Valmiki’s Ramayana is quite possibly one of the most important works of Eastern literature and its Thai version, Ramakien, has permeated the fabric of Thai culture. The epic’s main protagonists are King Rama, the just ruler of Ayutthaya and his wife Sita. It narrates the tale of King Rama‘s battle with the evil, represented by the dreaded evil Ravana, or Tosakanth – as in any classic drama, the main theme is the victory of good over evil. A staged Khon performance has a different perspective – instead of revolving around the main protagonists and antagonist, the centre stage is taken by the monkey king Hanuman, the main sidekick of King Rama in the epic.
The stalwart Hanuman helps Rama on his mission to rescue Sita from the clutches of Tosakanth. Hanuman on his way to Longka, the legendary kingdom of Tosakanth, encounters demons, mythical creatures, and gods (not to mention some very intriguing mortals as well). He must use his ingenuity and intelligence to overcome the myriad obstacles in his path. Hanuman is the paradigm of the clever warrior who uses his wits to survive, outwits Tosakanth and helps King Rama in his final battle with the demons.
As I settle into my seat for a Khon performance, I feel a sense of anticipation, as the witty and brave Hanuman is my personal favourite character in the epic. As the overture begins and the “piphat” orchestra with an assortment of the xylophone type instruments, gongs and drums starts to play, its sounds floats over a hushed audience. The magical journey has already begun.
The curtain rises to reveal a vivid, bright set with a large-scale ‘story book’ centre-stage. The Khon soloist begins reciting the story, bringing the illustrated character to life. The dancers that seemingly glide to the stage are the epitome of grace, their expressive hand gestures and eye movements conveying the story. The appearance of Hanuman, wearing a white ornate mask and an elaborate costume, assures that this rendition of the escapades of the monkey king would definitely be one to catch the imagination of the viewers.
The scene depicts Hanuman, who on his way to join King Rama‘s army, spots the garden of Phra Uma, the consort of Lord Shiva. Our hero goes on a rampage destroying the beautiful garden by uprooting the trees and throwing the fruits. His behaviour enrages Phra Uma, who curses him and reduces his power by half. She tells Hanuman the curse will vanish only after King Rama touches his back thrice. The roles of Phra Uma and Hanuman are portrayed by the dancers with great sensitivity, fine technique, and a memorable and beautifully choreographed scene.
The drama continues as Hanuman carries on with his journey to Longka. Sita who is in Tosakanth’s captivity and in despair, is preparing to hang herself when Hanuman enters the scene, he pleads her to stop and offers to take her away on his palm. Sita refuses and instead instructs Hanuman to go to King Rama to ask him to rescue her; Hanuman gives her his promise and on his way back kills Tosakanth’s offspring. During this scene, the whole stage is set alight with demons in dark green and blue masks and glittering costumes in a fierce battle with Hanuman who deftly defeats and kills them all.
With the charm and wit that he is renowned for, Hanuman manages to get the box with Tosakanth’s heart from Richi, the keeper of the demon’s life source. In the final battle, the two adversaries, King Rama and Tosakanth, meet in a fierce duel. Hanuman deals the final blow to Tosakanth by destroying his heart and Rama’s special arrow sees the end of the demon. In this explosive scene the dancers display agility, acrobatic skills and intense knowledge of martial arts.
All’s well that ends well… The demons are defeated and killed by King Rama‘s army, and King Rama bestows his blessings on Hanuman by appointing him the ruler of the mythical Nopburi. The coronation of Hanuman in the final scene transforms the stage to a dazzling world of glorious colours, stunning effects and stimulating music.
Khon is a spectacular visual feast and the audience’s attention is constantly stimulated by the eclectic parade of characters: princesses, kings, queens, gods, monkeys and demons. The emotions of the larger-than-life characters before me and the new-found vibrancy of each scene make this a memorable performance. The Khon dancers manage to bring a sumptuous and traditional story of the Ramakien to life and their accomplishment, grace, and vivacity charm the audience into an enthusiastic show of appreciation.
Khon at theaters
This classical art combines three ‘schools’ of traditional performing arts — Chak Nak Duek Damban, Krabi Krabong (a form of martial arts) and Nang Yai shadow play. Khon is partly derived from Lakhon Nai, the stage drama performed in the royal courts.
There are two main theaters in Bangkok putting together a spectacular episode grouping 50+ performers who, elaborately dressed, act traditional dancing, acrobatics and singing. These performances are world-class spectacles that introduce both foreigners and new generations of Thais to the exquisite art of traditional dance, music and drama.