In earlier times there were no theatres
for public entertainment in Siam. Kings, princes, noblemen
and high-ranking officials maintained their own troupes
of classical dancers and musicians---many of them trained
at the palace. Performances were given for occasions
such as birthdays, important visitors, cremations, or
simply the wish of the patron. Theatre programmes weren't
necessary because almost all those who were invited
to attend already knew the story always portions of
Ramakian. Ordinary people found their entertainment
at temples, cremations or other special celebrations.
As recently as 1935 there were troupes of court dancers.
Many of the costumes, although very
beautiful, are heavy and uncomfortable--especially the
female head-dresses and the masks
of the male characters.
Since many roles of the Khon demand
extremely boisterous performances, the costumes are
often fitted and sewn on the dancer prior to the performance.
The different positions demanded of each character must
be posed while the fitting and sewing are being done.
This not only assures the proper drapes and folds, but
helps to avoid and embarrassing rip of a seam during
The most popular characters of males
are Totsakan (the Demon King), Rama (the Righteous King),
the Hanuman (the Monkey Warrior). Students are often
selected to train for specific roles because of their
size or build. The formalized movements of Khon performances
make the acting and dancing inseparable. Each step has
a meaning, emphasized by the appropriate music, narration
and song. Each is practiced over and over again until
it is mastered. Mom Rajawongse Kukrit Pramoj once called
the Khon training "inhuman". In many of the dances,
the head cover identifies the character being performed.
The jeweled crown head-dresses (chada) that are
worn are all much the same, but for the Khon, the mask
is the character.
Masks were not worn by Khon performers
before the Ayutthaya
period (1350-1767). Instead the faces of the characters
were painted on the dancers. Mask making evolved from
the wish to have a more permanent means of identifying
the characters; one which would retain the basic characteristics
and features, and be easily recognized. During the Ayutthaya
period, Khon performances were held in palace halls
or courtyards lighted by torches. Complete performances
of the Ramakian could continue for days. Often those
who watched would leave for a while and then return
to pick up the story, since it was already familiar
While each part of a Khon costume
has its own significance, the mask is the single most
important piece. Contrary to popular belief, masks for
each character can vary from troupe to troupe yet all
maintain the necessary identifying characteristics.
Each mask maker has a certain artistic leeway in his
interpretation, however there are certain fundamentals
of the character masks which remain constant. Blunt,
curved tusks on a demon mask signify old age; straight,
blunt tusks that point upward indicate that even though
he is a demon, he has mellowed and become kind-hearted
in old age; curved, sharp tusks are those of a middle-aged
demon and sharp pointed tusks which point downward are
those of a youthful demon.
There are other decorative details
which are used in differentiating between the masks.
Eyes of the demons are not the same as the eyes of other
characters. Demon eyes are of two types--"crocodile
eyes" with half eyelids, and bulging "fish eyes". Tusks
were formerly made of ivory, but today it's both scarce
and expensive so other materials are used in most cases.
The major distinguishing characteristics
of Khon masks are the bald head and the crowned head.
Monkey characters and soldiers of the demon army belong
to the "bald head group". Whatever other differences
may appear however, Hanuman is always white. The characters
of Rama, his brothers, gods, rishis (wise hermits),Totsakan,
his relatives and allies, and some of the generals of
the monkey army wear crowned masks. An obvious difference
between the demon and monkey masks is the long tusks
of the demons and the canine teeth of the monkeys. Some
Khon mask artisans believe the demon masks must also
have the three characteristics: round chin, a glaring
expression and eyebrow and moustache tips "in harmony."
More than 10 styles of crowns are
to be found on Khon masks. Some characters, such as
Rama and his brother Lakshman use more than one type
for their roles as the scenes change. (In modern versions
of the Khon, Rama and Lakshman may be without masks.
wearing chadas instead.) As the mask of Hanuman is always
white, the crown of Totsakan always has three tiers.
