THAI THEATER AND THE PERFORMING ARTS: KHON, LAKHON, LIKAY “FOLK OPERETTA” AND NORA

THEATER AND THE PERFORMING ARTS IN THAILAND

Theater and the performing arts in Thailand embraces classical dance drama such as khon based on epics such as the Indian Ramayana (Ramakian in Thai) as well as more modern plays. Drama, like books and art, was once confined to the royal palaces but in the last century has expanded beyond that and is now enjoyed by a wider audience in a less controlled form, which incorporates Western elements. The Thai people accepted Westernization in all areas, including the arts, on their own terms as a pragmatic necessity and not as something imposed by foreigners. For example, modern techniques in set and costume designs, makeup, lighting, sound systems, and theater construction were combined with traditional drama such as the khon. Thai monarchs beginning with King Mongkut initiated and led this modernization. King Bhumibol not only continued this movement but also widened its scope in an effort to make regional art forms an integral part of the Thai national identity. [Source: Library of Congress]

Royal patronage of classical forms of dance drama (known as natasin ) has preserved some dance drams in their original form for centuries. The two major forms of Thai classical dance drama are khon and lakon nai . In the beginning both were exclusively court entertainments and it was not until much later that a popular style of dance theater, Likay, evolved as a diversion for the common folk who had no access to royal performances. Although traditional Thai performing arts are not as actively embraced as they once were, suffering from competition from modern and western entertainments and generally changing tastes, they are still very much alive.

The classical central Thai style of dance drama has been maintained since of 1930s by the Witthayalai Natasin or College of Dance and Music with its several branches around the country, and by the National Theatre in Bangkok. The technique is canonised in manuals, of which the earliest existing are the early Bangkok period manuals preserved at the National Library of Thailand.

See Separate Article on THAI DANCE: CLASSICAL, FOLK AND REGIONAL DANCES OF THAILAND

Regional Music, Dance and Performing Arts in Thailand

Thais in the central plains are primarily rice farmers who live along rivers and canals. They lead simple lives tilling the land and tending paddy fields. Their simple entertainment forms relate to the rice cycle or religious functions, as relief from hard work or to celebrate occasions such as the completion of a successful harvest. The events are joyful and entertaining, with rousing songs and joyous dances for everyone to enjoy, such as the Sickle Dance, or it may be a night of singing duets, when men and women sing humorous dialogues, to the accompaniment provided by folk instruments such as drums, cymbals, and sticks. [Source: Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department]

Moreover, there are classical performing art forms requiring high-level ability and dedicated training, such as the traditional music ensembles, the classical puppet theater, lakhon (stage play), and khon (classical masked dance), formerly presented as entertainment in the royal court. Khon performances always feature episodes from the Ramakian, the Thai version of the Ramayana, which is clear evidence off Indian influence.

The northern dances are based on the fon style of the Lan Na Kingdom, highlighting the gentle and graceful movements of female dancers, normally in large groups, all clad in beautiful local garments, dancing to the rhythms of folk instruments. On the male side, their famous victory drum dance highlights their strength and boosts the morale of the people. It is performed by strong Thai men, who pound on the big drums with sticks and even various parts of their bodies, including their shoulders, elbows, kneecaps, and head.

The performing art of the Northeasterners is lively and funfilled, such as the soeng, using various implements from the daily lives of the sticky-rice eaters as part of the show, such as soeng kratip (a dance with steamed rice containers), soeng sawing (fish traps), or soeng yae khai mot daeng (sticks for digging out eggs from ant nests). Along with being very entertaining, the dances provide insight into the traditional lifestyle of the people of Isan. A well-known Isan performance is mo lam , with male and female experts reciting stories to the tune of folk instruments played in ensembles, especially the reed pipe instrument, kaen; the one-string instrument, phin; and the wooden xylophone with the bars tied together in a row, pong lang. The pong lang is widely used in folk song recitation, folk dances, and other performances.

Khon

Khon is the name of traditional Thai masked dance drama. Originating in the 16th century, it evolved had in hand with the Ramakien, the Thai version of the Indian-Hindu Ramayana. Knon stories revolve around the epic account of the abduction of Nang Sida (Sita) , the wife of the god-king Phra Ra (Rama), by the wicked king Thotsakan (Ravana, the evil King of Lanka).

A refined and elegant art form combining elements of theater and dance, Khon features ornate costumes and magnificent paper-mache masks and stylized gestures. It is regarded as a traditional “high” art form developed to entertain the royal family. It was once considered so strenuous that only men could perform it. Styles and performances vary according to different regions of the country.

Khon Dance is the most stylized form of Thai dance. It is performed by troupes of non-speaking dancers, the story being told by a chorus at the side of the stage. Choreography follows traditional models rather than attempting to innovate. Costumes are dictated by tradition, with angels (both good and bad) wearing coloured masks.

