In the year 2000 I was awarded the Meridian TV taped Up arts bursary for my animation "Tally Bloody Ho!". It was a joint award of 1500 GBP and I decided that I would invest it in traveling somewhere where I would never have been able to go without the money to research something I cannot access in the UK (it was vague and open). Some friends were also going to Thailand and so I booked a visit for 5 weeks. I then started to research into topics I could realistically explore.
My criteria was that it had to be environmentally related, ideally with conservation at the centre. My friend Fran House suggested elephants, and so it all started.
This would be my first chance to see elephants... and to get close. I had a notion of what an elephant was to me... but on reflection I was naive and had no real idea at all.
E is for elephant. Barbar the elephant. Dumbo. Elmer. Ganesh. Billie Smarts Circus (yes I did go to see elephants at the circus as a child). London Zoo. David Shepherd's paintings (my Mum has a Print that I grew up with) and a few other vague notions...
It was I realised, a limited knowledge, so this would be money well spent. And hopefully I would be able to make an animation from the experience. Little did I know what I was getting in to.
Before I went I started my research. I establish connections with Richard Lair at the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre, Lampang and Sangduen 'Lek' Chailert of Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai. Both were working with elephants and had ideas about conservation and the environment. So I set up to meet them during my initial stay.
During the five weeks that took me from 2000 to 2001, officially into the new millennium, I had all my preconceptions of 'what an elephant is' blown away. In fact it changed my life.
I was introduced to elephants in many new and unexpected contexts.
At Lampang I helped document a recording of the Thai Elephant Orchestra with Richard and Dave Soldier. I found myself following them into steelworks to get elephant sized instruments made. I saw the elephants at the conservation centre demonstrate their strength and skills in the logging show; I saw elephants giving rides into the forest; they painted and they played music.
My perceptions were being challenged. And at no point was this mere circus performance, animals following blindly command like Pavlov's dog.
My early sketches of what I thought elephants were, were sadly misguided. One dimensional. Dead. NO realisation. I hadn't got a clue. My head was full of myths and legend, tales and a very Western perspective. The drawings were full of shortcomings and so was I.
I met Prasob, the manager at the Mahout Training School in Lampang. He took me one morning into the jungle that surrounds the center. We went to find Prathida, the princess's adopted elephant. Within moments of us getting out of the van, the distant silhouette of an elephant could be seen waving her trunk, and twisting and dancing, squeeking, chirping, and rumbling ecstatically. As Prasob got closer she was visibly shaking with excitement, peeing, purring and chirping. She grabbed him with her trunk, and puled her to him like a long lost relative . A a witness I was humbled, amazed and statisfied. All notions of cruelty that gets thrown about the captive elephant's life in Thailand I knew in this moment did not apply. This was one very happy elephant. Prasob told us that he had been present at her birth, that there had been difficulties, and that he had been part of Prathida's life for the last 7 or so years. Their bond had grown and was something I could only be a witness to, but because of it I too could stand by her side. In this moment I realised my role was insignificant and dependent. Without the mahout, I was in danger, with the mahout the whole fascinating world was opened up. Through their symbiotic bond, I could be drawn in to an understanding of what an elephant REALLY is. Something they have given freely to the mahout. Now that is not to over romanticize this relationship and over the ten years I have seen good and bad mahouts. Many of whom are untrained and without understanding of their role or the difference they can make. But this is what has prompted this blog. These men, whose tradition is over 4000 years are invisible at best, their culture and knowledge is sidelined, ignored and treated as unimportant by often well meaning 'foreigners' who come with as much knowlege as I had had, in the hope that they can "Save the Elephant'. Quite simply NOT without the mahouts. My eyes were opened by Prasob.
I realised I had in the first week of the visit been on a trek with my friends. Fran and I had sat a top of our elephant, buzzing with excitement and chatting the whole half hour. This was our first ever ride on an elephant. It was the nearest we had ever been to an elephant. We were overwhelmed and spent the half hour ride in a kind of bubble of euphoric amazement. After the ride we, and the others gave bananas and eventually returned to our bamboo boat (we were floating down the River Kok to Chiang Rai). Shelly kindly too a photo of me as I sat my head reeling and cried. I was totally blown away. But had not even noticed the mahout on whom our experience wsa dependant. prasob had enlightened me. As had the work of Richard and David who were exploring the elephants intellegence in terms of their ability to work in a team and create and communicate 'music'. I saw the elephants intiate and respond to sounds in a way that was very convincing thaht they knew/were aware of what they were doing. And what's more, they were REALLY enjoying it.
I went on to meet Lek. Less easy to pin down I finally met her in her office in Chiang Mai with Jo and Degs, my friends. We did not get to see her elephants, but she enthused us about her elephants and her vision for a sanctuary. She also told us a story aboout a mahout and his jealous elephant. How he had wanted to go and see his girlfriend but teh elephant had been stopping him leaving her and so he had to sllep in a hammock by her side. One day he bought a radio and left it playing in his hammock with a pillow. He was able to go off and see his girlfriend. Unfortunately the batteries died and and when the elephant awaoke she was so angry, she untied her chains and scented him out, sniffing through the vilage she located him at the girls bamboo house and promptly smashed the wall down and grabbed him back!
I loved this story. And left Thailand full of all these experiences and sure that I could make an idea for an animation. I worked on astory outline. My ideas were all based around this relationship between the elephant and the mahout... and the wife. I put a storyboard together and applied to various possible funding bodies to no avail. I was fascinated by the mahouts. Their culture. Who were they. Why did they do this job? What do they think about the situation with elephants in Thailand? What is their role in the future of elephants? I tried and tried to get some outside sponsorship to develop the animation. In the end I decided I eed more material. I had to go back. So in the summer of 2002, 18 months after my first vist. I returned. And so it all began... I came back again and again. I fell in love. With elephants. With mahouts. With Thailand.
I have now spent the last ten years visiting and getting to know more and more about the elephants in Thailand and the mahouts. I have had many exhibitions of my paintings, illustrated books, published photos and made animations. I have also made five documetaries about the painting elephants, about three interviews with Karen mahouts on elephants and one introduction to the Royal Elephant Kraal mahouts. I now live in Ayuthaya near the Royal Elephant Kraal. I work at Mahidol University International College where I teach animation. I have an amazing access to the most important people, in my opinion, in the whole debate about elephants in captivity in Thaialnd and their future. The mahouts. I hope to use the blog to reflect on my work so far and represent them. This blog is by, for and with the mahouts; it's about them, their lives, their families, their stories, their future, most importantly THEIR elephants.