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Painting of a princess, two mermaids, a childlike man playing the flute, a child at the bottom of the painting, and a demon in the background.

Cropped photo of “The Wives,” by Jirot Piempook. Currently on display at The Queen’s Gallery in Bangkok.

I recently came across the above painting by Jirot Piempook at a special exhibit, “The Best Art Thesis Exhibition 2013,” at the Queen’s Gallery in Bangkok.  The artist’s statement indicated that the inspiration had been Phra Aphai Mani.  I wondered, what is this piece of literature to inspire such a painting?

I discovered that Phra Aphai Mani (also romanized as Pra Apai Manee) is a 30,000-line epic poem written by Thai poet Sunthorn Phu (1786–1855).  The work has become a part of Thai folklore with numerous adaptations.  The storyline involves a flute-playing prince, Phra Aphai Mani, and his younger brother Sri Suvarna, who set out on a quest for knowledge.  Phra Aphai Mani’s flute-playing has the power to enchant, and he uses it on several occasions to sway the outcomes of battles.  This flute-playing also unintentionally attracts one of Phra Aphai Mani’s wives — a sea giantess who captures him and keeps him until he agrees to marry her.  Although he did grow to love her to a certain degree, he ultimately kills her as she becomes broken-hearted while listening to him play the flute.  In the course of the story, Phra Aphai Mani marries four women sequentially — the sea giantess, a mermaid, and two princesses.   

The English translation of Jirot Piempook’s artist statement is a little unclear, but it alludes to a woman’s sorrow in love because of a man.  Based on the little I’ve learned about the epic, it seems clear that the story is indeed fraught with heartbreak and sorrow.  Phra Aphai Mani and his flute seem to have caused quite a bit of trouble!

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