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, an expert on Asian dance at the Finnish Theatre Academy, wrote: “Khon is one of the most spectacular forms of Southeast Asian dance-drama. It can involve over a hundred actors, a large piphad orchestra, narrators, singers, and a chorus. Khon is often described as ’masked pantomime’. This is an apt term, for the khon actors do not speak their lines. They only enact their characters on stage by using expressive gestures and the whole vocabulary of Thai classical dance, while embodying characters solely from the Ramakien epic. Khon employs decorative, painted and gilded papier maché masks covering the whole heads of the dancers enacting the demon and monkey roles. The masks and the glittering court and military dresses, different types of crowns, ornaments and attributes are still today believed to reflect the Ayutthaya-period prototypes. [Source:Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance, Theatre Academy Helsinki, xip.fi/atd/thailand/early-periods ]

Origin of Khon

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Finnish Theatre Academy wrote: “One of the standard topics of Thai theatre studies is the origin of khon. Rama II (1809–1824) has often been mentioned as its creator, but it is now believed to be much older. The first written reference to this genre is an account of a khon play recorded by a French delegation visiting Ayutthaya in 1691. According to an inscription it was performed among other forms of entertainment in the early 18th century and since then it has regularly been mentioned in textual sources, such as royal decrees.[Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance, Theatre Academy Helsinki]

“Nang yai shadow theatre has often been regarded as one possible source of khon. This view is based on the fact that it is known that there existed a specific form of khon, which was performed in front of a screen, similar to the white muslin screen used in nang yai. This could, of course, explain the many similarities which khon and nang yai share. They both employ the same kinds of archaic verse, movement techniques, and characterisation. This could also explain one of the main characteristics of khon dance. The dancers tend to stand still in their decorative poses for longer periods and there is a clear tendency for silhouette-like attitudes and tableaux, corresponding to those depicted in the nang yai figures. [Ibid]

“Another approach to try to decipher the birth of khon is connected to ancient ritual performances, such as Chak Nak Dukdamban (lit. pulling a giant serpent), which was performed in connection with coronation ceremonies. In this grandiose ceremony, also known as Indraphisekha, military officers and civil officials dressed as demon and monkey characters of the Ramakien enact the scene of the Hindu creation myth, Churning of the Milky Ocean. It is known to have already taken place during the Ayutthaya period. Similar kinds of rituals were also performed at other Southeast Asian courts, for example at the courts of Pagan, in Angkor, and in East Java. A third source of khon, or at least for some of its movement techniques, may have been the krabi krabong or sword and baton dance, which is mentioned in an inscription as early as 1458. It employed the open-leg position and was accompanied by music. It was trained by princes and noblemen in order to learn the skills of martial arts.” [Ibid]

Early History of Khon

The dress and the manner of the khon dance have their origins in the ceremonial game of chak nag which literally translates as 'pull the Multi-headed serpent'. These performances, which celebrated coronations, usually involved parades in which a seven-headed serpent was pulled by hundreds of performers dressed as demons, soldiers, deities and monkey soldiers from the Ramakien epic. [Source: Farang News, June 1, 2006]

During the Ayutthaya period, Khon performances were held in palace halls or courtyards and were lighted by torches. The performances that presented the whole Ramakian lasted for several days. Since the story was already familiar, the audience could leave for a while and then return to pick it up at another stage. [Source: artsonlocation.net/about_khon

In 1767, with the destruction of Ayutthaya by the Burmese, almost all the works of Thai literature were lost. King Taksin of Thonburi composed a lakhon version dealing with the adventures of the white monkey Hanuman and story of Phra Ram's son, Mongkut. Later, the first monarch of the Bangkok period, King Rama I initiated the task of collection all available materials from all the available materials that had survived since the fall of Ayutthaya in 1767, with chosen court poets, composed the most comprehensive literary version of the Ramakien. The 30,000-line work was completed in 1798. [Source: Farang News, June 1, 2006]

Later History of Khon

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Finnish Theatre Academy wrote: “The main changes in the khon tradition have been in stagecraft and scenery. Khon plays were originally performed outdoors without props or sets, but in the nineteenth century, along with the increased popularity of realism and the new Western-style theatre houses, khon plays began to be performed on a Western-type proscenium stage with illusionistic, fairytale-like scenery. Modern lighting techniques are also used, including spots and now even laser lights. [Source:Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance, Theatre Academy Helsinki, xip.fi/atd/thailand/early-periods ]

“Some attempts to reform khon drama do not involve its outward forms but its content. The Ramakien is a large work of literature, and the khon plays usually illustrate only single episodes. Like many other Southeast Asian forms of theatre, khon is of an epic nature. It usually presents a series of events, and does not focus on individual psychological features. In recent decades there have been experiments where the text has been adapted and compiled to portray the life of an individual character such as Hanuman or Piphek, the brother of Totsakan (Ravana). [Ibid]

Khon was originally a form of court theatre with strong sacred connotations, but after the revolution of 1932, after which Thailand became a constitutional monarchy, this union was partly dissolved. Despite all these changes, khon drama has retained many of its ritual features. In the actors’ dressing room is an altar where the masks of the mythical Teacher or Master Rishi and some of the Ramakien characters are revered. There is a similar altar at the side of the stage, where offerings are made before the performance. The actors make a respectful gesture of greeting before donning their masks, and the same gesture is made to the stage, which is regarded as sacred.

