Fears of khon's decline are eased by a surge of student interest
Last week’s audition for a khon performance of the “Jong Tanon” (“The Building of the Causeway”) episode from the Ramakien coming up in November drew 646 students ages 13 to 22.
The fact that there were only five roles on offer didn’t seem to cool their enthusiasm – surely a delight for Her Majesty the Queen, who has called for strenuous efforts to preserve Thailand’s traditional masked dance.
The panel of judges included Thanpuying Charungjit Teekara and ML Piyapas Bhirombhakdi of the Mask Play, National Artists Prasit Pinkaew, Rajjana Puangprayong and Jatuporn Rattanawaraha and producer Pramet Boonyachai.
From an impressive array of talent, they could only select five students for the show – in important though not leading roles.
Jarupong Chantree of the Bangkok College of Dramatic Art was picked to play a Demon. The other four students all attend the Bunditpatanasilpa Institute at various campuses – Weerapatra Jaengsawang will be Nang, Bhukit Pasunan will play Phra (khon), Thanes Pakwiset will be a Monkey warrior and Suwimol Semapru will be Phra (lakorn).
Twelve other students were named as understudies and several more will fill minor roles.
Her Majesty’s Support Foundation is mounting this production in honour of her 80th birthday, promising an entrancing show with top performers from the government’s Office of Music and Drama and Fine Arts Department and previously unseen techniques in staging, sound, lighting and costumes.
Scenes of romance and conflict deep in the ocean can only add to the popularity of khon’s recent “revival” at the Queen’s direction. Thanpuying Charungjit said Her Majesty is thrilled to see this part of our heritage being given fresh impetus.
“She’s determined that the younger generation will inherit the national culture. This audition, for example, offered an opportunity to those with basic talents in the Thai dramatic arts and the ability to understand the role. They also need to demonstrate a good personality for khon.”
Auditions for the Support Foundation’s earlier khon productions drew far fewer applicants, Charungjit said, “so I’m really happy, and I know all the dramatic-arts masters are too. Everyone is ready and willing to create the best possible production.”
She said the students who missed out this year shouldn’t be discouraged. “There’ll be another performance next year – we’ll stage the ‘Suek Wirun Jampung’ episode.”
As for the selected students, it’s almost needless to say that they’re proud and honoured to be part of the pageant, in which they’ll perform for the Queen. They all said they’ve never regretted choosing to learn the traditional arts despite knowing there’ll never earn high wages doing this professionally.
Suwimol, who’s been studying khon for nine years, called the audition a great opportunity to test her skills. She believes it’s the duty of young people to honour their culture inheritance. Weerapatra’s sole reason for pursuing her studies is that she’s always loved khon.
Producer Pramet pointed out that khon is complicated, demanding years of practice.
“I used to ask my young students why they came to my class rather than pursuing some other subject that was bound to make more money in the end. Most of them said they wanted to keep the national heritage alive. So when I heard Her Majesty remark that khon artists were becoming scarce, I knew we had to take care of those we had and find more.
“It makes me very proud that the Queen truly understands the lifestyle of our traditional artists, and doubly proud that so many young people from across the country came out for the audition.”
In the Ramakien – the Thai version of India’s epic poem the Ramayana – the episode “Jong Tanon” opens with Prince Rama’s council of war. He has led his monkey army from to an encampment across the sea from Langka City.
They aim to bridge the watery gulf by building a causeway of stones. Rama puts Sukhreep in charge and the monkey captains Hanuman and Nilaphat are to share the task of piling boulders into the ocean.
It’s a doomed partnership: Nilaphat is bent on punishing Hanuman for forcing his leader, Lord Maha Chomphoo, into Rama’s service. When Hanuman implores Nilaphat to ease the first boulders over to him to place in the sea, Nilaphat instead issues a challenge: However many rocks are delivered, they must be caught. He proceeds to inundate his rival with huge rocks.
When it’s his turn to collect the boulders, Hanuman attaches a multitude of rocks to his fur and then pours them on Nilaphat, who has to use his feet as well as his hands to accommodate so many – a horrendous display of bad manners. Hanuman takes the use of the feet as a personal affront and the monkey warriors come to blows until Sukhreep separates them.
When Rama hears the clash, he has the offenders brought before him to be judged. As his punishment, Hanuman must complete the causeway alone.
He’s halted in his labours when Thothsakan sends his half-mermaid daughter, the ravishing Suphanna-Matcha, to carry away the rocks as fast as the monkey pours them in. Hanuman and Suphanna-Matcha then fall in love, engage in an undersea romance and marry, with the new bride agreeing to replace the rocks.
Rama and his monkey troops cross over to Langka and engage Thothsakan’s sons from 10 minor wives in a Great War. The Sip Khun are slain and Rama wounds Thothsakan with a magic arrow.
As the sun sets, the warring armies cease for the night.
GRAB A SEAT
“Jong Tanon” (“The Building of the Causeway”) will be performed at the Thailand Cultural Centre from November 2 to 30.
Tickets cost Bt420 to Bt1,520 at ThaiTicketMajor.
One performance is reserved for students, with tickets costing Bt120.