Several scholars and experts in Thai traditional dance share the opinion that Lakhon Chatri might be the oldest form of Thai traditional performing arts and possibly the prototype of all Thai musical and dance dramas. It also stands as a testimony to the link between the dramatic performances of the central region and the Nora dance of the southern region.
Some think that “chatri” means a master of weaponry, who knows how to protect himself from all kinds of weapons; others suspect that it might be a corruption of a Sanskrit word “kshatriya,” which is pronounced “chattriya” and which was clipped by the Thai tongue to its present corrupt form of “chatri”. This hypothesis stands on the rationale that the Lakhon Chatri presents the story of kings -- its costume also looks like that of the kings in the ancient time. Still, others suspect that chatri is a corrupt form of yatri or yatra, which mean “to travel, to take a journey”. They reason that even today there exists in India a type of travelling performing troupes called “chatri”.
Lakhon Chatri had enjoyed widespread popularity in the southern region before it was introduced to Bangkok in three periods. The first time was in 1769 AD, when King Taksin of Thonburi led the army to suppress the ruler of Nakhon Si Thammarat in Thailand’s southern region. The king brought with him on his return to his capital of Thonburi several people including the Lakhon Chatri troupes. The second time was in 1780 AD, during the celebration of the Emerald Buddha Statue, King Taksin commanded the Lakhon Chatri troupe that belonged to the ruler of Nakhon Si Thammarat to come to Thonburi for performance in competition with the royal court’s dance drama troupe. The third time was in 1832 AD, during King Rama III’s reign. Somdet Chao Phraya Borom Maha Prayurawong (Dit Bunnag), at the time the head of the administration, led the army to suppress an uprising in the southern region, brought back with him on his return several talented performers of Lakhon Chatri, who asked to accompany him to Bangkok. These performers banded together as a performing group that became famous and the Lakhon Chatri genre continues to be passed on to younger generations until today.
Lakhon Chatri’s distinctive characteristics:
1. In the past, Lakhon Chatri troupes marked their performance area by setting up four poles in four corners in a square shape area with one bench in it and a middle pole called Sao Mahachai (“great victory pole”). The performance area has a roof over it, but there was no scenery.
2. The Lakhon Chatri troupe in the past comprised an allmale cast and they performed shirtless. The principal character, which donned a more elaborate costume than the other characters, was also topless but wore sanap phlao (a pair of calf-length trousers) under a wrap-around cloth secured by chiarabat (a kind of sash with decorative strips hanging down over the thighs), hoi na (a decorative cloth strips that also hang down in front from the waist, hoi khang (a decorative cloth strips that hangs down aside from the waist). Other decorative accessories are the sangwan (jewel sashes hanging from the shoulders and crisscrossing the chest), thap suang (a pendant), krong kho (an embroidered collar), and a soet (a pointed crown-like headdress). In later development, female performers participate in the Lakhon Chatri show and a blouse is added to the costume, in similar fashion to the Lakhon Nok.
3. The performance begins with an homagepaying rite to the teachers and past masters, followed by Hom Rong Chatri (Chatri’s overture) by the Pi Phat orchestra, Rong Prakat Na Bot, Ram Sat Na Bot (Sat Na Bot dance) to the music by the principal character who dances in an anti-clockwise circle. In the past, the principal character chanted an incantation, a spell, while dancing in a bid to invoke protection from the evil force or the hex. This is called Chak Yan (“Spinning the Yantra; Casting a spell”). After that the story begins as the principal character sits on the bench. From this point onwards the principal character sings himself, while the other characters in the story sing as chorus. When the performance finishes, the principal character performs a Sat dance again, but this time he chants the incantation backwards and moves in a clockwise circle, called Khlai Yan (“Undoing the spell”), to undo the spell.
4. The orchestra originally comprises a pi nai or pi chani (Thai oboe) for melody, a thon (a tuned two-faced drum), a pair of klong chatri (a kind of small drums), and a pair of gongs. Today the orchestra is of the piphat ranat ek type.
Lakhon Chatri has developed and changed through time. The singing to progress the story was formerly performed in the Nora tunes, such as Na Trae and Rai Chatri tunes. Today simple tunes of the central region in level 2 tempo (moderato–Thai traditional musical tempos are divided into three levels, with level one the quickest) are used and a ranat ek (“first xylophone”) is added to the orchestra to better support the singing and the dancing. The Sat Chatri dance to pay homage to the teachers and past masters is skipped and replaced by dances in Phleng Cha, Phleng Reo, and Phleng La (“Slow tune, Quick tune, and Farewell tune)–these are called Ram Thawai Mue (“Veneration dance”) by the Lakhon Chatri dance troupes that are hired to perform at shrines as an act of votive offering or Ram Kae Bon. One can safely say that the original type of Lakhon Chatri disappeared almost 40 years ago from Thailand and the type that is performed today is used as an act of votive offering.
Examples of prominent Lakhon Chatri troupes in existence today are Udomsin Krachangchot of Ayutthaya Province and Bencha Sitchalongsi of Phetchaburi Province.