The arts thrived during the reign of King Rama VI [ruled 1910- 25] who was himself an artist and writer. He paid particular interest to the khon and classical dramas. Towards the end of King Rama V's reign, the young crown prince organized and trained a group of royal guards, who were mostly the sons of noblemen and high-ranking civil servants, for khon performances. The prince revised some of the verses and directed the performances for several important state functions.

Khon Role Types and Movements

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Finnish Theatre Academy wrote: “Khon makes use of all the sub-techniques of Central Thai classical dance. In fact, they almost seem to have been created for the needs of khon. The noble humans employ the full scale of the natasin or Central Thai classical dance. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance, Theatre Academy Helsinki]

“Khon was originally performed solely by males with female impersonators playing the women’s roles, but in the present performances of the National Theatre of Bangkok, women’s roles are usually played by female dancers. In some reconstructions of older types of khon, however, men can occasionally appear in female roles. [Ibid]

The monkey and demonic characters have their appropriate basic movement techniques. Their movements are dominated by an extremely open leg position, the Indian-influenced characteristic of Southeast Asian martial dance, which has already been discussed several times. Indeed, the movement technique of the demons is believed to originate from the ancient Thai martial arts. Thus, the dance of the demons with its powerful stamping is aggressive in character, whereas the monkey’s dance has its acrobatic and playful elements. Their movements imitate those of real monkeys, thus adding yet one more element to khon’s complex movement vocabulary, that of the ancient animal dances.

The formalised movements of Khon performance make the acting and dancing inseparable. Each step has a meaning that is emphasised by the appropriate music, narration and song. In Khon performance each character is identified by the appropriate mask or costume. The main role categories with their corresponding movement techniques are: 1) heroes (the major hero, Phra Ram, and the minor hero, Phra Lak); 2) heroines (the major heroine, Nang Sida, and the minor heroine, Montho); 3) demons; and 4) monkeys.

Khon Masks and Costumes

All khon actors are elaborately dressed from head to toe. Each piece of ornament and headdress is specifically assigned to a particular character. Royal characters, for example, wear special types of crowns and attire. The costumes are often fitted and sewn on the dancer prior to the performance. The most popular male characters are: Totsakan (the Giant King), Rama (the Human King), Hanuman (the Monkey Warrior). The narrator of the story not only has to know the stories but also the dancers' as well as the orchestra's rhythm. [Source: artsonlocation.net/about_khon

Generally the only khon figures who wear masks are monkeys an demons. Originally, all the characters wore masks, but since the nineteenth century only the demons and monkeys have worn them. Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Finnish Theatre Academy wrote: “ The khon masks cover the whole head and are made of papier maché, which is painted, lacquered, and decorated with inlaid glass or mother-of-pearl. They are stylistically related to Thai dance costume, and their bright colours and details, such as the shape of the nose, eyes, and mouth and the model of the crown, express the identity and rank of the character.

The khon costume clothes are heavy and decorated with metal thread, often gold. The accessories are also heavy. They include a jeweled collar, armlets, necklaces and bracelets. The temple style headdress, called the tchedah or mkot, is made of jewel-encrusted metal and is also quite heavy.

The costume worn by women dancers consists of a tight-fitting leotard-like, bodice, which can have sleeves or be sleeveless, and a skirt called a sampot or panung made of silk, silver and gold brocade. The skirt is pleated in the front to allow movement and is held in place with a belt with a jeweled clasp.

Male dancers wear even more elaborate costumes, with a tight-fitting, silver-thread brocade jacket that has a richly embroidered collar and a upward turning metal shoulder pads. The sampot is taken through the legs and creates a kind of divided skirt. The jeweled headdress is just as heavy as those worn by women dancers but has a slightly different shape.

Khon Story and Plot

The main story of the khon relates the birth of prince Rama, the son of queen Kao Suriya and king Totsarot of Ayutthaya, and his later marriage with Sida, the daughter of king Janaka. Sida is kidnapped by the demon king Totsakan (also known as Rawana) who abducts her to Longka, the present Sri Lanka. Then follows the account of the lengthy battle between Rama and the ten-headed Totsakan, in which Rama is assisted by mythical half-man half-animal characters, including the courageous monkey-god Hanuman, always depicted in white. The battle brings the defeat of Totsakan and the salvation of Sida, after which Rama. [Source: artsonlocation.net/about_khon

In one of the most famous scenes, Totsakan, king of the demons, has learned that Rama's army is gathered at the foot of Mount Hematiran. According to Farang News: “Deeply troubled and determined to avoid a confrontation, he has worked out a clever plan, commanding his niece Benyakai to transform herself into Sita's corpse and to let herself by carried by the river to Rama's camp. When Rama and his brother Lakshmana go down to the river to immerse themselves in its waters, Rama catches sight of the body of Sita, his wife, and is overwhelmed by suffering. Hanuman, the monkey warrior is not fooled so easily and suggests cremating the body to prove its authenticity. When the flames envelop it, Benyakai is unable to bear the heat and is forced to turn back into a demon and fly skywards. Hanuman gives chase, and she is finally captured.” [Source:Farang News, June 1, 2006]

