Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Thailand’s classical masked dance, Khon

The Khon Performance of the Prommas
The Khon Performance of the Prommas
The classical Thai masked dance drama known as Khon is the highest form of dance drama found in traditional Thai performance. Dancers dressed in elaborate costumes and wearing brightly colored masks and headdresses perform the beautifully controlled dance movements that describe the Khon drama.

An elegant characterization of the eternal struggle between the forces of good and evil, the story told in the Khon is based upon the Thai legend of the Ramakien. Set to the mystical rhythms of traditional Thai music the story is narrated as the Khon performers skillfully depict the abduction of Prince Rama's beautiful wife Sita by the giant demon King Totsakan and portray how the brave Prince (aided by the monkey warrior Hanuman) defeats the demons and successfully rescues his Princess. Each movement portrayed has a specific meaning which is emphasized by the Khon’s narrative together with the rhythms and timings of the music and verse performed during the drama.


The dance consists of four basic sets of characters: male, female, monkeys and demons. The tradition of wearing papier mache masks during the Khon was not introduced until around three hundred years ago, before then the characters were painted on to the faces of the dancers. However today, while each part of a Khon costume has its own significance, the mask is the single most important piece. There are around ten styles of crown to be found in Khon and more than 100 different demon masks.

The style of mask for each character may vary slightly depending upon the sculptor, but there are certain fundamentals which remain constant, for example the monkey warrior Hanuman will always be shown in white. There are other decorative details which are used in differentiating the masks. The eyes of the demons will be different from those of other characters; demon eyes are traditionally of two types: with half eyelids like those of a crocodile or bulging eyes like those of a fish. Although some of the differences in the masks are quite subtle, there is one basic difference that will be obvious to everyone: the good characters wear masks with elaborate crowns, while the masks for the villains are bald headed and have large, fearsome tusks.  Click here to go to my article on the "Performance of the Promas".

The Khon Performance of the Prommas
The Khon Performance of the Prommas

Each Khon performance involves a wide spectrum of Thai artists including: narrators, performers, dancers, musicians, mask-makers, embroiderers, goldsmiths, silversmiths and theatrical makeup artists to name just a few. Owing to the huge expense involved in creating a Khon dance they were originally only performed in the royal court. However, in order to preserve the art of Khon and to give new generations the opportunity to appreciate this important national heritage, the Thais have worked hard to make Kohn performances more accessible to the public. So the next time you visit Bangkok be sure to take a trip to the Thailand Cultural Centre so that you can witness the magic art of a Khon performance for yourself.

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