classified legitimate theatre as being two distinct types--the
Khon and the Lakon. His Majesty wrote:--"The theatre where
the Khon and Lakon are performed ... possesses the beautiful
simplicity of an ancient Greek theatre ... neither stage nor
scenery is required ... Costumes and properties however, are
very elaborate, and are made as accurately as possible. The
costumes are made to resemble those worn in Siam in olden times,
and have not changed during successive generations, because they
have been found most picturesque and suitable. Queens or royal
personages wear crowns or coronets; others have various kinds of
headdresses suitable to their rank and station. Character parts,
such as demons, monkeys, or yogis we ar distinctive masks of
different colours and designs. Each mask is a good example of
Siamese decorative art, and is distinctive and characteristic,
so that each character may at once be recognized by the mask
worn by the actor."
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 birthday, 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 the Ramakian.
Ordinary people found their entertainment at temples, cremations
or other special celebrations. As recently as 1935 there were
troupes of court dancers.
of the costumes, although very beautiful, are heavy and
uncomfortable--especially the female headdresses and the masks
of the male characters.
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 bein g
done. This not only assures the proper drapes and folds, but
helps to avoid an embarrassing rip of a seam during the action.
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 perfo rmances make the acting and dancing inseparable.
Each step has a meaning, emphasized by the appropriate music,
narration and song. Each is practised over and over again until
it is mastered. Mom Rajawongse Kukrit Pramoj once called the
khon training "inhu man". In many of the dances, the
head cover identifies the character being performed. The
jewelled crown headdresses (chada) that are worn are all much
the same, but for the khon, the
is the character.
were not worn by khon performers before the
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.
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 sto ry,
since it was already familiar to them.
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. Eac h 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 th at 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.
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 type--"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.
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 de
mons 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."
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, we
aring chadas instead.) As the mask of Hanuman is always white,
the crown of Totsakan always has three tiers.
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, a club.
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 an d
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
the people wearing the masks cannot speak, there is a narrator
or khon phak who has not only to know his subject, but also the
rhythm of the dancers' movements. A khon performance has to rely
on the proper coordination of dancers, narrator and orchestra. (The
clowns are the only characters who speak for themselves; even
those who wear chadas do not speak.)
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
mou ld well enough to prepare a model of the character, and to
be able to engrave the delicate ornamentations. A sure and
steady hand is a decided asset.
models were made of wood or clay, but some mask makers today use
more modern materials for making their models.
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 papi er 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. Other
prefer to do several layers at one time, and then add more mater
ial 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 preven
t the finished masks being damaged by insects and weevils.
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.
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 ma
sk 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 of completion.
art of mask making--and it is an art--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 num ber 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 cra fts.
a khon mask has been completed it must be initiated in the time-tested
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 disastro us catastrophies
may assail the one who dares to wear the mask.
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.
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 teache r
to place his mask on the dancer for a moment. The senior,
standing before the novice, repeats sacred words and presses
gold leaf onto the centre of the mask's forehead.
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
a nd some that still exist are well over 100 years old. There
are in fact, masks made by which can be seen in the National Museum in Bangkok.
teachers in Thailand are highly respected persons; and teachers
of the classical and
arts enjoy a special status--not only during their period of
teaching, but for their entire lifetime. Khon performers show
their est eem 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
honoured each year by a Wai Kru ceremony, the rites of honour
for tea chers of the classical drama, music and arts are very
annual Rite of Homage (Wai Kru) 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
gas been provided for then. An elder, usually the senior teac
her 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).
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
arr angements and flowers.
Piphat orchestra 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 cir cle
and a lighted taper is passed form 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 stude nt
with a specially prepared white paste and sprinkling each one
with lustral (holy) water.
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 i nitiated.
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 honour.
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 i nitiation rites--only those who have been appointed by
former senior teachers are allowed this honour.
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 D ay."
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
thei r teachers. They also go to hell after death.
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 presided over the presentation of khon
masks and head gear to five newly appointed presidents of the
"Traditional Paying Homage Ceremony" for khon and
five senior artists ranged from 37 to 50 years of age. They were
appointed by His Majesty following the unexpected death of Kru (teacher)
Arkom Sayakom who had died without preparing anyone for his
position. Anyone who achieves this prestigious p osition 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
monk. (Ordinarily he should also be selected by the pa st
president and presented with the Prayer Book.)
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
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.
one can easily see, there is a lot more to the 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 teachers 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