Khon is Thailand’s classical, high art form of performance that dates back to the Ayutthaya era in Thai history. The French ambassador to the royal court of King Narai the Great of Ayutthaya, Simon de Lalubère, wrote in his memoir that Khon is a mask dance drama in which the dancers wear masks and carry weapons while dancing to the accompaniment of So (Thai fiddle) and other musical instruments.
Khon integrates several performing arts: some elements of the presentation style and costume are taken from the Chak Nak Duekdamban (or “The Churning of the Sea of Milk”); some acrobatic movements are taken from Krabi Krabong; while the art of narration, dialogue narration, singing, and the Na Phat music (music that accompanies the performer’s travelling movement), are taken from the Nang Yai (grand shadow puppet theatre). Khon’s principal characteristic lies in the practice of wearing a mask -- all of the Khon performers, with the exception of the hero, the heroine, and the deities, must wear masks. The performance is accompanied by a lead singer and chorus, a story narrator and a dialogue narrator. Khon depicts the Ramakian story only (Thai version of the Ramayana epic).
Khon performance has evolved in stages as follows:
1. Khon Klang Plaeng-“Open-air Mask Dance Drama”-is a type of Khon spectacle performed outdoor in the open-air space, without a stage or platform, and with the natural surrounding as the backdrop. All the performers are exclusively men and all characters wear a mask. Battle scenes from the Ramakian are often depicted in this kind of Khon performance, and the characters are divided into two opposing camps, each one of which takes turn to come out on stage, and consequently the performance requires two orchestras. There is no singing part. The performance is accompanied only by music, with some story narration parts and dialogue narration parts.
2. Khon Nang Rao or alternatively called Khon Rong Nok-“Open-air mask dance drama on stage”-is performed on an outdoor stage without a bench for the master of ceremony. Along the length of the stage, in front of the scenery, a bamboo rail is set up that leaves enough space for the performers to walk around it. The stage is usually covered by a roof. Having finished their parts, the performers will sit on the bamboo rail and wait for their next cue. The rail represents the benches that are usually set up on stage for the high-born characters. The court officers, servants and the monkeys sit on the floor. This kind of Khon performance is not accompanied by singing, but there are story narration and dialogue narration, with the music from two Pi Phat orchestras playing Na Phat music.
3. Khon Na Cho-“Screen-front mask dance drama”-is a type of Khon spectacle performed in front of a blank, unpainted screen of unbleached cloth that serves as the backdrop. A door is cut into the fabric on both sides of the stage. One side of the stage represents the palace in the mythical Longka capital city, while the other side represents the military quarters and barracks of Phra Ram (Rama). The performers go on stage to perform. There are story narration and dialogue narration, with musical accompaniment from a Pi Phat orchestra.
4. Khon Rong Nai “Screen-front mask dance drama”-is a hybrid form of Khon Na Cho and Lakhon Nai (Court dance drama) i.e. It includes women performers and non-narrative dance. The leading male, human characters do not wear masks. It is accompanied by story narration and dialogue narration and features Lakhon Nai-style singing, music and non-narrative dance interludes. The Khon spectacles presented by the Fine Arts Department today, whether they are performed outdoor or in front of a screen, are of the Khon Rong Nai type.
5. Khon Chak or Khon Rong-“Mask dance drama with scenery”-is a type of Khon performance that was supposedly invented during King Rama V’s reign when a painted scenery was first introduced to the Khon spectacle on stage in a theatre. Khon Chak spectacle shares some similar characteristics with the Lakhon Duekdamban. The spectacle is divided into acts and scenes, decorated by the scenery as proper to the place where the action takes place. It adopts the same form as that of Khon Rong Nai, with singing, dancing, and Na Phat music.
One key characteristics of Khon is the costume, which is divided into three principal lines: costume for characters portraying the humans and the deities (male and female leading characters), the demons, and the monkeys; and three categories: headdresses, costume proper, and other decorative accessories and costume jewellery.
Khon narration is an art in itself alongside the dramatic dance performance. It narrates the story and contributes to the emotional expression of the characters.
Used to accompany the performance, Khon narration part is composed of verses in the Kap Chabang 16 type or Kap Yani 11 type. Each narration part is named after the episode of the story it tells. Dialogue narration parts use the rai yao verses, which are used for the dialogue of any character in the story and can contain as many lines as is required. Narrators are men and no less than two are required to deliver the dialogue part promptly. After the story narrator or the dialogue narrator finishes his part and requires the Pi Phat orchestra to play music, he will call the tune. This is called “Bok Na Phat” (“calling the tune”).
The Pi Phat orchestra that accompanies the Khon performance can be of any of the following types as appropriate: “Five-Type Pi Phat orchestra”, “Paired-Type or Double Pi Phat orchestra”, and “Grand Pi Phat orchestra”.
Khon performance can be presented in various occasions, for example, during religious ceremonies such as the funeral ceremonies of royalty, dignitaries or wellrespected persons; during the festivities or celebrations such as the celebration of a religious monument or temple, the ordination of royalty, the birthday celebration of the king or high-ranking royalty. Khon is performed as an entertainment in a variety of occasions.
Khon integrates elements of several art forms into an artistic whole. In addition to its artistic value, Khon also provides food for thought, maxims, morals and ethical values that the viewers can apply in their daily life.
Presently, new sets of Khon and Lakhon costume are being created by royal command of Her Majesty the Queen, who is concerned that Khon performances are in decline today and less attention is paid to the elaborate details of costume making, embroidery, and facial make-up. The old costume is worn-out and ill-repaired. As a traditional performing arts form of Thailand, Khon represents the national identity and therefore there is a need to preserve the traditional craftsmanship of Khon mask-making, costume embroidery, silver and gold decorations and accessories, and the traditional art of stage make-up. These traditional crafts excellently represent Thailand’s national art and culture.
The agencies that prominently preserve the art of Khon are the Fine Arts Department and the Bandit Phatthana Sin Institute, Ministry of Culture.