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Hanuman unmasked: A gallery of Bangkok's famed khon dancers
We go backstage at the Chalermkrung Royal Theatre for an inside look at this stunningly colorful classical Thai performance
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The Sala Chalermkrung Royal Theatre has recently unveiled a new khon masked dance, taken from the Ramikien, Thailand's national epic derived from the Indian Ramayana. The performance, shown twice weekly, includes 60 dancers all elaborately dressed and centers on the events leading to the monkey god Hanuman becoming Phra Chakri's devotee.
Besides the dazzling costumes, athletic dance moves and traditional singing, the khon dancers wear masks to represent their characters, forcing the performers to use dramatic gestures and maneuvers to convey meaning and emotion. One of the central characters of this show is Hanuman, and we spoke to one of the dancers who plays him before one of his recent shows.
Behind the mask
Hanuman doesn’t wear makeup. The legendary monkey mask is on a shelf in the dressing room of Bangkok’s Chalermkrung Royal Theatre, with four others.
Considered sacred, the masks are made of papier mache over a clay mold. After drying, the mask is split in two to remove the clay, then sewn together and pasted over with more papier mache.
Its features are painted on with the black sap of the lak tree, before the mask is colored with acrylic paint. Its finish is gold leaf and sometimes mirrors or colored glass. Each mask is distinct in its colors and expression. