Nora is a form of traditional, folk performing arts that is popular in the southern region of Thailand. The main elements and characteristics of Nora are the costume and the music.
Nora costume comprises a soet for the principal performer–the “nora yai”. The costume is made of beads in various colours arranged in patterns and motifs, to be worn as a shirt. Other components and decorations are the pik nok aen or pik neng (a pair of wings attached to the costume), thap suang (pendant), pik or hang hong (a decorative tail wing), pha nung (wrap-around skirt), sanap phlao (a pair of calf-length trousers), pha hoi na (front-hanging pieces of cloth), pha hoi khang (side-hanging pieces of cloth), kamlai ton khaen (armlets), kamlai plai khaen (bracelets) and lep (“fingernails”-fingertip extension pieces). These are the costume and decorations for the principal character, who is called the nora yai or nora yuen, while the khrueang nang or the costume for the female characters does not have armlets, pendant, or wings.
Nora orchestra comprises mostly percussion instruments: a pair of thon or thap Nora (tuned onesided drums) with slightly different sounds, which are beaten by one drummer. This pair of drums is the most important instrument in the orchestra because it controls the tempo and leads the orchestra when the tempo has to be changed to accommodate the performer’s movements; a drum, to complement and provide counterpoints to the sound of the thap Nora drums; a pi chanai (a kind of Thai oboe); a pair of mong (medium-sized gong) or double gongs; a pair of ching (a pair of small cymbals); and a pair of trae (a pair of claves [hardwood sticks]).
Nora is divided into two types: Nora for ritualistic ceremony, called Nora Rong Khru, and one for entertainment. Here are the different characteristics:
Nora for ritualistic ceremony or Nora Rong Khru is a very important ritual dance for the Nora professionals. It is performed to invite the spirits of the Nora past masters to the ceremonial stage during the rite to pay homage to them, to make votive offering to them, and to initiate novices–the new generation of Nora performers. This type of Nora is further subdivided into two kinds: Nora Rong Khru Yai and Nora Rong Khru Lek. The Nora Rong Khru Yai is the full version of the ritual dance, which lasts three days and nights. It usually starts on a Wednesday and ends on a Friday and it must be performed every year or every three or five years, depending on the belief of different Nora schools. The ritual performance of Nora Rong Khru Lek lasts one day and one night. It usually begins on a Wednesday evening and ends on a Thursday.
The distinctive characteristics of Nora for entertainment:
1. Each Nora performers must show off his or her dance skill and talent by blending the various steps and poses together seamlessly without corrupting or deviating from the correct poses and steps; proficiently change the steps or movements in response to the musical rhythm/ tempo; dance gracefully slow or swift as appropriate. Some performers may show off their special talents such as the contorted movements of the body and the limbs, or their invented movements.
2. Nora performers must show off his or her singing talent in various ways. They must sing the verses in a clear voice, correct tempo, with emotion, and must be able to improvise the verses quickly, with good content and good rhyme. They must be able to improvise and sing witty verses in response.
3. Nora performers must show their skills in interpreting the sung passages into dance steps or postures. The sung part and the dance movement must match well, and must use a wide range of dance vocabulary to capture every nuance of the sung verses. The singing and the dancing must correspond to the musical tempo and style perfectly. Interpreting the sung passage into a dance movement, which is called Tham Bot, therefore represents the epitome of Nora art.
4. Nora performers must also be skilled in the “specific dances” which may be performed in some occasions such as in the rite to pay homage to the past masters or in Taeng Phok Phuk Pha Yai rite. Some specific dances are performed only in a competition; some in Long Khru or Rong Khru ceremony, some in votive offering. Examples of the specific dances are: Ram Bot Khru Son, Ram Phleng Thap Phleng Thon, Ram Phleng Pi, Ram Kho Soet, and Ram Khlong Hong.
5. Normally Nora performances do not focus on telling a story. However, with enough time to perform, a story might be told to entertain the audiences. Episodes from well-known stories might be depicted, but the costume does not correspond to the story. More focus will be paid to the comic interludes and Nora-style verse singing to tell the story.
In the performance of Nora for entertainment, each Nora troupe has its own customary sequences of the pieces to be performed for each occasion, starting from:
- Tang Khrueang (playing an invocation music; after setting up the orchestra in place, music will be played to invoke the deities and spirits in that place in order to ask for permission to perform Nora at that place);
- Hom Rong (overture);
- Kat Khru or Coen Khru (a song to pay homage to the teachers, past masters and benefactors and to tell the history of Nora development);
- Entrance of the female dancers (there might be 2 to 5 dancers), which has the following sequence:
- Kiao Man or Khap Na Man, in which the performers sing the verses from behind the curtain, without being seen by the audience;
- Ok Rai Ram (“Entrance of the Dancers; Beginning to Dance”), in which the performers come out to show off their skill and special talents;
- Nang Phanak (“Sitting on the bench”);
- Wa Bot Rai Trae;
- Tham Bot (interpreting the sung passage into a dance movement);
- Wa Klon (showing skill in improvising verses, dance skill is not emphasized), which will be called Wa Kham Phrat if the verses were prepared and are recited from memory, and Wa Mutto if they are improvised;
- Ram Uat Mue (“Showing dance talent”) and exit;
- Ok Phran (“Entrance of the Hunter [Comedian]”) is the entrance of the comedian, an important character that adds humorous moments to the show;
- Ok Tua Nai Rong (“Entrance of the Principal Performer/Character”) Nai Rong or Nora Yai is the troupe owner/manager and principal performer. He will show off his expertises and talents in dance, singing, and in improvising verses as befits his position as the principal performer. In case of a competition, the Nai Rong will perform the rites of Khian Phrai (“Flogging the Sprites”) and Yiap Luk Nao (“Stepping on Lime Fruits”) as a hex or spell on the rivals and to boost the troupe’s morale;
- Ok Phran–this is performed again to tell the audience what story will be depicted;
- Len Pen Rueang (“Depicting a story”);
Today, both types of Nora are still performed. Nora’s costume and dance steps and postures have unique identities. Besides its entertainment and the ritualistic values, Nora also serves as the media to disseminate news, messages and information to the people, because it can easily access and communicate with the people. Nora therefore remains the preferred type of performing arts for the southerners and continues to be popular even in the fast-changing world of today.
Examples of prominent Nora troupes are: Khruen Noi Dao Rung of Trang Province, Nora Nom Boran Sin of Phatthalung Province, Lamai Si Raksa of Songkhla Province.