• The royal khon performance depicts the characters of the demon king Tosakanth and Sida.
  • The mythical bird Sadayu unsuccessfully tries to rescue Sida from Tosakanth.
  • Artisans of the Support Foundation from different fields are working together to create exquisite costumes and accessories.
  • An artisan adds intricate embroidery to the magnificent costumes.

On stage with the gods

Kingdom Grieves August 13, 2017 01:00

By Khetsirin Pholdhampalit
The Sunday Nation

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This year’s royal khon graces an outdoor stage as part of the cremation ceremony of His Majesty the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej



FOR THE past decade, the royal khon masked performance under the Support Foundation of Her Majesty Queen Sirikit has enthralled local audiences at the Thailand Cultural Centre with its graceful movements, elaborate costumes and refined scenes and props. 

The high-art performance, however, was cancelled last year due to the passing of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej. It will return this year, but as part of the traditional performances to be stage during the cremation ceremony in Sanam Luang ground on October 26 - the royal cremation day.

The royal khon performance depicts the characters of the demon king Tosakanth and Sida.

“Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn has ordered the royal khon performance initiated by HM Queen Sirikit to be performed on this special occasion. The Queen offers members of low-income families a chance to train and produce refined arts under the Support Foundation and it’s a great honour for all of us to express our deepest loyalty and gratitude and pay tribute to the late King’s enormous contributions to the country,” says Thanpuying Charungjit Teekara, private secretary to HM Queen Sirikit and chairperson of the royal khon performance.

The mythical bird Sadayu unsuccessfully tries to rescue Sida from Tosakanth.

The royal khon performance is a sort of khon chak, meaning it is performed in a theatre with the elegantly painted backdrops changing as the story proceeds. This year, the troupe will for the first time perform for two hours on an outdoor stage in the northern part of Sanam Luang.

“It’s impossible to stage a full scale khon chak outdoors, so this time we are calling it ‘semi-khon chak’. A white screen will be positioned behind the performers and we will use multivision techniques to project the scenes onto the screen. Other props such as a chariot and a celestial abode will also be added to provide a glimpse of realistic effects,” says the director Pramet Boonyachai during the recent press conference at Thonburi Art School.

A massive, hand-painted acrylic scene enhanced by intricate props shows the celestial kingdom.

“The stage at Thailand Cultural Centre is 10 by 24 metres in size, but the outdoor stage at Sanam Luang is considerably smaller,” adds production designer Sudsakorn Chaisem. 

“Four massive hand-painted acrylic backdrops from the more than 20 pieces we created for previous performances have been captured using a camera crane to get high-definition pictures and these have been adjusted on the computer to obtain a scale that fits on the outdoor white screen.”

More than 20 acrylic paintings used as the backdrops for the royal khon are carefully stored at the Support Arts and Crafts Centre in Ayutthaya’s Koh Kerd district. Each 10- by-24-metre painting normally requires four to five months to complete. The four works that will be used for this special occasion are the scenes depicting a celestial kingdom, a forest, a throne hall of the demon kingdom Lanka, and a pavilion of Phra Ram.

An artisan adds intricate embroidery to the magnificent costumes.

Back in 2005, when Her Majesty set about organising the revival of khon, one of Thailand’s oldest narrative dance forms, she assembled a research team to discover what the costumes might have looked like in the past. Once this historical evidence had been collected, she selected specialists to design new costumes to fit contemporary body forms and set in motion a series of weaving, embroidery, mask and jewellery-making workshops so that all aspects of khon costumes could be produced. 

Artisans of the Support Foundation from different fields are working together to create exquisite costumes and accessories.

Today, artisans of the Support Foundation from different fields work together as they create masks, weave textiles in different patterns and styles for particular characters, and add intricate embroidery to the magnificent costumes and sets that have been adapted to suit modern staging and the proportions of performers.

Her Majesty also commissioned a new theatrical interpretation based on what was known about earlier court versions of khon. The first show in 2007, the Ramakien’s “Episode of Prommas”, was so well received that she requested it become an annual event. 

