The two principal forms of classical Thai drama are khon and lakhon. Khon was first performed in the royal court in the 15th century, with story lines taken from the Ramakien. The more graceful lakhon, which also features elements from the jataka tales, was originally performed inside the palace, but moved outside at a later date. Both khon and lakhon involve slow, highly stylized, angular dance movements set to the music of a piphat ensemble.
A Khon Performance
In khon drama, demons and monkeys wear masks, while human heroes and celestial beings sport crowns. As the story is told mainly through gestures, khon can be enjoyed by non-Thais. Visitors today are most likely to see performances at restaurants catering to tourists.
Students learn gestures by imitating their teacher. Training begins at an early age (when limbs are still supple) and includes a sequence of moves known as the Alphabet of Dancing (mae bot).
Khon masks, decorated with gold and jewelry, are treated as sacred objects with supernatural powers.
Khon and lakhon performances are often staged at outdoor shrines. Dancers are hired to perform to the resident god by supplicants whose wishes have been granted.
Likay, by far the most popular type of dancedrama, is a satirical form of khon and lakhon. The actors wear gaudy costumes and the plot derives from ancient tales laced with improvised jokes and puns.
Khon and lakhon troupes, employed by the royal palace until the early 20th century, are now based at Bangkok’s Fine Arts Department.
Finger extensions emphasizing the graceful curves of a dancer’s hands, are seen in lakhon perfomances and in “nail dances” of the North.
Hun krabok puppets, rodded marionettes, are operated by hidden threads pulled from under the costume. Hun krabok performances are very rare today.
Instruments of Classical Thai Music
Thailand’s classical music originated in the Sukhothai era. The basic melody is set by the composer, but, as no notation is used, each musician varies the tune and adopts the character of the instrument, like actors in a play. A tuned percussion ensemble, or piphat, accompanies theater performances and boxing matches. A mahori ensemble includes stringed instruments.