“In the Battle with Kumpakan Totsakan commands Kumpakan, one of his younger brothers, to lead the demon army against Rama who, hearing the news, orders Sukrip to attack Kumpakan. The latter challenges Sukrip to show his strength by uprooting a giant tree. Sukrip accepts the challenge, but the effort exhausts him and he is then beaten. Kumpakan gathers him up and drags him to Longka. When Rama hears what has happened he commands Hanuman and Ongkot to hasten to save Sukrip. [Ibid]

Khon Performance

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Finnish Theatre Academy wrote: “ Khon drama is the sum of varied elements. It shares its Ramakien-based narrative, characterisation, and movement techniques with the nang yai shadow theatre. Many of the conventions of movement are based on ancient martial arts. Before the introduction of firearms, warriors and even members of the court practised martial skills, repeating certain movement series, which could also be performed in a dance-like manner. These provided established movement patterns for dance-drama, especially the battle scenes. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance, Theatre Academy Helsinki]

“Another essential feature of the khon plays was provided by strict court etiquette, which is maintained at the courts of both Rama (Phra Ram) and the demon-king Ravana (Totsakan). This practice reflects traditional Thai court etiquette, which khon drama relayed to the members of the court and the royal bodyguard, who sometimes performed in the plays. [Ibid]

Khon drama was originally performed outdoors. There was no scenery or stage props only a few Thai-style podiums with legs serving as seats or thrones. Traditional khon plays begin with an audience scene, either in Rama’s or Ravana’s palace. The ruler is surrounded by his court, arrayed according to rank, which is shown by the order of seating or the height of the seat or podium. Behaviour follows strict court etiquette, and no one may stand or walk while the ruler is seated. In the lengthy audience scene the conflict of the story is presented and its preceding events are narrated. [Ibid]

“The most spectacular scenes are battles, which are often preceded by long negotiations and exchanges of messengers. The Ramakien specifically describes ancient battles and conflicts between nobles, which were bound by etiquette as strict as that of the court. After due preparation, the principal characters and their armies gather at the battlefield. Rama and Ravana enter from opposite sides of the stage in their traditional gilt Thai chariots with flame ornaments, drawn by men wearing horse masks. Wearing full regalia, they hold their ornamental bows in their hands. Ravana is followed by an army of demons, dancing menacingly and waving clubs. Rama is accompanied by his half-brother Laksmana, and a resourceful monkey army. [Ibid]

“When the battle reaches its climax, Rama and Ravana step down from their chariots to engage in hand-to-hand combat. Finally, the victor raises himself in a heroic posture onto the thigh of the crouching loser to the acclaim of the audience. The victory scene is an almost picture-like static tableau with exact counterparts in the mural paintings and reliefs of Thai temples. [Ibid]

“Khon plays are accompanied by a piphad orchestra, chorus, singers, and narrators at the side of the stage. The narrators describe the events of the plot and recite the lines of the characters on stage with extreme expressiveness. As in many other Asian theatre traditions, the narrators in khon have a crucial role. They are as vital to the success of the performance as the dancer-actors, who move on stage according to the distinctly recited lines. Dancing in Thai dance-drama can be divided into two types: gestures illustrating the text, and dance proper accompanied by music. Both types are fully used in khon drama. [Ibid]

Khon plays last several hours, and they traditionally describe only a single episode of the Ramakien. Over the years, different versions of the khon texts have been made, and some of the versions have become especially popular. One such version is The Floating Lady, which is attributed to Rama II. It is an interesting example of a khon script for two reasons: first, it is quintessentially Thai, that is, it does not belong to the original Indian Ramayana, and secondly, its language is highly valued for its poetic qualities.

Types of Khon

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Finnish Theatre Academy wrote: “Khon drama has experienced many changes and thus there have been several types of khon performances. The “khon in front of a screen” (khon na jor) has been mentioned already in connection with nang yai shadow theatre, to which it is most probably related. This ancient form has now disappeared although new experiments are occasionally done in order to combine khon and the shadow theatre. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance, Theatre Academy Helsinki]

“Khon on a bamboo pole” (khon rong nok) refers to an archaic form of khon in which the actor-dancers sit on a bamboo pole while gesticulating to the recitation of the narrators. “Khon in the air” (khon chuk rok ) refers to special performances, which are known to have been staged in the second half of the 19th century. It is characterised by complicated stage machinery, which is employed in order to create the impression of flying. This form was revived at the end of the 20th century.

“Court khon” (khon na jor) is a kind of chamber variation of khon. It was usually performed indoors without scenery and it concentrates on delicate singing and recitation. Its complete opposite is “outdoor khon”, which was and still is performed at public festivities in the ceremonial Sanam Luang Square in Bangkok and at other venues. It concentrates on big battle scenes in which singing and recitation are of less importance.

The most common form of khon in the 20th and the early 21st centuries is “khon performed on a Western-type stage” (khon chak). It is performed on a proscenium stage, which gradually became common in Thailand at the end of the 19th century. These kinds of productions often employ illusory stage sets with backdrops and modern lighting. The productions of the National Theatre of Bangkok often represent this type of khon.