Each year over the past decade, auditions have opened up an opportunity for young performers to take part in propagating the national heritage. The khon performance at the royal cremation ceremony will include up to 300 performers, higher than in previous shows, which have required about 200.

“Those who have participated in the previous performances are eager to be part of this special occasion to express their gratitude to the late King. They come from across the country,” Pramet says.

The refined costume to be worn by Tosakanth

There will be three stages for traditional performances scheduled from the evening and continuing until dawn during the royal cremation ceremony. The royal khon will be performed at the central stage facing the royal crematorium, though the exact time is yet to be scheduled. After the two-hour show of the royal khon, other khon performances by the Fine Arts Department, along with teachers and students from Colleges of Dramatic Arts as well as the Bunditphatthanasilpa Institute, will continue. Other traditional performing arts being staged during the ceremony include a shadow puppet, a classical court drama lakhon nai, and a dance-drama lakhon chatri. 

“We’re set to perform first at the khon stage because the three episodes we’ll showcase start from the incarnation of Rama, which is the beginning of the epic Rayamana,” Pramet explains.

A scene from the episode "The Disappearance of Sida and Rama Gains an Army”

Previous royal khon productions have brought to life other chapters from the epic Ramayana – “Nang Loi”, “The Battle of Maiyarap”, “Jong Tanon”, “The Battle of Kumbhakarn”, “The Battle of Mokasak” , “The Battle of Indrajit: Nakabas” and “The Battle of Indrajit: The Episode of Prommas”. This year’s three episodes are “The Incarnation of Rama”, “The Disappearance of Sida and Rama Gains an Army”, and “Expulsion of Pipek”.

The monarch is highly revered as a divine king, a tradition influenced by Hinduism. In accordance with this traditional belief, the first episode tells the story of Rama or Phra Ram – a reincarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu. 

The curtain will rise on the heavens as a group of five hermits come to visit the god Shiva and ask Vishnu, the god of protection, to incarnate as Phra Ram to fight against the demons. This act will talk about the power of goodness and how it protects against the power of evil.

“A traditional piphat orchestra will perform the prelude naphak damnoen brahma in the scene where the hermits visiting the god Shiva. This naphak was written by Phraya Natakanurak, the head of the royal khon department in the reign of King Rama VI, and is very rarely staged,” Pramet said.

Sida and Tosakanth

The next episode “The Disappearance of Sida and Rama Gains an Army” talks about Phra Ram’s banishment to the forest with his wife Sida, an incarnation of the goddess of wealth and prosperity Lakshmi, and his brother Phra Lak. The demon king Tosakanth later kidnaps Sida and takes her to the demon kingdom, Lanka. Phra Ram enlists the help of the monkeys led by Hanuman to search for Sida and battle ensues.

The last one, “Expulsion of Pipek”, talks about Pipek – a younger brother of Tosakanth and an excellent astrologist – who prophesises that Sida will cause the destruction of the demons and advises Tosakanth to return Sida to her husband promptly. But Tosakanth doesn’t believe him and Pipek is later expelled from Lanka. He later joins Phra Ram’s army.

“Pleng waa – the prelude to the scene set in the throne hall of the demon kingdom Lanka – is truly special because it was composed with verses by National Artist Khunying Paitoon Kittiwan. Another highlight is the rabam scene where an ensemble of deities dance to praise Pipek for his righteousness,” adds Pramet. “The key message of Ramayana epic is that virtue always wins over evil and we want to convey that message to viewers.”

Over the past decade, the Support Foundation has created more than 1,000 costumes for the royal khon performances. For this special occasion, more than 70 artisans have been hard at work crafting the 50 new costumes required. 

“We’ve never made costumes like those for the gods Vishnu and Shiva. White is the dominant colour for Shiva’s costumes while those of Vishnu are purple with an intricate motif inspired by the traditional flame-like kanok pattern,” adds costume designer Veeratham Taragoolngernthai.

The exquisite royal khon costumes and ornaments for this special performance are expected to be ready by next month. The performers will come together to rehearse at the Salaya College of Dramatic Arts from October 19 to 21 and move to the real stage at Sanam Luang from October 22 to 23.