A recently retired specialist in Thai culture and history, Master Prasart Thong-aram, better known as “Kru Mued,” has devoted his life to Khon, the world-renowned Thai performance art based on the Ramayana. He took time out of his suddenly less packed schedule to chat with Bangkok 101 about his inspiration in life and work.
How long did you work for the Department of Performing Arts at the National Theatre?
I’ve been here all my adult life. I was a student at the school [Bunditpatanasilpa Institute] in 1961.Back then, kids studying dramatic arts were all poor. It was a way to make money and still afford to be a student. I was lucky. I studied under Ajarn Seri Wangnaitham, the master of all masters of Thai performing arts, and I received a royal scholarship. As soon as I stepped foot here, I couldn’t imagine ever leaving. So I decided then to work here after I graduated.
What sparked your interest in Thai performing arts? What inspires you now?
My grandfather played the reed pipe, a Thai instrument, in a band. I loved going to his shows. As a child, I was always picking up the instrument she left lying around and singing along with songs he played. I liked to watch Thai dance and all kinds of dramatic performances, too, especially Khon, the highest performing art form in Thailand. I was amazed at how the Hanuman troop would excite the audience, how powerful and passionate was the narrator’s voice, and how beautiful were the movements.
What makes Khon so special to you?
Khon’s charms are obvious as soon as the performance begins. There’s a reason why it has been held in high esteem since ancient times. Khon involves singing, dancing, acting, acrobatics, and music, but only a perfect combination of the disciplines makes Khon classic. The art takes dynamic skill. As there aren’t any conversations in the story, each character is distinguished by music, costumes, masks, and gestures. Every single feature remains the same as it was when it was born hundreds years ago. I think that’s amazing. It’s not very easy to see Khon nowadays —it never was, frankly. We only see it during important events or royal ceremonies. It has an important place in Thai society, which adds to our nation’s mystique.
How do you feel about the modern transformation of Khon in popular culture?
Often, people working on stage dramas and movies will pay me a visit as part of their research. I’m happy to support works of art that will put Khon in the spotlight, even if it isn’t in a pure, traditional style. True Khon depicts only the story of Ramakien, which is derived from the Hindu Ramayana. As long as the original pattern and core ideas are delivered, though, it’s fine with me. Lots of neighbouring countries stage Khon performances, as well, but we all know whom does it best.
Where is the best venue to watch such a performance?
There are two places to watch Khon in Bangkok: Sala Chalermkrung Royal Theatre and the National Theatre. If you want to experience a traditional Khon performance, I would recommend the National Theatre (the tickets are cheaper there, too).
What are you doing with your free time now that you’ve retired?
Even though I’ve retired, I’m still a consultant for the government’s Department of Performing Arts. I’m also writing a story for a Khon performance at the National Theatre based on two graceful versions originally composed by King Rama II and King Rama VI, respectively. So I guess I’m only retired in title.
Besides Khon, what is your favourite form of art?
I like Thai paintings, especially the classic ones that line temple walls. I could spend hours soaking them up. It’s not only the lines and colours, but also the story told across the massive wall, that I love.
Where do you take visitors in Bangkok?
I like to take guests to explore traditional Thailand. That means making merit and visiting temples. There are tons of beautiful temples inBangkok, after all — in Rattanakosin, in particular. Wat Phra Kaew, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, is a must-see for any visitor. Wat Pho is great, because you can gain some knowledge about Thai poetry and also learn about Thai massage. Or get a Thai massage, of course.