The masked dance-drama Khon culminates Thai arts and culture into one theatrical art form. Most visitors may be familiar with certain characters from Khon, such as Hanuman, the white monkey, or Thosakhan or Ravana, the ten-faced demon who kidnapped Sita, Rama’s wife. However, to appreciate Khon fully, one should observe all the elements that are assembled in it.
Khon is originated from Kathakali, a form of classical dance from Southwest India. Kathakali uses elaborately colourful make-up, costumes, and face-mask wearing actor-dancers. With the influence of Ramayana, or Ramakien, in Southeast Asia, dance dramas on this Hindu epic battle of good against evil also appear in the neighbouring countries. However, while the Indian style of story-telling is faster and more furious, the Ramakien version in Thai Khon is recounted in a slower pace. If the entire epic is performed nightly, it will take several weeks or months. Thais tell the story in one episode after another while the Indian dances fast-forward the whole thing in an hour or two.
Ramakien doesn’t only fill Thai psyche but also enriches the arts by adorning the fresco murals along the cloisters of the Temple of the Emerald Buddha and being performed as Nhung Dtalung and Nhung Yai shadow puppets, Hoon Ghrabok puppets, and Khon. Through many periods and reigns, Ramakien verses were written, rewritten, and interpreted for dramatic purposes. Similarly to operas in grand scale, Khon represents the apex of Thai art forms in literature, music, singing, dancing, performing, acrobatics, costumes, make-ups, and Khon masks as pièces de résistance.
Khon masks and headdresses are made from papier-mâché. Then they are sculpted and decorated with paint, leather, lacquer, gold, and mirrors. They are worn by certain characters: gods, demons, and simians. The faces, colours, and types of crown on top of each mask signify different characters and their hierarchy. Some masks are only made and used for venerations—the wai khru (teacher reverence) and khrob hua (mask covering ritual) ceremonies when Khon performers are ready to learn and perform. These represent deities and hermits such as Phra Pirap, the teacher of dramatic arts.
These elaborate costumes and jewellery take weeks or months to complete. Each November the most stunning Khon costumes are seen at the royal-sponsored Khon performances. They are made from specially-woven textiles or imported pieces, then embroidered and festooned with tiny crystals. Using older costumes and photographs as references, their colour shades are more subtle than the ones at dance shows for tourists. Each dancer wears heavy layers of costumes that are sewn on before performing, plus gold or silver-plated accessories speckled with semi-precious stones. Think about how much they have to endure on stage!
Like classical ballet, Khon performers are cast and characterized into four groups. Phra, male roles for deities or heroes, should have a classic oval face, a fit, well-proportioned body, and elegantly long neck, arms, and legs. Nang, female role for
heroines, goddesses, or demonesses, have a graceful oval face and a slim, well-balanced figure for delicate and beautiful gesture. Yuksa, demons or ogres, use taller men with a strong, muscular physique that can hold some positions longer such as supporting another performer during the battle scenes. Ling, simians, apply more athletic and younger men with agility and flexibility. Monkey characters require them to summersault, cartwheel, roll around, or do some acrobatic acts.
Most Khon performers only dance and don’t talk or sing. Singers and narrators sit beside a piphat ensemble of classical Thai musicians off stage. They play, sing, and narrate while the dancers move on stage. Some think that Khon dancers merely strike the poses, but each gesture and movement infers body language that expresses myriads of emotions. These choreographic repertoires are studied and adapted from rum mae bot, akin to basic ballet movements. Nowadays, some Thai youngsters learn classical dance at their high school or the College of Dramatic Arts next to the National Theatre. Not only their fingers, hands, and arms are bent backwards, but their whole bodies were also trained and contorted into various poses, like yoga, from thousands of rehearsals.
Traditionally, Khon was performed in the inner court of Siam as a type of Lakhon Nai, theatrical dance by court women only. However, demon and simian characters were danced by men, either from royalty or military. Some kinds of Khon were also performed outdoors or out of the court, such as before the cremation ceremonie s. Then they didn’t have much fanfare, unlike the splendid productions seen today. With modern technology, the scenery and theatrical techniques are employed to enhance the entertainment such as hydraulic stage and slings for flying. When performed in a small theatre, Khon gives the audience more intimacy to appreciate the expressions and the costumes up close. In grand halls, majestic and magnificent battle scenes amaze the spectators.
Following Ramakien, Khon was used to support the Devaraja doctrine, the deified king worship, as Hanuman and other simian characters are loyal to Rama, like soldiers to the General. It also serves the purpose of boosting spirit and morale among the troops and their dexterity while not at war. As the moral of this story is the triumph of good over evil, real-life situations are often reflected on stage. Oscar Wilde had it right when he said, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”