Khon dance is the most popular theater art form in Thailand. And Khon masks play a vital role in the performance of this unique dance. Being a special form of Thai folklore, similar to Kabuki – the traditional theater form of Japan, Khon has been performed in many important social events. However, like many other old traditions, this art dance is struggling to survive. A culture carries its own characteristics and Khon mask can be seen as the representative image of Thai culture.
Khon mask on the stage…
Khon dance drama has a long history. It is a different version of the famous Indian epic Ramayana. In this drama, dance and performance are the two inseparable components, each step will bring a certain sense as the action running, jumping, laughing, parading – all of them are accompanied by music. Before the 19th century, Khon actors were mainly men. Then, women began participating in the roles. The actors often wear Khon mask and do not say anything. The stories and dialogues are undertaken by a choir backstage.
A Khon mask is exquisitely painted. It is the deciding factor of beautiful costumes used in the classical dance form of Thailand.
Making a Khon mask
Though the masks play an important role in Khon drama, the traditional job of making masks is increasingly endangered. The young no longer are patient enough to spend a whole year studying to make masks. That is the reason why there are very few workshops producing Khon mask in Thailand. One of few existing production workshops in Thailand is owned by the artist Prateep Rodpai in Angthong, 100km far away from Bangkok. Visiting here, visitors can admire papier materials and artists making this traditional mask.
Types of Khon mask
Khon mask is separated into five categories: demons, monkeys, deities, humans and animals. Khon masks of human and deity look like the face of a human being, reflecting the vitality and energy. In contrast, demon masks seem to be aggressive. The masks of monkeys and other animals are manipulated according to two categories. The first type of mask covers the entire face. The second type is like a hat with the animal’s head. Monkey masks are often decorated in a complex way with many accessories to help distinguish the characteristics of each character. Animal masks often have their own natural appearances. Human masks include masks of Phra Ram and three brothers, all wearing a “monkutyod bottle” – a hat with many layers. Phra Ram mask has a green face. PhraLak’s is yellow; Phra Bhrot’s is red while Phra Satarud’s is purple.
A handmade Khon mask is created in a very sophisticated and meticulous way. The price for each one is about $120. A Khon mask of good quality takes up to 10 days to complete. Khon mask is a unique souvenir for tourists or an eye-catching ornament for many restaurants or hotels in Thailand.
H.H. Prince Dhaninivat and Dhanit Yupho stated that: “The mask is perhaps the most important characteristic of the Khon, for through it more than any other agency one distinguishes the variety of roles” (Bridhyakorn and Yupho 1962, p.12). That quote is enough for travelers to understand the importance of Khon mask in this theater art form of Thailand. So if you accidentally see a Khon mask somewhere, remember that it is symbolic a rich culture of this Southeast Asian country.