setting off the process of weaving.
Intricately woven, with complex patterns and vivid textures, around 50 mudmee silk items have been mounted at the gallery, offering a glimpse into the local and royal culture of Thailand, which has been shaped by constitutional monarchy, military rule and Buddhist religion.
The artefacts on display, roughly covering a period of three most recent centuries, are traditional costumes for both Thai men and women; the collection comprises of tube skirts, hip-wrappers, regular skirts, and shoulder sashes. The artistic precision and detail of these textiles are accentuated by the portrayal of local themes that are related to—mythology, religion, spirituality, architecture, nature and fertility.
Since the early 20th century, however, the western style of dressmaking led to the decline of locally handwoven textiles in Thailand. With the expansion and rapid urbanization of Bangkok, Thailand’s capital city, and other big cities, mudmee silk was relegated for use by the rural and poor people only. The onslaught of cheaper and machine-made silk sidelined indigenous silk as well. One of the other reasons that may have also contributed to mudmee silk’s decline is the difficulty of wearing Thai garments on a daily basis.
With the support of royal patronage since the 1950s, led by Thailand’s Queen Sirikit, mudmee silk not only made it to annual silk festivals and international fashion runways, the quality of weaving and sericulture significantly improved. Focusing on the rural and backward parts of Thailand, she launched a livelihood campaign by initiating market reforms, introduced training in textile weaving, encouraged people to increase mudmee production, and eventually made large-scale purchases from the local market.
A fashion icon herself, the queen—who turned 86 this year—has made innumerable public appearances, both at home and abroad, wearing exquisite gowns made from Thai mudmee silk. She even hired French couturiers and Thai designers to design fashionable dresses out of mudmee, opening new doors for traditional silk.
Some of the artefacts at the exhibition, such as a collection of chic mudmee silk dresses, have been loaned by Bangkok-based Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles, that houses the queen’s personal collection of dresses tailored from Thai textiles.
However, the National Museum show does not acknowledge the contribution of Jim Thompson, the American intelligence official-turned-businessman who is credited for “singlehandedly saving Thailand’s vital silk industry from extinction (Time Magazine, 2016).”
Thompson, famously called ‘Thai Silk King’, was sent to Thailand on an intelligence assignment, just as the World War II was coming to an end. Duties over, he decided to stay back in Bangkok and build a life there. Charmed by its local silk weaving industry, but equally disturbed by its near-extinct status, Thompson began investing in the market, engaged hundreds of silk weavers, and created a market for Thai silk at home and abroad.
As his silk business achieved fame and the industry witnessed a revival, he built a sprawling property of villas in Bangkok, “along the pulse of Thompson’s new world: on the banks of the khlong (canal) across which Bangkok’s silk weavers lived and worked (Time, 2016).” But it was an accusation—of having stolen five Buddha heads—that probably put his reputation at stake. Ultimately, his story ended with a mysterious disappearance, during a walk in a jungle at the Malaysian highlands. His legacy survives still survives in Bangkok, as The Jim Thompson Museum, originally his canal-side residence that is also a repository of his personal collection of local art and antiques.
The exhibition, ‘Mudmee: A Shared Silk Heritage’, was inaugurated on Aug. 10, 2018, and will be on view until Sept. 25, 2018, at National Museum, Delhi.
Ankush began his career as a journalist in 2008, and has since covered multiple stints in print, television and digital media in India. In 2016, he took up a communications and outreach assignment for an American social innovation organisation, which works with the Tata Trusts in India. He is currently working, in Delhi, as a media publicist for art practitioners. He tweets @artandculturediary, and shares his photography on Instagram.