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The Object at Hand

Even as a bust, the real king of Siam turns out to be a more complex chap than the bald-headed caricature made famous by Yul Brynner and others

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The first thing you notice is the hair, not a bit like the shaven pate of Yul Brynner. The face appears solemn but not stern, the features sharp around the mouth but not frowning. It takes a moment--after the surprise of a face-to-face encounter at the Smithsonian's Museum Support Center in Suitland, Maryland-to adjust your past impressions from stage, screen and television to this reality. The object at hand is a bust of His Majesty King Mongkut of Siam (now Thailand), the man who loosely inspired the ruler played by Brynner, Rex Harrison et al. through thousands of performances of The King and I in all its incarnations.

So the basic story may be, if anything, a bit too familiar. Everyone remembers Anna, or Deborah Kerr anyway, entering the Siamese court in 1862 to be tutor to the king's myriad children (he had more than 80) while His Highness labors to bring his country not quite kicking and screaming into the modern age. We see him fall under her spell-and vice versa. We hear her sing "Getting to Know You" and we watch a royal ensemble perform an elaborate, showstopping number called "The Small House of Uncle Thomas."

Ever since the Rodgers and Hammerstein hit premiered in 1951, Mongkut has been an icon of the exotic East for many Americans. In the musical, now doing its third successful reprise on Broadway, he is tough and essentially inscrutable (except that he wants to modernize his country), but this is a mere caricature of the real king. In Thailand today, the characterization still grates-imagine a cartoon of Ambassador Ben Franklin drawn by a Parisian etiquette coach circa 1778-which is why stage and screen productions of the story are still banned there. In fact, the Mongkut of history represented by the Smithsonian's life-size, polychrome plaster bust is well worth getting to know.

Mongkut, who was born in 1804, spent more than half his adult life in the yellow robe of a Buddhist monk. For 27 years, he traveled the countryside with his alms bowl, ate one meal a day and studied scripture; for years he served as abbot at a quiet riverside temple on the outskirts of Bangkok. It was there that royal emissaries found him one steamy April morning in 1851, when they brought the news that his half brother, King Rama III, was dead.

Within days, the 47-year-old monk stepped from monastic life into the rich temptations and intricacies of the palace, with its inner city thronging with hundreds of women, its precincts patrolled by female guards and its life revolving entirely around his royal person. The holy man was now officially the "Lord of Life," the fourth ruler in Siam's Chakri dynasty, able to exert life-or-death control over some 5.5 million subjects. (As king, he banned the death penalty for monks who broke their vows of celibacy, putting them to work, instead, cutting grass for the royal elephants.) A spectacular coronation inaugurated the reign with great pomp. Brahmin priests sounded ceremonial conch shells. The new monarch, clad in golden robes, was carried off in a gilded palanquin. Even in that moment of glory, though, Mongkut made clear that he would scrutinize tradition more critically than had previous rulers. For the first time in 200 years Western diplomats were invited, and Buddhist monks played a visible role in the ceremony. This was just the kind of gesture feared by Siam's conservative nobility.

Once crowned, Mongkut traveled more widely than any other king had, revisiting many of the paths that he trod barefoot as a monk. Like Rex Harrison and Yul Brynner's monarch, he relaxed the stiff protocol of royal visits, permitting foreigners to salute him according to their own customs.

He had long observed the growing number of European steamships entering Bangkok's port and understood their importance. (The stage and screen king grasped this, too, but in those kindergarten versions, Mongkut caught up with Western studies only under Anna's tutelage.) The king's learning and discipline were formidable. He studied Latin with a helpful French bishop. He also acquired English from American missionaries, a Promethean task at a time when no Thai-English dictionary existed. To translate from Thai to English, the king first had to find a comparable word in ancient Sanskrit, then plow his way through the bulky Sanskrit-English dictionary to find a near match. It was not surprising that he sometimes startled visitors with a colorful turn of phrase. "There are Englishmen," he joked to one Scotsman, "who have not understanding of their own language when I speak."

Reading the English newspapers from Singapore and Hong Kong, the king followed the expansion of empires. Siam was a strong force in Southeast Asia, but European powers hungered on a global scale. His response to all that was like the insight gained from a koan: to escape dominion by any one Western power, he would open his doors to all. He signed trade treaties with England, France, the United States and half a dozen other countries, thereby limiting his vulnerability to each.

In cementing these relations, the king displayed a sensitivity to each country's situation. A royal letter to President Franklin Pierce included an unusually intimate daguerreotype portrait. It shows Mongkut bareheaded, wearing a simple robe and seated beside Queen Thepserin, mother of the future king Chulalongkorn. No throne or crown appears in the portrait destined for the land without royalty. His letters to Queen Victoria, on the other hand, invoked the bond of noble blood.

Mongkut was fascinated by the precision of Western scientific measurement. He filled his chambers with clocks, thermometers and barometers, and taught himself astronomy, erecting an observatory on the palace grounds. This led to his greatest scientific triumph-and, indirectly, to his death. In August 1868, the palace announced an expedition on the occasion of a solar eclipse. For villagers, eclipses foretold bad tidings; they saw them as attempts by the dragon Rahu to swallow the sun and used clanging bells and fireworks to impel Rahu to disgorge it. Mongkut believed he could disabuse such fears if he could predict the event with mathematical calculations.

Invitations provided guests with the latitude and longitude of a spot on the Siamese coast where the eclipse would last longest. A mission of French astronomers journeyed more than 6,000 miles from Paris to witness the event. They were met by Mongkut's entourage, including members of the royal family, retainers, skeptical court astrologers, horses, oxen and 50 elephants.

On the appointed morning, August 18, 1868, at the exact second indicated by the king's calculations, the sky went totally dark, a remarkable feat of prediction. Mongkut and his prime minister cried "Hurrah! Hurrah!" The exhausted French astronomers acknowledged his accuracy; court astrologers were nonplussed. But skeptics soon claimed justification for their fears and superstitions; in a matter of days, the king and several others in the royal party fell ill with malaria contracted on the marshy shore.

In October, an ailing Mongkut gathered his advisers and urged them: "please go on with our good work in the interest of the people." Then he lay upon his right side and recited the sacred name of the lord Buddha to fix his mind firmly in the moment of his death. Like the Buddha himself, he died on his own birthday: October 18. Eight years later, his son, King Chulalongkorn, commissioned the bust now at the Smithsonian. It was to be a centerpiece of the Siamese exhibition at the U.S. Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876.

"A bust is a Western idea," notes Lisa McQuail, an anthropologist studying the extensive Thai collection at Suitland. After years of research, sponsored by the Smithsonian's Heritage of Thailand Project, under the direction of curator Paul Taylor, McQuail has traced the bust to its likely creator: Prince Pradit Warakan, a sculptor who had actually known the king.

In Philadelphia, the Siamese exhibition joined those from nearly 50 other countries. In general, though, Asia's exotic otherness was too much for Americans to accept on an equal footing. Newspapers were reporting anti-Chinese violence in California. The Exposition's opening ceremony was marred by attacks on Asian diplomats. Many visitors had difficulty reconciling the "wonderful things" in the Asian exhibits, as one visitor put it, with the "quaint little people" who had made them.

This was the perfect audience for a memoir by Anna Leonowens called The English Governess at the Siamese Court, which had been published in London and Philadelphia six years before the Centennial. Anna had her eye on book sales and the lecture circuit. King Mongkut did indeed recruit her from Singapore in 1862 as one in a series of English-language tutors for his children. Once in Bangkok, Anna-a woman with a highly questionable background-reinvented herself as a widow of means. In her memoirs she upgraded herself again, presenting herself in the role of the king's trusted adviser and coloring many anecdotes to her advantage. But at points, Anna's observations overcome prejudice and self-interest. "He was more systematically educated," she wrote, "and a more capacious devourer of books and news, than perhaps any man of equal rank in our day."

The view of Mongkut popular in the West today, however, may owe less to Anna than to one Margaret Landon, a diplomat's wife who in 1944 took Anna's memoir and spiced it liberally with romantic daydreams to fashion the best-selling novel Anna and the King of Siam. From that came the 1946 movie with Rex Harrison, Rodgers and Hammerstein's disarming songs, Brynner's Tony award and Oscar, and a forgettable 1972 television series.

King Mongkut's bust may soon be in the public eye again. A book on this historic collection of more than 2,000 royal Thai gifts to the United States is under way. In addition, the Heritage of Thailand Project, which has been sponsoring research by McQuail and others, hopes to mount an exhibition of the gifts that will tour the world. King Mongkut would heartily approve.

By David Taylor

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