Visitors to Thailand have ample opportunities to see bits and pieces of Thai classical dancing, be it at the Rose Garden outside Bangkok, at dinners organized by the big hotels, or even from the small group that performs at the Erawan Shrine in Bangkok. It is also easy to find replicas of the masks used in the traditional Khon performances, or costumed dolls to take home as souvenirs.
It is harder, however, to actually see an actual Khon performance, which tells the story of the Ramakian, the Thai version of the Sanskrit epic, the Ramayana.
However, a Khon troupe from Thailand's Fine Arts Department will perform extracts from the Ramayana at the Zhongshan Hall in Taipei tonight, giving local audiences a taste of a story that is well known in India and most of South and Southeast Asia.
The company, consisting of 20 dancers and a five-member pitphat orchestra, has been performing in Ilan County this week as part of the Asia-Pacific Traditional Arts Festival, sponsored by the National Center for Traditional Arts. It will also appear in Chungli tomorrow afternoon.
Khon, which can trace its origins back to Hindu temple rituals in India, began as an entertainment for the royal courts of Siam. It is a combination of finely stylized dance, acting, martial arts and acrobatics, with most of the dancers wearing elaborate costumes and hand-crafted papier-mache masks that portray their character's personality and rank. The monkey king, Hanuman, is easily recognizable by his white mask, while the demon king, Thosakan, is green-faced and wears a multi-tiered royal headdress. Prince Rama, the hero, and his wife Sita, like other humans in the play, do not wear masks, although Rama does have the traditional multi-tiered crown headdress of Thai kings.
Given that most of the actors/dancers are masked and so cannot speak, the narrative is recited by a chorus that sits with the musicians.
But you don't need to understand Thai or the Ramayana story to be able to follow the action as it's easy to comprehend. But briefly, the Ramayana tells the life story of Prince Rama — who is believed to be a reincarnation of Vishnu — and the epitome of all that is virtuous. It recounts his many battles with demons, his rescue of Sita, who had been kidnapped by the demon king of Lanka, their return to the kingdom of Ayodyha and his coronation.
Somrit Lagchai, a professor with the Fine Arts Department who has been acting as a translator for the troupe during this tour, explained that the group will be performing just a sample of the classic.
“It's one hour. Just extracts from the beginning and end of the Ramayana,” he said in a press conference last Friday.
A full continuous performance of the entire saga — which has more than 300 characters and scores of battle scenes — would take at least a month, something that even royal courts no longer have time for.
WHAT: Ramayana, performed by a Khon troupe from the Thailand's Fine Arts Department
WHEN: Tonight at 7:30pm
WHERE: Taipei Zhongshan Hall (台北市中山堂), 98 Yenping S Rd, Taipei (台北市延平南路98號). On Saturday at 2:30pm the troupe will perform in Chungli
TICKETS: Admission is free