Friday, 18 October 2019

 

By Busaba

Thailand’s khon performance, which depicts the glory of Rama the hero and incarnation of the god Vishnu, was inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity on 29th November 2018, where it is described as “a performing art that combines musical, vocal, literary, dance, ritual and handicraft elements.” (Source: Thailand’s Ministry of Culture)

Khon is the most refined of all Thai performance arts. It is a traditional Thai masked drama which combines gracefulness with masculinity in its dancing. In the past it was performed solely in the royal court by men in masks. After fading away for decades, khon performance was brought to the public eye and has become popular due to the great effort of Her Majesty Queen Sirikit, the Queen Mother who spearheaded the effort to restore the nearly forgotten tradition of the “Royal Khon Performance”.

Khon is believed to date back to the Ayutthaya Period (1350-1767) and to have originated no less than 400 years ago. It is a classical dance drama acknowledged as the most sophisticated form of Thai theatre. The khon roles are male and female humans, monkeys and demons. The performance is accompanied by a lead singer and chorus, a story narrator, a dialogue narrator and the piphat ensemble (a kind of ensemble in the classical music of Thailand which features wind and percussion instruments). Traditionally all its performers were men and wore masks. But presently the performers taking the roles of gods and humans do away with masks; only demons and monkeys still wear masks and women are playing female parts.

The stories played in khon performance are invariably those of Lord Rama, a reincarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu who is the hero in the Indian epic Ramayana or Ramakien in the Thai version. A greater part of the epic is concerned with the protracted war between Rama the righteous king and Thotsakan the king of demons, which is touched off by the abduction of Rama's beloved consort by the demon king.

As khon is basically a dance, its performers must harmonize their steps and poses with the recitations and songs of the chorus and the music of the small orchestra. This requires strict training of the dancers from their childhood. Normally, children start practicing khon dance by the age of 8 to 9 years, as most postures of khon dance require high level of flexibility. Apart from dance and music, khon also combines other artistic skills in the creation of costumes, accessories, props and scenes.

Development of Modern Khon Costume

Her Majesty Queen Sirikit, the Queen Mother realized that as a traditional performing art form of Thailand, khon represents the national identity and therefore there is a need to preserve the traditional craftsmanship of khon mask-making, costume embroidery, silver and gold decorations and accessories, as well as the traditional art of stage make-up.

In 2005, when Her Majesty set about organizing the revival of Khon, she assembled a scholarly research team to find out what the costumes might have looked like in the past. After that, specialists were selected to design new costumes. This traditional art required re-establishing or expanding the weaving, embroidery, mask-and-jewelry making workshops necessary to produce all aspects of khon costuming.

The weaving of gold silk brocades used to make khon costume, which originated in Nakhon Si Thammarat province, was revived by Her Majesty and has been improved by the SUPPORT Foundation (The Foundation for the Promotion of Supplementary Occupations and Related Techniques) to be used in the royal khon performance. Later, the Si Bua Thong Handicraft Center in Ang Thong province was chosen to produce khon costume, and the center’s artisans were taught to weave the silk brocades.

Presently, this center is where hundreds of locals have learned and conserved several fields of traditional art, including weaving silk brocades for khon costume and making khon masks from the rare, durable and light pulp made from Siamese rough bush (or khoi in Thai).

In harmony with the splendid costumes, all elaborate sets and props used in the royal khon have been designed and created with modern techniques too.

Royal Khon Performance by SUPPORT Foundation

Khon performance of the SUPPORT Foundation under the Royal Patronage of Her Majesty Queen Sirikit, the Queen Mother, is known as the royal khon. The royal khon was initiated in 2007 by the command of Her Majesty in order to preserve this performance as a valuable treasure of Thai culture.

The first performance (in 2007), focused on the episode of "The Battle of Indrajit: Prommas" from the Ramakien, was a huge success. Hence, “Prommas" was staged again in 2009, after which Her Majesty commanded that new performances be arranged each year to preserve this exquisite performing art.

Up until now, the SUPPORT Foundation has successfully organized shows totaling 8 episodes to date from the Ramakien epic. They consist of “Prommas” in 2007 and 2009, “Nang Loi” in 2010, “Suek Maiyarap” in 2011, “Jong Tanon” in 2012, “The Battle of Kumbhakarn: Mokasak” in 2013, “The Battle of Indrajit: Nagabas” in 2014, “The Battle of Indrajit: Prommas” in 2015, and “The Allegiance of Phiphek” in 2018. (There were no performances in 2016 and 2017 as it was the mourning period for His Late Majesty King Bhumibol.)

Normally, the royal khon performances are performed by leading performers from the Office of Music and Drama at the Fine Arts Department, Ministry of Culture, Bunditpatanasilpa Institute, and Bangkok College of Dramatic Art. In order to provide the opportunity for young artists from drama schools and institutes to learn about and preserve traditional Thai performing art, the foundation held auditions to find a new generation of performers to join the performance cast. The selected students will get a chance to play the roles of male humans, female humans, monkeys and demons like those professional performers which will be their valuable experiences.

The royal khon performance is staged every year for one month from early November to early December, at Thailand Cultural Center, on Ratchadapisek Road in Bangkok. Due to its popularity, tickets are always sold out one or two months in advance. For more information, contact Thailand Cultural Center, tel. 02 247 0028.

Khon Performance at Sala Chalermkrung

For those of you who could not make it to the royal khon performance, there is another great place to enjoy khon which is Sala Chalermkrung Royal Theater. It’s located on Charoen Krung Road and features a regular khon performance of Hanuman episode, the Hindu monkey god from the Ramakien epic. English subtitles are provided on LED screen above the stage. The show runs every Friday from 19.30 - 21.00 hours. Ticket Prices: 1,200/1,000/800 Baht. For details and reservations, contact Sala Chalermkrung Royal Theatre, Tel. 0-2224-4499 or www.salachalermkrung.com.

By the way, in response to the UNESCO’s declaration on the intangible cultural heritage, the Department of Cultural Promotion, under the Ministry of Culture, has declared a year of activities in 2019 to celebrate Thailand’s khon masked dance drama. As part of this project, the Bureau of the Royal Household is providing a great opportunity for foreign tourists to see khon performance. So the 500 Baht entrance ticket to the Grand Palace includes khon performance (short version) at Sala Chalermkrung. There are five 25-minute performances daily, from Monday to Friday, at 10.30, 13.00, 14.30, 16.00 and 17.30 hours.


 Remark: Photos by courtesy of SUPPORT Foundation.

 

Related articles