By Kupluthai Pungkanon
Thailand’s traditional high-art performance of khon staged by the Support Foundation under the royal patronage of Her Majesty Queen Sirikit of King Rama IX returns to the stage in November after being put on hold for the last two years due to the death of the monarch.
This year, the foundation is presenting the “The Allegiance of Phiphek” episode of the Ramayana epic, portraying the significance of loyalty, honesty, and moral excellence in a nod to the tenth edition of the annual show.
Since its inception in 2007, the Royal Khon Performance as it used to be known, has put on seven episodes of the Ramakian, as the Ramayana is known in Thai, starting with “The Battle of Phrommas” and continuing with “Nangloy or the Floating Lady”, “The Battle of Maiyarap”, “Jong Tanon”, “The Battle of Kumphakan: Mokkasak”, “The Battle of Indrajit: Nagabas”, and “The Battle of Indrajit: Phrommas”.
The press conference was held on Tuesday and an excerpt from the new show performed at Thailand’s Cultural Centre’s small hall and offered an advance taste of what local audiences can enjoy come November.
Khon is a genre of Thai classical dance drama and a complex art form that embodies the comprehensive knowledge of many interrelated arts, among them refined and elaborate masks and costumes, magnificent props and set, graceful dancing postures and more. It is a unique cultural heritage that had been practised and transmitted through the successive courts since the Ayutthaya period. The story of “Rama” or “Phra Ram”, one of the incarnations of Vishnu, has inspired much of Thai literature.
This great tale, which predates Buddhism, was made popular in India by the rishi poet, Valmiki, who wrote the epic of the Ramayana, based on the original story. The Ramayana story became so well known that it extended to Southeast Asia, being picked up by Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. Each country took into account its native literature and the story and characters were adapted to the beliefs, cultures and characteristics of each locality. As a consequence, the story of Ramakien in each country varies to a greater or lesser degree from Valmiki’s original Ramayana epic. In Thailand there are many versions of the “Ramakien” scripts – the poem, the lyrics, and the narratives written by King Rama I, King Rama II, and King Rama VI.
Part of “The Allegiance of Phiphek” episode was performed on an outdoor stage during last year’s Royal Cremation but now audiences can enjoy the story in its entirety.
Artistic director, Pramet Boonyachai, explains that the script for this year’s performance has been reconstructed from several previous compositions including those of Kings Rama I, II and VI, as well as from the foundation’s previously performed version. The music and accompanying songs have been carefully selected for the performance.
Act I: Subin Nimit, which is divided into five scenes, sees Phiphek being sent into exile, his farewell to his wife and daughter, the exile proper, his meeting with Nilaek, the Monkey Commander, and his allegiance to Phra Ram.
Act II has four scenes: the Monthop ledge at the end of war, the battlefield, the tying of Todsakanth’s hair, and the Kabilaphat Spear.
“Phiphek played a major role in advising Phra Ram as he fought against Tosakanth, the Demon King of Longka. However, he has never been in the spotlight, so this time we would like to introduce him to the audience. He is the only demon in Phra Ram’s troops and even though he is a younger brother of Tosakanth, his honesty and great virtue won him Phra Ram’s trust. In terms of the war strategy, this character is considered very important,” he explains.
Phiphek was an avatar of the god Vessuyan, commanded by the supreme god Siva to support Phra Ram in the fight against evil. He was adept at astrology, with the gift of accurate prophecy. When Tosakanth began having bad dreams, he consulted Phiphek about them. Phiphek related that the dream foretold a terrible war for the demons and that he should return Sita to Phra Ram. The suggestion made Tosakanth angry, and as a result, he chased Phiphek out of the city. Phiphek afterwards changed sides and pledged his loyalty to Phra Ram and soon became the astrologer of the army. He swore he would serve and advise only Phra Ram. With Tosakanth’s plans sabotaged, he marched his army to battle again, this time to kill Phiphek but Phra Ram was aware of the plot, and assigned his brother Phra Lak to protect Phiphek.
Phiphek wore a green costume, had one face and two arms. His masked headgear takes the form of a round bottle gourd, while his weapon is a mace. He was crowned the fourth King of Longka after the death of Tosakanth by Phra Ram.
“Over the past decade, the khon performance by the Support Foundation has seen great improvement. We spent four years in the research and development of the production before staging the first episode in 2007,” Pramet explains.
“We received a great deal of feedback from both Her Majesty the Queen and Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn as well as general public. For example, the connectivity between Act I and Act II should have better and smoother. We also became even more careful in our attention to detail, introducing exquisite props and sets created by Sudsakorn Chaisem. This time the audience will see the magnificent sailing boat on stage, which has never been done for a khon performance.
“My research has shown that there are the differences in the manner of Phiphek’s exile from Longka. In the versions of Kings Rama I and VI, he flew but in King Rama II’s version, Phiphek sailed to see Phra Ram,” he explains.
“Meanwhile for the music, there are two highlights, the “Wa” and the “Sathukarn” songs. Normally, the Wa song has only melody but we have discovered that lyrics were written. The Sathukarn song was composed during the reign of King Rama VI at Suan Kularp Palace and we’ll perform this as the ceremonial song for the Queen.”
Every year, in keeping with the goal of preserving the national heritage, young performers are invited to audition for the cast. Two years ago those auditions drew a record number of students from dramatic arts institutes and of the 772 applications received, 26 youngsters won scholarships and the chance to participate in the grand performance as the main cast and will at last be able to show off their skills.
“As the feedback appears to be even greater than in previous years. I’d like to encourage everyone to reserve tickets now as the show will only run for one month,” adds Thanpuying Charungjit Teekara, Her Majesty Queen Sirikit’s private secretary and chairperson of the Khon Performance.
“The Khon Performance by the Support Foundation has not only integrated and supported many kinds of traditional arts but is also supporting local artists as well as artists within the foundation. Her Majesty has always praised Thai people for having artistry in their blood and thus wished to preserve our traditional, rich heritage,” she adds.
Wonders of khon return
- The Khon Performance by the Support Foundation will run from November 3 to December 5 at the Thailand Cultural Centre.
- Tickets cost Bt420, Bt620, Bt820, Bt1,020, Bt1,520 and Bt1,820 for public rounds and Bt220 for student rounds.
- They are available from today at Thai Ticket Major counters, by calling (02) 262 3456 and online at www.ThaiTicketMajor.com
- For more information visit Facebook: Khon Performance.