• Students who attend the khrop ceremony are expected to be respectful and show gratitude to the masters.
  • Khon masters perform a traditional Thai sacred ceremony to indoctrinate the performers.

A sacred khon initiation

Art November 19, 2018 01:00

By Kupluthai Pungkanon
The Nation

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The cast of this year's khon performance take part in the sacred indoctrination ceremony known as khrop



AS PART of their preparations for a month of marathon three-hour performances of the khon masked drama “The Allegiance of Phiphek” continuing this week, young art students recently underwent a spirit-boosting sacred indoctrination ceremony known as khrop. 

Classical performers and the youngsters learning the craft need to be steeped in a profound knowledge of their characters and the skills needed to bring them to life. On completing the intense training, though, they don’t merely receive certificates. Students and teachers bond even more deeply with one another in a ceremony in which homage is paid to the “master”.

Students who attend the khrop ceremony are expected to be respectful and show gratitude to the masters.

It is the master of khon who is revered as being responsible for all of the lessons imparted over the course of many generations. 

The episode of the Ramakien chosen for this year’s performance, “The Allegiance of Phiphek”, was selected because of the nobility displayed by the main character, Phiphek. A fierce demon exiled by his older brother, the great demon king Tosakanth, Phiphek joins Phra Ram’s army and earns Phra Ram’s trust with his honesty. 

In his grand demonstration of allegiance can be read the loyalty of Thais towards King Maha Vajiralongkorn, as well as the importance of honesty and morality, virtues that are instilled in khon students.

That’s the stirring interpretation by the show’s director, Pramet Boonyachai, a khon artist himself. Before the show debuted last month, he took students and his performers to pay respects to the masters at the Salaya campus of the Bunditpatanasilpa Institute in Nakhon Pathom. 

“The full ceremony in which we pay homage to the masters of khon, lakhon and traditional music includes the sacred indoctrination ceremony called khrop, which has held great importance ever since the olden days,” Pramet says. 

“The masters honoured are not only the teachers but also every deity involved. There are the old masters and performers of the past who earned fame in every aspect of specific performances. 

“This practice of paying respect to the masters is continuously exercised from generation to generation.” 

Khon masters perform a traditional Thai sacred ceremony to indoctrinate the performers.

An elder master presides – usually male and always senior and morally virtuous. He reads the designated text of homage and invites the gods to attend. In the appointed venue are a Buddha image and the masks depicting Ganesha, Rishi and Phra Phirap.

According to legend, the Rishi mask is a personification of Phra Bharata, who composed the original treatise on the art of dancing. In the epic poem the Ramakien, Rishis are both masters and patrons of all the characters. 

The Phra Phirap mask is the most important for music and drama performers. In King Rama I’s rendition of the Ramakien, Phra Phirap is a demon deity who looks after a mountainside forest where a tree issues golden rose apples. 

Empowered in his duties by Phra Agni, the god of fire, and Phra Samud, the god of the ocean, he strikes terror into the hearts of angels.

The khrop ceremony begins with the presentation of auspicious offerings – jackfruit, banana and sugarcane and the desserts thong yib, thong yod and foi thong. Ritual music is played, followed by the recitation of verses and prayers for the success of every performance. 

Afterwards, the chairman anoints the students’ foreheads with oil and places the masters’ masks on the crowns of their heads. 

“Students are only indoctrinated once they’ve passed basic instruction and reach age 16 or 17, which is considered mature enough to do what is right, to do no wrong, and to be capable of becoming an artist,” Pramet explains. 

“There’s also the sacred khrop kru ceremony for advanced learners who’ve already been performing for some time and are moving on to the master level themselves. The khrop ceremony is essentially for the performance students, who until then are considered immature.”

Students who attend the khrop ceremony are expected to be respectful and show gratitude to the masters. 

In this season’s khon Performance, Yarnawut Traisu- wan, 21, a fourth-year student at the Bunditpatanasilpa Institute, has the lead role of Phiphek. 

This is the fourth khon performance he’s been involved in and he firmly believes that paying respect to the masters will bring him good fortune on the stage.

“I’ve been learning about khon since I was in Grade 7 at the College of Dramatic Arts in Nakhon Si Thammarat and I’ve always been drawn into the demon character, who to me is very interesting,” Yarnawut says. 

“He has a key role in the epic because he’s the one who causes the war. 

“But in playing the demons and monkeys, which wear full masks that hide their facial expressions, you have to convey your character’s feelings to the audience using only highly refined dancing and gestures. In this episode, Phiphek has a big scene that involves showing his sadness. I have to get that across from behind the mask.

Yarnawut Traisuwan, left, as Phiphek

“I like it that Phiphek is the virtuous demon. His movements are more discerning and graceful than those of the others, yet they’re still bold. But I’m also grateful for everyone else’s efforts – the amazing scenes, the narrators and musicians – everyone contributes to a successful show.”

The Support Foundation has in the past decade presented seven episodes of the Ramakien. Her Majesty the Queen is the official patron and guiding light of the annual performance.

Khon is universally regarded as Thailand’s greatest form of theatre and the performances each year ensure that the exquisite craftsmanship behind the masks and costumes, as well as the wonderful traditions in dance and gesture, are preserved for future generations to enjoy. 

>> The Foundation for the Promotion of Supplementary Occupations and Related Techniques (Support) is presenting “The Allegiance of Phiphek” Tuesday through Sunday each week until December 5 at the Thailand Cultural Centre.

>> Seats cost Bt420 to Bt1,820 (Bt200 for students) at Thai Ticket Major outlets, (02) 262 3456 and www.ThaiTicketMajor.com. 

>> Find out more on the “Khon Performance” Facebook page.