There are altogether more than 100
different demon masks used in the Khon-- these are divided
into 14 groups to avoid confusion. To avoid further
confusion, eyes and mouths are different for each character
and facial colouring is also different. If the colours
are too similar, other means of identification are used;
for instance, masks with purple faces are worn by both
Phya Thut and Khun Prachat, so to help in identifying
them properly, Phya Thut carries a lance and Khun Prahat,
Those who watch khon performances
often wonder how those wearing the masks can breathe.
Admittedly, it isn't easy. The masks have little ventilation
and they're hot. Some of the actors particularly those
in the monkey roles must perform acrobatics and somersaults
and to prevent their masks from falling off, cords are
sewn inside the masks at the mouth. These cords are
then held in the teeth of the performers to keep the
mask firmly in place.
Since the people wearing the masks
cannot speak, there is a narrator ori Khon Phak
who has not only to know his subjects, but also the
rhythm of the dancers' narrator and orchestra.(The clowns
are the only characters who speak for themselves; even
those who wear chadas do not speak.)
An artisan who makes the Khon masks
must fully understand the character and personality
of the mythological being the mask will portray. It
is said that a good mask maker requires three basic
qualifications--he must be able to draw, to sculpture
or mould well enough to prepare a model of the character,
and to be able to engrave the delicate ornamentations.
Asure and steady hand is a decided asset.
Originally models were made of wood
or clay, but some mask makers today use more modern
materials for making their models. Before an artisan
begins working on a new mask, he performs a ritual ceremony
to invite the spirits of his old teachers, the gods,
and the angels, to help him succeed at his work. The
model is then covered with several layers of Sa
paper or rapier mache. Then it is thoroughly dried.
Depending on their personal preference or method, mask
makers do only a couple of layers before drying, and
then add more material to the mould. Others prefer to
do several layers at one time, and then allow them to
dry. some of the artists also advise sticking the last
couple of layers with a glue made of flour,to which
they add a locally made insecticide. This helps to prevent
the finished masks being damaged by insects and weevils.
Quite a large number and assortment
of models are necessary--not only for the different
facial expressions added, but in addition to humans,
demons, and hermits, there is also a need sometimes
for masks of elephants, horses, and mythological animals.
After being completely dried, the
mask is cut from the mould and stitched together. The
"scar" is covered with thin paper. the mask next receives
a coating of rak samuk --a semi-hard lacquer,
to sharpen and bring out the facial lines. Making a
mask takes about seven days with most of the time taken
up by the drying stages. Most mask makers work on more
than one mask at a time, each one in a different stage
The art of mask making is usually
passed down from one generation to another; or a respected
craftsman(chang sip mu) may accept apprentices who come
to study and learn from a master and who show artistic
talent. Today the number of old masters has dwindled
and relatively few young artists aspire to the craft,
for the financial reward is small compared to the time
and experience necessary. The old-fashioned way of making
Khon masks has joined the growing list of endangered
After a Khon mask has been completed
it must be initiated in the timetested rites before
it can be worn by a performer or a dancer. Gods are
believed to give their protection to each mask and,
without the propitiative ceremonies, all sorts of disastrous
catastrophes may assail the one who dares to wear the
The completed masks must also undergo
a rite to "open their eyes"--the "Beuk Phra Netra"ceremony.
Following this ritual, the masks are always kept in
a high place as is proper for any object of reverence.
Before the first performance of a
mask it is customary for the master, or head teacher,
to personally place the new mask over the head of the
performer. It is also customary before the debut performance
of a Khon dancer for an elder or respected teacher to
place his mask on the dancer for a Monet. The senior,
standing before the novice, repeats sacred words and
presses gold leaf onto the centre of the mask's forehead.
Since performers treat their masks
with such reverence, periodic rites are held to pay
homage to the spirits of the masks. Both craftsmen and
performers look on the masks as "teachers", and therefore
worthy of respect. Khon masks are always preserved and
some that still exist are well over 100 years old. There
are in fact, masks made by King
Rama II which can be seen in the National Museum
All teachers in Thailand are highly
respected persons;and teachers of the classical drama
enjoy a special status--not only during their period
of teaching, but for their entire lifetime. Khon performers
show their esteem not only to their own teachers but
to all the elderly masters as well. Thai arts and craftsmanship
have a long and traditional history, and while all teachers
in Thailand are honored each year by a Wai Klu
ceremony, the rites of honor for teachers of the classical
and arts are very elaborate.
