Thursday, August 4, 2016

Passing On






Pahn Sii Kwan
"Passing on" - this blog entry is not another entry regarding the funeral rituals of the Lao Loum people who inhabit the Northeast Thailand.  This blog entry has nothing to do with someone's death. rather it is about keeping a culture and a handicraft alive.  They are kept alive by passing on the knowledge and training others to develop the skills required to maintain the traditions.

Here in Isaan, ornate centerpieces created out of banana leaves, chrysanthemums, and jasmine buds are used during many significant events celebrated with rituals based upon Buddhist, Hindu, and Animist religions.   The centerpieces, called Pahn, Pahn Sii Kwan or Pahn Baisii, can be seen at funerals, 100 Day Parties, weddings, ordinations, birthdays, baii sii rituals, and special Buddhist days.

I have seen pahn being created many times and consider them to be one of the hallmarks of life here in Isaan and in Lao.  The making of pahn, like many things here, is a community endeavor.   Prior to the reason for celebration, women, typically older women, will gather to make the pahn.  In addition to making the pahn, the women spend their time eating, drinking, and most of all ... socializing.  Some of the women chew betelnut, a pastime similar to chewing tobacco even down to spitting out copious amounts of darkly colored saliva.

I had mention some time ago to Duang that it would be nice if she learned how to make pahn.  Duang is clever as well as artistic so learning to make pahn seemed natural to me for her.  There was also another contributing factor for her.  Since pahn are used as offerings in religious rituals, merit is earned by their creators.  Duang agreed and said that she wanted to learn how.  She was willing and we only had to wait for a way.

Tearing Banana Leaves to Use for Pahns
For the past two years, Duang has been going to the local market and purchasing pahn for the shrine in our home.  She has also ordered special pahn to take to rituals in her home village of Thasang Village.  Over the time she developed a friendship with the vendor.  Last week through the vendor, Duang learned of the special ritual to cast the Naga at the local rustic Wat.  After our visit for the casting of the Naga, the woman offered to start teaching Duang how to make pahn.

On Sunday, we drove back to the local rustic Wat near our home for Duang to start her training.  I went along to take photographs specifically to work on using speedlights to control the lighting for photographs.



I had not properly prepared to take photographs.  I had not checked on the numerous AA batteries that I would be using to power the speedlight and two radio transmitters to trigger the speedlight.  A total of 8 batteries are necessary for the technique that I planned on using.  After the first few shots, the flash no longer worked either due to its depleted batteries, depleted batteries in the radio receiver attached to the flash or depleted batteries in the radio receiver on top of my camera - or so I thought.  I had not brought my battery tester so troubleshooting was a hit or miss affair - with many misses.  Despite my shaking, reinstallation of batteries and swapping out of batteries along with several "words of encouragement" from me, the flash did not operate consistently or reliably.  It was then that the Abbott who was casting Naga parts just outside of the room where the lessons and photography were going on got involved.  He told Duang that she and her friend needed to make some offerings and say some prayers to the spirits.  The spirits were upset and did not want photographs.

Apparently earlier, a television crew had arrived at the site to make a film.  They were unable to get their equipment to work.  Apparently the spirits were not pleased and would not allow the filming.

Duang told me to wait.  She and her friend moved over to the corner of  the room that contained a shrine.  Together they made an offering of a pahn and said their prayers, Duang beseeching the spirits to allow me to photograph and not to make me angry.

Upon completion of their worship, my flash began to function properly, consistently, and reliably.  Duang is certain that the spirits had relented and allowed me to continue.  Personally I suspect that I had resolved the issue by using my third radio transmitter and scavenging four batteries from my spare speedlight.  In my experiences and travels around this world I have found that man has a need to explain and understand the events that occur about them.  Duang has solace in her faith and I have comfort in my trust of science - different solutions from different perspectives but solutions that satisfy a common need.



With the technical issues resolved, the lesson began.  The commitment and supportive teacher showed her eager student how to fold, bend, staple pieces of banana leaves and jasmine buds to form the components that will stapled and pinned with sewing pins to create simple pahn.


The women kept busy with their craft while I was occupied with taking photographs.  Their efforts and my efforts were periodically interrupted by my need to share with them the results of photograph efforts. It was a very relaxed atmosphere with plenty of conversation and laughter.  Duang and her friend often laughing at my efforts to take photos from different perspectives such as laying on the floor.  I made several quips about Duang's efforts ... when her friend praised her pahn, I remarked that Duang was good but slow!  Truthfully, Duang had done very well.  Her instructor had gone to school for one year to learn the handicraft and has spent 6 years supporting herself, her mother, and her daughter making pahn to sell at the local market so making speed comparisons was unfair.







I was impressed with the patience of Duang's instructor.  She is the type of teacher that we all wish that we have had.  She watched over Duang's efforts without interfering with Duang's learning process.  She was extremely supportive and encouraging.



Duang concentrated on making the simple pahn while her friend moved on to the more complicated components for intricate pahn.


After three hours of intense learning and work, we left.  Duang said that learning to make pahn was "same same" as learning English ... "think think too much, my head hurt"  We shared a good laugh and returned satisfied and content.  Duang enjoyed her lesson and will return tomorrow for more instruction.

I was pleased to see that Duang will be able to maintain a tradition so closely related to her culture.  Like I often find and appreciate in photography there are people who are willing and capable of passing on their knowledge.  Our world is a better place due to their efforts.  Their students are the legacy and testimony of their teachers.

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