Khon dancers in Ayutthaya, Thailand, on Sep. 13, 2023 EFE/Nayara Batschke

Masks, colors, precision: the centuries-old Thai dance that unites past and present

By Nayara Batschke

Ayutthaya, Thailand, Sep 16 (EFE).- Masks, costumes, paintings and precise gestures are the elements that give rhythm to the Khon, the most traditional dance drama in Thailand that relives the journeys of the hero Rama – the incarnation of the god Vishnu – with touches of seduction, betrayal, kidnappings and epic battles.

Although its origins remain unknown, Khon became popular in the 15th century thanks to its ability to combine various artistic expressions such as dance, drama, painting, handicrafts and caricature, to stage the events of the “Ramakien,” part of the Thai literary canon and the Thai adaptation of the famous Hindu epic “Ramayana.”

Usually divided into three parts, the masked dancers personify through color, huge mechanical set characters and coordinated choreography the love stories and dangerous sea voyages of Rama, his unfortunate encounters with demons, and the triumph of good over evil.

“Khon is a traditional mask dance drama of Thailand. It has been developed at least since the 15th century and it’s considered the most important theatrical art of the country,” the dean of the Faculty of Fine and Applied Arts at Thammasat University, Anucha Thirakanont, tells EFE.

“It includes not only the dance form, but also other kinds of traditional arts, such as the costume, the mask and also the painting.”

Since 2018, Khon has been listed as UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, making it the first Thai performance art on the prestigious list as a “high art” “cultivated over centuries” with a “strong didactic function,” according to UNESCO.

Aside from being the subject of Khon performances, the Ramayana is also considered a major piece of literature in Thailand and teaches about respect for the elderly and the fight between the good and evil, “so it’s a moral lesson to our children as well,” Anucha says.

Among the various musical, vocal, literary, dance, historical and handicraft elements that make up the Khon, the elaborate masks and paintings occupy a central role.

They are the common thread that dictate the rhythm of the dance and the precision of the movements of the hands and feet of the dancers, who must be able to communicate the emotions and context of the chapters represented only through their gestures and movements.

“The expressions must be all through the gestures and dance – no facial expressions, because masks are such an important part of Khon,” says the dean.

The characters in the plays are divided into four categories: heroes or gods, heroines or goddesses, demons and monkeys. Originally, all artists used masks, but since it is a living tradition, currently only demons and monkey characters wear them.

On the other hand, as the years went by, the marked makeup began to occupy an increasingly important place in the functions, which also began to incorporate new elements and strengthen the bridge between tradition and modernity.

However, despite the adoption of innovations such as visual effects and the use of screens, Khon seeks above all to preserve the heritage of the times of the prosperous Kingdom of Ayutthaya, precursor of modern Thailand and whose development is an important part of the history of the Southeast Asian nation.

In order to preserve and travel through eight centuries of culture, all the costumes are made by hand, so each takes about two months to be completed.

Even more time is required to make the masks, the stars of this visual spectacle in which the smallest details must be harmonized to perfection.

Likewise, synchrony between dancers is essential on stage, which is why it requires years of preparation and dedication behind the scenes.

To become a professional performer, thousands of children begin training the complex dance steps and movements that make up this centuries-old art at age 13, hoping to make the jump to professional dancing six or seven years later. If they finally win a spot on stage, they will have to play the same role for life. EFE


Khon dancers and mechanical set character in Ayutthaya, Thailand, on Sep. 13, 2023 EFE/Nayara Batschke
A mechanical set Khon character in Ayutthaya, Thailand, on Sep. 13, 2023 EFE/Nayara Batschke
People working on Khon handicrafts in Ayutthaya, Thailand, on Sep. 13, 2023 EFE/Nayara Batschke