Innovation and Revivals of Khon

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Finnish Theatre Academy wrote: “The National Theatre of Thailand is, at present, responsible for maintaining the khon tradition. It stages traditional and innovative khon plays from time to time, and in connection with state festivities the khon troupe of the National Theatre arranges grandiose open-air performances. The theatre groups of the universities perform more liberal interpretations of khon drama. Famous is the so-called Thammasat khon, established in the 1970s at Thammasat University in Bangkok by M.R. Kukrit Pramoj, a prince and a former Prime Minister. In this type of khon the rishi or hermit character, originally performed by Kukrit himself, speaks, taking liberties in commenting on current and even political matters. [Source:Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance, Theatre Academy Helsinki, xip.fi/atd/thailand/early-periods ]

“In the late 20th and the early 21st centuries there have been various attempts to revive older forms of khon. In the 1990s a reconstruction of “khon in the air” was staged at the Wat Arun Festival in Thonburi, near Bangkok. Its stage machinery and scenery were based on a 19th century temple mural showing a similar kind of performance. [Ibid]

“In 2008 a special khon spectacle was sponsored by the Queen in honour of His Majesty the King’s 80th birthday. It was a reconstruction of a khon performance originally produced in 1899. Its speciality is that its music is written down in Western notation, and a military band consisting mainly of Western brass instruments plays the music. The costumes and masks of this curiosity were reconstructed in the style of the late 19th century. [Ibid]

“Many trends can be recognised in the khon tradition of today. Official performances are still obviously related to the dynastic cult of the ancient god king. These kinds of performances retain many of the changes khon has gone through during the 20th century while, at the same time, some smaller companies try to return to older performance practices. However, khon is also used as a basis for a completely new kind of interpretation. [Ibid]

Lakhon

Lakhon features a wider range of stories than khon, including folk tales and Jataka stories (stories of the Buddha and his previous lives). Dancers are usually female and perform as a group rather than representing individual characters. Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Finnish Theatre Academy wrote: Lakhon is an overall term referring to many forms of dance-drama in Thailand. It may derive from Java, where the plot of a performance is called lakon. The most archaic genre of lakhon is lakhon nora or nora from the Thai part of the Malay Peninsula, which will be discussed later. The most classical form is lakhon nai, developed at the courts of Ayutthaya and Bangkok and originally performed by royal maidens, while the popular form lakhon nok was originally performed by men. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance, Theatre Academy Helsinki]

“In the nineteenth century international influences and theatrical realism led to even other forms of lakhon. The various genres differ in plot material and in some performance techniques. While nang yai and khon illustrate the events of the Ramakien and are quite epic in nature, only one of the lakhon genres bases its plots on the Ramakien. In the others, the plots are derived from the ancient Buddhist Jataka stories and folk-tales. Thus the lakhon plays often have a distinct fairy-tale character. [Ibid]

“The age of Western theatre and cinema led lakhon to develop in a more realistic direction, creating lakhon phud or spoken lakhon. There was also an operatic, completely sung, form of lakhon. During the reign of Rama V (1868–1910) Thai classical dance was revived, although it received strong foreign influences at the same time. This led to lakhon phantang, where foreign influences such as “ethnic” costume and Chinese martial arts were adapted to basically Thai-style dance-drama. [Ibid]

“A well-known example of the lakhon phantang style is a play called Saming Phra Ram Asa. It is part of a larger work called Rajathirai, describing the many conflicts between the Burmese and the Chinese in the fifteenth century. The various nationalities wear their own costumes; for example, a Chinese general, displaying his martial arts in the fighting scenes, is dressed in Chinese opera costume. Thus, one branch of lakhon developed as a historical play with its requirements of naturalism and “local flavour” in somewhat the same way as Western theatre did in the nineteenth century. [Ibid]

Lakhon Nai

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen wrote: “ Lakhon nai is the most classical form of lakhon dance-drama. It developed at the courts of Ayutthaya and Bangkok, and its name means the “inner theatre” referring to the fact that its performances were limited to the private quarters of the royal palace. Its history may be longer, possibly going back to the ancient dance-drama of the Khmers. The first written reference to lakhon nai, however, comes from the Ayutthaya period. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance, Theatre Academy Helsinki]

“It was performed by the royal maidens of the king’s harem, and the performances could be viewed only by the king himself, his guests, and members of the court. It was not possible to use male actors in lakhon nai, as it was performed in the women’s quarter of the palace. At the beginning of the Bangkok period the Thai kings still kept large harems, to which vassals “donated”, mainly for political reasons, their beautiful daughters, who were taught classical dance in the palace. [Ibid]

“In lakhon nai the plots are based on three story cycles: the Ramakien, the Unraut relating to the Hindu god Krishna, and the most popular one, the originally Javanese Inao, which was adopted in Thailand at an early stage. Inao is a Thai version of the extensive cycle of stories relating to the adventures of Prince Panji of East Java. It tells of the separation of Prince Panji, or Inao, from his beautiful bride, and the many adventures they experience in trying to find each other. The actresses recite their lines in gentle voices, but the demanding vocal sections are performed by a female chorus to the accompaniment of a traditional, percussion-dominated orchestra playing variations of stock melodies. [Ibid]