The annual Rite of Homage (Wai Klu)
for teachers of the arts includes a religious ceremony
which is followed by an invocation inviting the divinities
(Thevadas) to partake of the feast which has been provided
for them. An elder, usually the senior teacher or principal
of the school, presides over the ceremony. On the auspicious
day the elder is dressed entirely in white (or at least,
wears a white coat).
A Buddha image is placed on the altar
tables along with the traditional flowers, candles and
incense sticks. Another table holds the food offerings
which include a pig's head, duck and other fowl, both
cooked and popped rice, beverages, folded leaf arrangements
A Piphatorchestra plays specific
musical scores as each divinity is invited to attend
the ceremony. Following the departure of the divine
spirits, another ceremony is held to include all those
who are in attendance. All come together to form a circle
and a lighted taper is passed from person to person.
From the president, who begins the ritual, the candle
is passed from one to another until it has completed
three circuits.The rites are concluded by the president
marking the forehead of each student with a specially
prepared white paste and sprinkling each one with lustral
Novice students are not accepted for
initiation until after they have mastered both the fast
and slow tempos of the dance well enough to appear on
stage in minor roles. Some steps and postures are not
taught until after the student has been formally initiated.
Another important rite for students
comes after they are well advanced in their training,
when they are elevated to the status of teacher. From
that time, a student who continues to study and acquires
greater expertise and ability, becomes eligible for
higher rank, respect and honor.
It's not too surprising to learn that
the presiding teacher or president of the Wai Kru and
initiation rites must be a man;a female in this position
is believed to bring about grave misfortune. All male
teachers, however, are not eligible to perform initiation
rites--only those who have been appointed by former
senior teachers are allowed this honor.
Most old masters were always very
careful in choosing"worthy" pupils, and they jealously
guarded their manuscripts of the rituals. The homage
and initiation rites are always performed on a Thursday,
for in Thailand Thursday is accepted as "Teachers Day."
The performing artists and teachers
believe that the Wai Kru Day is their special day and
its observance is ethically and disciplinarily binding.
Those who consciously stay away from this rite are sinning
and drawing upon their heads the curses of their teachers.
They also go to hell after death.
The great importance of the ritual
and rites which are a part of the classical theatre
in Thailand was given added significance in October
1984, when King Bhumibol Adulyadej presided over the
presentation of Khon masks and headgear to five newly
appointed presidents of the "Traditional Paying Homage
Ceremony" for khon and dance drama.
The five senior artists ranged from
37 to 50 years of age. They were appointed by His Majesty
following the un expected death of Kru (teacher)Arkom
Sayakom who had died without preparing anyone for his
position. Anyone who achieves this prestigious position
must not only have great expertise in his field, but
must also be of the highest moral character, merit the
respect of society and have been ordained as a Buddhist
monk. (Ordinarily he should also be selected by the
past president and presented with the Prayer Book.)
As already mentioned, all Khon masks
are revered and considered sacred. This is even more
stringent for the Khon masks made especially for the
Wai Kru ceremony. Their facial expressions are different
from others, and some of these masks are entirely gilded.
Many years ago, an artisan who was
commissioned to make a Master mask was required to be
dressed all in white on the day he began work, and the
work was usually begun on a Thursday. When a Master
mask was completed the mask maker prayed to the sacred
spirits to enter the mask.
As one can easily see, there is a
lot more to the Thai Classical Dance than meets the
eye of a casual viewer. And however an 'outsider' might
view all the rituals and regulations, they do have significance
to the teacherss and performers. The traditions have
evolved over many decades and while some may have been
altered in some of their small details, they have certainly
helped in the preservation of the classical theatre
in this country.