Masked monkeys scratch and fidget before their king, demons march to battle, and royalty bedecked in gold and gemstones are wheeled across the stage. This is Khon: royal Siam, ancient theatre, epic tale. On a poster along the walls of Bangkok’s National Theatre, two masked and ornately dressed characters engage in symbolic battle. They advertise an episode of classic Thai drama to be performed this month.
Khon is a masked pantomime dance-drama enacting chapters of the Ramakien, Thailand’s premier epic tale. Written by King Rama I, Ramakien finds its roots in the ancient Hindu poem, The Ramayana. This lengthy work tells the story of Phra Ram and his conflicts with the demon king Tosekanth, who had, among other heinous acts, abducted Phra Ram’s wife. The hero must face many obstacles in order to rescue his beloved Nang Seda.
Offered in episodes, Khon performances include many battles between Tosekanth and Prince Rama, whose monkey allies and their simian leader, Hanuman, are an acrobatic match for the demon king’s soldiers. One function of the Ramakien is to provide moral, religious, and social lessons to the audience. This is done by contrasting Phra Ram (the good prince) with Tosekanth (the demon king). Everything from politics to personality is compared over the course of the play, illustrating what constitutes right action.
Moral lessons aren’t the only feature of a performance, however. Khon was meant to entertain, and every episode includes comic interludes by fidgeting monkey-comedians, bumbling demons, or unmasked characters offering improvised and witty dialog.
Gesture is central to Khon, and great battles are won or lost at the flick of a wrist. Narrators and a chorus of singers provide dialog and song while a traditional orchestra or pipad provides musical accompaniment. As the narrator or khon pak speaks and the orchestra plays, the dancers weave their tale through a complex system of hand and body poses. Thus for a performance to be done well, there must be complete co-ordination between narrator, orchestra and dancers.
Artists are of high caliber, as most spend nine or 10 years training rigorously before they can perform in a professional troupe. They are assigned specific roles for life based on their physical characteristics, so they are well-versed in all elements of their character’s nature and movements. All aspects of Khon are executed in strict accordance with traditional guidelines in order to preserve the quality of the original. By watching Khon today, we partake in an experience shared by Thai royalty of many generations past.
Khon costumes are stunning and ornate; with glistening tunics, golden crowns, fantastical masks and jewel-encrusted accessories. The masks are worn by the majority of dancers and are finely carved and painted, each one is unique. Visually striking is the least one can say about Khon. A two hour performance is a pageant of sound, light and movement that is both captivating and uniquely Thai.
INTRIGUE AND SCANDAL
From its thematic roots in India, through its growth as a royal art during Thailand’s Ayutthaya kingdom, to its final story line developed during the reign of King Rama I, Khon boasts a brilliant past. But despite its high-bred roots, (or maybe because of them), Khon history is not without its intrigues and outrages. Perhaps the most notorious scandal occurred at the beginning of the Ratanakosin (Bangkok) era.
In the early years of the Chakri royal dynasty, both King Rama I and his brother, (second in line for the throne), had palaces in Bangkok. Befitting their status, each brother was outfitted with all royal accouterments, including a Khon troupe. At this time, theatre was presented out doors and often, these two troupes would perform together, representing the story’s opposing armies. The king’s troupe performed Phra Ram’s army, while his brother’s troupe played the roles of Tosekanth and his demons.
Unfortunately, there was simmering rivalry between the brothers, with the second king believing that he was better suited for the crown. It is recorded that in 1796, one of these performances turned into a real gun battle between opposing dancers, complete with cannon fire, death and casualties! The audience looked on in shock, and the event deepened the rift between the brothers, who remained angry with each other until their sisters managed to reunite them some time later.
Despite this and several other threats to Khon’s popularity, the art has managed to survive the centuries and maintain its popularity among Thai royalty and commoners alike. In fact, it would be difficult to overstate the cultural and artistic importance of the Ramakien in Thailand. No tale has so deeply touched the hearts and minds of the people of this nation as that of Phra Ram, Tosekanth, Hanuman and the rest.
The storyline of a Khon performance is easy to follow, with familiar themes like fidelity, fraternity, loyalty and the heroic cycle clearly depicted through gesture and dance. Audiences of all languages and ages can understand and enjoy the spectacle of dastardly demons and rambunctious monkeys, or noble lords and evil kings engage in the eternal battle of good versus evil.
Should you have the opportunity to attend a Khon performance, seize it! These productions are infrequent, but offer a window into Thai culture and myth that cannot be appreciated by pictures alone. Besides, it’s stunning and good fun!