“Lakhon nai employs the glittering standard costumes of Thai dance and the whole vocabulary of classical dance, of which the actresses must have full command. The dance style is approximately the same for both men and women, and there are thus no technical obstacles to women playing men’s roles or vice versa. When women perform as male characters, the masculinity of the dance is toned down, and the all-female cast gives the lakhon nai its characteristically graceful style. [Ibid]

“The early stage of the Bangkok period was the golden age of lakhon nai, but Rama III outlawed it as well as other forms of court theatre in the first half of the nineteenth century. The khon mask-drama recovered from this brief ban, but it was difficult for lakhon nai to survive, and it lost popularity in the late nineteenth century when realism came to the fore. At present, the College of Dramatic Arts in Bangkok and the National Theatre of Thailand maintain both traditions, although full lakhon nai performances are rarely staged. [Ibid]

Lakhon Nok

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen wrote: “ Lakhon nok is a popular form of dance-drama, which, unlike lakhon nai, was originally mainly a product of the common people, and it is closely linked to the Buddhist temple fairs, although the palace also had its own lakhon nok groups. It was originally restricted to male actors, usually professionals. Since the early nineteenth century women have been permitted to perform female parts. There are dozens of lakhon nok plays, usually dramatised versions of the Buddhist Jataka stories or folk-tales. Here, as in all genres of lakhon, the performances have a distinct fairy-tale quality. The plays depict the trials of noble princes, and adventures in demon-infested forests with Hindu deities and spirits taking part in the action. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance, Theatre Academy Helsinki]

“A very popular lakhon nok play is a dramatization of Phra Law, an ancient story of tragic love, which is known to all Thais. It has been attributed to King Boromo Trailokanat (1448–1488) or King Narai (1657–1688). It is the tale of a young prince, Phra Law, who is handsome and loved by all. He is married to a princess equally perfect, but a mysterious restlessness erodes the prince’s peace of mind. Driven by these feelings, he flees his palace, finally arriving in the kingdom of his father’s enemy, where he meets two princesses. They fall passionately in love, and the princesses hide Phra Law in their chambers, where they enjoy complete and perfect happiness. The girls’ grandmother finds out that the son of her archenemy is hiding in her palace, and orders her servants to kill Phra Law. In the ensuing fight, all three young people are tragically killed. During the cremation ceremonies, the two enemy kings, the fathers of the victims, become reconciled. [Ibid]

“Phra Aphaimani is probably the most beloved of all the epics staged as lakhon nok. It was written by Thailand’s foremost court poet of the early Bangkok period, Sunthorn Phu (1786–1855). He worked during the first five Chakri rulers, but temporary lost his position and favour. While imprisoned by King Rama II he wrote Phra Aphaimani, which is based on diverse sources including several Buddhist Jataka stories. The main theme involves the education of the Don Juan-like hero, the flute-playing Phra Aphaimani, in several fantastic places. His adventures include, among others, service in a foreign army, a meeting with a Western heroine, and a marriage to a sea monster. [Ibid]

“Sang Thong, based on a widespread Asian legend, is another popular plot for lakhon nok. Its earliest Thai version dates from the Ayutthaya period in the seventeenth century, but the commonly used drama version is from the beginning of the nineteenth century, when Rama II and his court poets adapted the tale to court tastes. Sang Thong, like other lakhon plots, is very complex, and the actual performances usually consist of only one or two acts, as the overall context is known to the audience. Lakhon nok has many features in common with lakhon nai, although its music has a faster tempo, and dance skills of a classical standard are not necessarily required. Sometimes it even includes parodic references to the classical court tradition. There are also differences in the vocal parts because this tradition permits the dancer-actors themselves to sing. [Ibid]

“The costumes in lakhon nok are mainly based on classical dance attire, although some characters, such as Sang Thong in the black man’s disguise, wear masks. At the peak of its popularity at the end of the nineteenth century, lakhon nok was being performed in almost a hundred casino-theatres around Bangkok. It was naturally affected by the tastes of the common people, with a stress on the comic aspects and a free interpretation of the theme. The sets make full use of illusionistic effects with painted backdrops and modern lighting. The National Theatre of Thailand and theatre groups in the universities still perform lakhon nok from time to time. [Ibid]

Wai Kru Ceremony

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen wrote: “In Thailand, as in many other Asian countries, the arts of dancing and acting are regarded as a kind of spiritual activity. Pupils studying and performing khon and lahkon dance-dramas are expected to show deep gratitude to their teachers or gurus, who through successive generations give them an opportunity to learn the art of dance with its semi-divine origin. This devotional reverence that pupils show to their gurus is manifested in Thailand still today in the wai kru ceremony. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance, Theatre Academy Helsinki]

“The annual wai kru or ”Paying Homage to the Teacher” ceremony of the dancers and traditional musicians always falls on a Thursday, which is regarded as Teacher’s Day in Thailand. In this very complex ceremony, which bears clear ancient Brahmanic features, the students and the junior teachers recall with gratitude the benefits they have received from their gurus. The ceremony often functions as an initiation ritual for young dancers who have shown that they can master certain series of movements and are thus considered competent to appear on the stage in minor roles. [Ibid]

