From Classical to Popular Arts
the purely classical form, Thai drama and dance
The khon masked drama is derived
from Indian temple rituals and dancing and draws its story
line from the Ramakian,
the Thai version of the Indian epic Ramayana. During
Ayutthaya period, the khon was acted by accomplished
male court retainers playing both male and female roles because
until the 19th century the movements were thought too strenuous
for women to perform. By the mid 1800's both men and women
were appearing on stage together.
performances are characterized by vigorous, highly-formalized
action. Acting and dancing are inseparable, each step having
a definite meaning which is emphasized by precisely defined
to suggest walking, marching, laughing, etc. Because some
actors and actresses are masked and cannot speak, narrative
verses are usually recited and sung by a chorus that sits
with the accompanying woodwind, gong, and drum ensemble. The
leading male and female performers do not wear masks
and on some occasions they may speak.
The ornate papier mache masks, decorated
with gold, lacquer, and paste jewels, are works of art and
perfectly portray the protagonists' personalities. Costumes
are made of rich brocades adorned with sparkling costume jewellery
and closely resemble the apparel of royalty and celestial
beings in classical Thai mural paintings.
Major characters are readily identifiable by the predominant
colours of their costumes. Phra Ram, the hero, wears
deep green, while his brother, Phra Lak, wears gold
and the monkey-god Hanuman wears white.
Khon productions were originally
so long more than 20 hours that performances were staged on
two consecutive days. Indeed, a performance of the entire
Ramakian [with 311 characters ] would take more than one month
[720 hours plus] of continuous performance.
King Rama II's shorter version of the epic is used for
dramatic purposes and contemporary adaptations of certain
episodes are as short as three hours.
Lakhon dance drama is less formal
and actors, with the exceptions of monkeys, ogres, and other
non-human, non-celestial beings, do not wear masks, Lakhon
plots are drawn mainly from the Ramakian, the Jatakas, and
folk stories, Khon and Lakhon costumes are identical,
but Lakhon dance movements are more graceful, sensual,
and fluid, the upper torso and hands being particularly expressive
with conventionalized movements portraying specific emotions.
Lakhon is subdivided into numerous
variation, the major three being Lakhon Chatri, Lakhon Nok,
and Lakhon Nai. Simplest of all in form and presentation,
Lakhon Chatri is often seen at popular shrines, such as Bangkok's
Luk Muang [City Pillar] where dancers are hired by
supplicants whose wishes have been granted to perform for
the shrine deity.
Lakhon Nai drama was originally presented
only by court ladies in the palace. It was graceful, romantic,
and highly stylized. Lakhon Nok plays, on the other
hand, were performed outside the palace and acted only by
men. Filled with lively music, off-colour humor, and rapid,
animated movements, Lakhon Nok was the ancestor of
the enormously popular Li-ke folk theater which is still a
feature of many provincial festivals.
Li-ke, a burlesque of Lakhon
containing elements of pantomime, comic folk opera, and social
satire, is generally performed against a simply painted backdrop
during temple fairs. Its court-derived stories are embellished
with local references and anecdotes, and spontaneous dialogue
is freighted with outrageous puns and double entendres.
Two neglected dramatic forms are Nang
Yai shadow play and hun marionettes, both regular
forms of entertainment in Ayutthaya.
In Nang Yai, intricately fashioned cowhide figures, some two
metres tall, are held against a brilliant backlit white screen.
Bearers of the figures dance their parts, the movements of
which were later to provide the pattern for Khon and Lakhon.
The Nang Talung, a more popular shadow
play found mainly in the south
of Thailand, closely resembles the Indonesian Wayang.
Beautifully fashioned Nang Talung figures are smaller
than their Nang Yai counterparts and are often constructed
to have one moveable part-an arm, a leg, or a chin. Concealed
from audience, the manipulators are skilled singers and comedians
whose repartee keeps the action bubbling.
Hun marionettes, seldom seen today,
are superbly crafted figures which differ from European marionettes
in that they are manipulated from concealed threads pulled
from below rather than above. A more popular version is Hun
Krabok [literally "cylindrical model"] which are similar
to Punch and Judy style hand puppets.