Thai Classical Dance


The diverse arts and culture of Thailand have a fascination of their very own, and one of the most fascinating is Thai classical dance and its rituals and traditions. Visitors don’t really feel they have seen Thailand until they’ve witnessed at least one performance of Thai classical dancing–but many understand very little of what they see. It’s beautiful and it’s different, but its background escapes them.

In “A Descriptive Catalogue of the Siamese Section at the International Exhibition of Industry and Labour” held at Turin, Italy in 1911, H.M. King Vajiravudh wrote the commentary on the theatre of Siam. He classified contemporary entertainment into five types:

The Hun has survived in a different form as the Hun Krabock or marionettes; and the Nang as Nang Talung, or Shadow Play. According to the late Highness Prince Dhani Nivat, however, this Nang Talung bears no resemblance to its classical prototype except that both are exhibited on screens which are lit in such a way so as to cast the shadows. Today very few troupes of these performers remain active and the art is dying. The Lik ay is most often seen in travelling shows at temple fairs, or in rural Thailand where it is popular entertainme

King Vajiravudh 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.”

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 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.

Many of the costumes, although very beautiful, are heavy and uncomfortable–especially the female headdresses 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 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 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 sto ry, since it was already familiar to them.

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. 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.

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 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.

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 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.”

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, we aring 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, a club.

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 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 place.

Since 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.)

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 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.

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 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.

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 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.

The 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.

After 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.

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 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.

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 a nd 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 in Bangkok.

All teachers in Thailand are highly respected persons; and teachers of the classical drama 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 elaborate.

The 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).

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 arr angements and flowers.

A 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.

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 i nitiated.

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 honour.

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 i nitiation rites–only those who have been appointed by former senior teachers are allowed this honour.

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 D ay.”

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 thei r 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 head gear 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 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 Buddhist monk. (Ordinarily he should also be selected by the pa st 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 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 this country.