“An altar for the Buddha and another multi-step altar are first constructed. Khon and lakhon paraphernalia and masks, among them the mask of the Rishi Barotmuni, are then placed on the latter altar. In fact, the Rishi Barotmuni mask represents Bharatamuni, the mythical author of the Indian dance manual Natyashastra, who is still regarded in modern Thailand as the founder of the art of dance. Offerings are made and master guru or gurus perform the dance offering in front of the altar, after which the younger dancers perform their dances. During the ceremony holy water is sprinkled by the senior teacher on each pupil, whose brow they anoint with blessed strands of cotton. [Ibid]

Wai Kru Ceremony

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen wrote: “In Thailand, as in many other Asian countries, the arts of dancing and acting are regarded as a kind of spiritual activity. Pupils studying and performing khon and lahkon dance-dramas are expected to show deep gratitude to their teachers or gurus, who through successive generations give them an opportunity to learn the art of dance with its semi-divine origin. This devotional reverence that pupils show to their gurus is manifested in Thailand still today in the wai kru ceremony. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance, Theatre Academy Helsinki]

The annual wai kru or ”Paying Homage to the Teacher” ceremony of the dancers and traditional musicians always falls on a Thursday, which is regarded as Teacher’s Day in Thailand. In this very complex ceremony, which bears clear ancient Brahmanic features, the students and the junior teachers recall with gratitude the benefits they have received from their gurus. The ceremony often functions as an initiation ritual for young dancers who have shown that they can master certain series of movements and are thus considered competent to appear on the stage in minor roles. [Ibid]

An altar for the Buddha and another multi-step altar are first constructed. Khon and lakhon paraphernalia and masks, among them the mask of the Rishi Barotmuni, are then placed on the latter altar. In fact, the Rishi Barotmuni mask represents Bharatamuni, the mythical author of the Indian dance manual Natyashastra, who is still regarded in modern Thailand as the founder of the art of dance. Offerings are made and master guru or gurus perform the dance offering in front of the altar, after which the younger dancers perform their dances. During the ceremony holy water is sprinkled by the senior teacher on each pupil, whose brow they anoint with blessed strands of cotton. [Ibid]

Nora, Archaic Thai Dance-Drama

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen wrote: “Nora is a form of dance-drama performed mainly in the southernmost provinces of Thailand and the northern parts of Malaysia. The name nora is a shortened form of the name Manora, the standard heroine of an ancient tale, which often serves as the plot material for this type of dance-drama. The genre is also known as lakhon nora, nora chatri, manora, or menora. Traditionally, nora has been interwoven with elements of ancestor worship and spirit possession while it is also, at the same time, a complex form of dance-drama. Performances dominated by the ritual elements are often called “ancient nora” while the more entertaining performances are called “modern nora”. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance, Theatre Academy Helsinki]

“Nora has its own music tradition; its language is a Southern Thai dialect; its movement techniques appear to have come almost directly from far-off India; and it has an undeniable magical character. Its origin has been the subject of much speculation. According to one theory, it is the link between the ancient theatrical forms of the Malay Peninsula and the lakhon of Central Thailand, and possibly the basic form of the other lakhon types. [Ibid]

“It has also been claimed that nora separated from the Central Thai tradition at an early stage, developing in isolation. It seems to be clear, however, that nora is a result of cultural contacts with Sri Lanka and/or India. This is supported by the fact that its dance poses include direct loans from early Indian dance as well as Sri Lankan dance. Furthermore, South Thailand, where nora is still flourishing, was the crossroads of ancient sea trade routes which connected the area with India as well as with Sri Lanka, from where Theravada Buddhism was adopted in Thailand. [Ibid]

“Whatever its origin, nora is a unique theatre tradition in its inimitability and expressiveness. It is an embodiment of the complex syncretistic belief system of the region where it is performed. Its ritual elements reflect the local animism, its central plot material is derived from Buddhist lore, and its movement technique is related to the Indian Hindu tradition, while the tradition is now thriving in predominantly Muslim communities. [Ibid]

Animal Movements, Birds’ Tails and Golden Crowns

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen wrote: “The southern nora is stylistically quite different from the other forms of dance-drama, which developed mainly in Central Thailand. Its dance style stresses angular movements, very open leg positions, and extremely expressive finger movements emphasised with long detachable fingernails decorated with beads. The technique includes a unique way of moving by sliding the feet instead of walking. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance, Theatre Academy Helsinki]

“Many of the basic poses of nora are named after various animals, which may indicate their archaic roots in the ancient animal movements. The music and movement techniques have a strong Malay-Indian flavour, and the characteristic, demanding acrobatic poses have preserved ancient Indian dance poses (karana) that disappeared from India centuries ago. Nora groups originally consisted of only three male actors, but today women may also become nora stars, and groups often include several members.” [Ibid]

“Nowadays, the standard costume of the nora dancers consists of shin-length trousers, a bodice of bright, woven glass beads, and a heavy, tapering gilded crown. A distinctive feature is a bird’s tail or wing-like extension in the back of the costume, which probably derives from the half-bird kinnari of the Manora story. Phra Bhun, the clown character, dances in a relaxed manner in a white loincloth, with a grotesque, red half-mask leaving the mouth free for his lines. Nora was originally performed outdoors without props or sets. At present, the touring troupes usually hang a painted backdrop with illusionistic scenery behind their small stage.

