The performance of Thai mask dancing (Khon in Thai) is a time-honoured performance which is both charming to watch and an important part of Thai society. In English it is known in many names, Khon Drama, Thai mask-dancing or more simply Khon. Previously, this kind of performance could only be seen at very special occasions, such as major national celebrations. The reason for this being, in times gone by Khon performances were only staged in front of the King whilst he was in his Palace of residence. However, Khon can now actually be performed in public places during special occasions. It is believed that Khon performances go back more than 700 years.
Khon player or performer
Being a Khon performer is not something anyone can do. To be able to be a Khon performer, one must have a high level of expertise with regards to traditional Thai dancing. Bear in mind that performances were previously staged before the king. Therefore, there was no margin for errors or mistakes on the performer’s part and each performance had to be absolutely perfect. In most cases, the performers of Khon would have been trained by the royal Thai dancing schools which were located within the palaces. This would happen so that the general public would have no knowledge of how and what the performers were being taught. Another interesting point it that the performers were all women due to the fact that in times gone by men were not allowed entrance to Royal Palace grounds.
The story of Khon
Almost all Khon performances feature episodes from the Ramakian. The Ramakian (Glory of Rama”, sometimes also spelled Ramakien) is Thailand’s national epic, derived from the Hindu epic Ramayana.
Most of the Khon performances use a version of the epic rewritten by Rama II. These were specifically rewritten to feature in Khon dramas.
While the main story is identical to that of the Hindu Ramayana, many other aspects were transposed into a Thai context, such as the clothes, weapons, topography, and elements of nature, which are described as being Thai in style. Although Thailand is considered a Theravada Buddhist society, the Hindu mythology latent in the Ramakian serves to provide Thai legends with a creation myth, as well as representations of various spirits which complement beliefs derived from Thai animism.
Introduction to Ramakian story
So what is The Ramakian (Glory of Rama”) story? Basically, this story is about a war between a god and a demon. The god is named Rama and the Demon Thossakan. They both have very powerful armies; especially Rama, who has a very powerful general, a magic monkey called Hanuman. Therefore, a Khon performance will be based on the fights of these two armies.
The present Khon performances
Nowadays, Khon has changed both in terms of its characteristics and the way it is performed. Khon dance is now taught in public art schools and anyone, who is trained properly, can perform Khon. Performances can be staged everywhere, including public halls or theatres. It is one of the most important Thai art performances. There are some aspects that remain the same as when Khon was introduced, which are the norms and tradition of the performance, the respect the performer shows towards their teachers and the story of Ramakian.