Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Sala Chalermkrung and the Classical Art of Khon

To celebrate Bangkok’s 150 year, King Rama VII built the Phra Phutayodfah Bridge that links Bangkok and Dhonburi, a statue of King Rama I and also donated more than 9 million baht of his own funds to build the country’s first cinema and interestingly the first air-conditioned cinema in South East Asia.  King Rama VII wanted his subjects to be able to enjoy the most popular cinematic and theatrical performances.  The construction of the Sala Chalermkrung Theatre began in 1930 and opened its doors on 2 July 1933 and has provided that entertainment to Thai people ever since.  It has also become an institute that has trained actors and performers of all natures and has become a legendary venue.

In 2008, King Rama VII celebrated his 60th year on the throne, and to mark the occasion the Sala Chalermkrung Foundation joined hands with the Crown Property Bureau to launch the Sala Chalermkrung Khon project.  The project’s aim was to instil appreciation for the Thai’s traditional culture and art.  Khon is a classical art of Thailand where masked performers enact scenes whilst narrators melodically tell the story.  Where the narrators used to be a necessity as the masked performers couldn’t possibly fill the auditorium with their voices, today they remain more for traditional purposes as wireless microphones could easily be inserted inside the masks for amplification.  The performance used to be for royalty only as it was extraordinarily expensive to produce but with the changing of time, King Rama VII has made this performance available to his people and visitors to Thailand.

The most commonly used script is Ramakien, which is a national epic derived from the Hindu Ramayana.  The Ramayana is an ancient epic which forms an important basis of the Hindu cannon alongside the Mahabharata.  It depicts an idealistic society and duties of relationships between mortals and gods.  The Ramayana spread across India, Nepal and into South East Asia.  Trade and business routes through the area accelerated its influence on foreign cultures which in turn adopted and adapted the story to become their own epics, Thailand’s version is the Ramakien and is apparently still taught in schools today.  Unfortunately many of the original versions of Ramakien were destroyed when Ayutthaya was attacked and razed to the ground by invading Burmese army which marked the end of the Siamese Kingdom.  In the 1790s King Rama I set about creating his own version of the Ramakien which was then adapted by his son, King Rama II who rewrote a selection of verses for the purpose of Khon theatre.

Khon Theatre is interested in retaining tradition and culture, not evolution of an artistic style.  With this in mind, we cannot look at Khon as an end to what Thailand’s theatre has to offer.  Unlike neighbouring, Myanmar, Cambodia, China and disjoined Vietnam, Thailand has a dramatically different political constitution as freedom of speech was introduced during the 1990s.  Although during the recent 2006 Coup D’état which saw the military oust Prime Minister Thaksin from power and exile him, there was a brief period of censorship which affected television, radio and newspapers from reporting any news that may cause social strife during the transitional period.  Interestingly, the removal of censorship is not entirely complete, by law, you are still not allowed to criticise the royal family nor can you insult Buddhism.  Thailand did have a long history of censorship but was increasingly relaxed since the dissolution of absolute monarchy.  With this more democratic constitution, Thai art forms have more freedom to produce innovative performances than their neighbours so long as they avoid royal and religious criticisms.

The performance began with a short documentary produced to inform the audience of what Khon is and how the performers train and prepare for the show.  The performers dress in extravagantly flamboyant costumes full of sequins, golden headdresses that peak a foot above their crowns and intricately decorated masks covering their faces.  The cast multiplies to dozens and the video records their preparation and how they are sewn into their costumes, heaven knows what happens should you need to go to the toilet.  I believe part of their training must focus on the bladder!  It’s magical to see their slow, steady transformation from an ordinary Thai into this mystical character they will characterise for the next hour and half. 

The performers in Khon are highly trained and they practice absolute control over their entire body.   They slowly move with precise and meaningful movements that are choreographed right down to their fingertips.  Khon is a highly physical and symbolic art form where the performers need to adhere to certain movements which express various emotions.  Their movement is mesmerising, extreme control and balance is required as the pace of movement can be fast and then slow.  This reminded me of the work of Eugenio Barba who believed in performers becoming masters of their bodies to enable then to move freely and decisively.  He put his students under gruelling and repetitive exercises where the performer studies each individual muscle within the body, what it does and how to manipulate it to get to where you need to be.  Interestingly, Barba was influenced by Kathakali, an Indian dance-drama form that has a certain amount of similarities to Khon.  It’s fascinating how theatrical cultures transport themselves around the world and merge.

The performance was a colourful display of dance, acrobatics, movement and mime and although there was the issue of a language barrier, the emotive gestures between performers provided more than enough meaning to understand what was happening.  I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and would recommend this performance to anyone who visits Bangkok.

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