Nora is being preserved as part of the cultural heritage peculiar to South Thailand, which, except for occasional performances in Bangkok, is the place to see nora. All forms of nora are still being performed: the ritualistic “ancient” variation and the dance-drama form. The nora repertoire includes several dance numbers, which are often performed without the dramatic context, such as Hooking the Swan and Stabbing the Crocodile.

In recent decades nora has become increasingly popular and nora dances are often performed by large groups of dancers both in the south as well as elsewhere in Thailand. Popular forms have also evolved, such as nora karaoke and rock nora. Thus nora has become a kind of trademark of southern Thai culture.

Story of the Heavenly Maiden

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen wrote: “The standard plots of nora plays were derived from two sources: the Ratsen and the Manora, of which the latter has been more popular. It tells of a supernatural kinnari (half-bird and half-human) princess called Manora, who, like other kinnari, lives on the mountain-tops in the Himalayas. One day a hunter, Phra Bhun, sees Manora and her sisters bathing, and is struck by her beauty. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance, Theatre Academy Helsinki]

“The hunter steals her wings and tail, and takes the maiden to a palace, where the crown prince falls in love with her and marries her. The prince, however, has to go off to war, and an evil minister convinces the king that Manora must be burned in order to save the king’s life. Manora is placed on the pyre, but at the same moment she regains her wings and flies back to her heavenly kingdom. After many trials, the prince acquires supernatural powers, and is allowed to enter the kingdom of the kinnari and rejoin his loved one. [Ibid]

“The tale of Manora is also known in Central Thailand, where it developed into a classical dance-drama, as well as in Cambodia, Burma, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Manora was originally a Buddhist Jataka story, and the prince is actually the Buddha in one of his earlier incarnations. However, almost similar kinds of stories are known in several Asian cultures. [Ibid]

“The story is rather complex, and it requires many evenings to be completely presented. In practice, the story is used only as a binding theme, and the whole performance includes prayers, dance numbers, obscene verbal humour, folk comedy elements, and sometimes magic rituals intended, for example, to bring bad luck upon some rival theatre group. The nora dancers have traditionally had an aura of magic about them, which may refer back to the roots of the genre as a kind of shamanistic healing or possession ritual. [Ibid]

Likay “Folk Operetta”

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Finnish Theatre Academy wrote: Likay may still be the most popular form of folk theatre in Thailand. It is performed on temporary stages at temple fairs and at other communal festivities as well as on permanent stages. The sets consist of garishly painted backdrops portraying, for example, palace halls, gardens, or forests. The costumes are a blend of different epochs with glittering sequins, synthetic brocades, and the men’s plumed headdresses, all lending an unreal fairytale flavour to the whole. Likay is accompanied by a piphad like, which is a variation of the traditional piphad orchestra. Traditionally, the show starts with a long overture at around 8 pm and ends at around midnight. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance, Theatre Academy Helsinki]

“The origin of likay is unclear. There is a theory that it was introduced to Thailand in 1880 but this is now questioned. It is clear that likay has received influences from the performance style of the Malay Peninsula as well from India, but how and when it happened is not known. For decades it also assimilated elements from the Chinese minority as well from the Mons. Thus it seems that this folk entertainment adapted itself to various circumstances while it spread around the country. Thus the likay’s music, histrionic techniques, and costumes include Indian and Malay elements, among others. [Ibid]

“The plots may sometimes be borrowed from the lakhon repertoire, but they are mostly quasi-historical melodramas with separated lovers, children who are lost and then unexpectedly found, amorous intrigues, and such similar material. The actors rarely have any extensive degree of training, and the classical dance numbers are usually only alluded to. Microphones are used for the lines, and the serious lyric verses are sung. Various time levels may be intermingled. Thus a modern Louis Vuitton suitcase or a Rolex imitation watch may appear in a historical story, giving satirical or even absurd connotations to the whole. [Ibid]

“Likay was originally performed by an all-male cast, but now female roles are mostly played by actresses. However, kratoy or transvestite actors are also popular. The contact between the actors and the audience is very close, as the actors often flirtingly address their lines directly to the spectators. The most ardent likay fans may, in the middle of the performance, offer their favourites garlands stuffed with bank notes. [Ibid]

“At the height of its popularity, likay was performed in several competing theatres in Bangkok, but towards the end of the twentieth century it could mainly be seen on temporary stages at temple fairs or amusement centres. As flexible folk art, likay can be adapted for different purposes. It has been used to serve political ends, while charismatic stars still dominate the glittering world of likay.” [Ibid]

Image Sources:

Text Sources: Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance, Theatre Academy Helsinki, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourist Authority of Thailand, Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Page Top

© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from factsanddetails.com, please contact me.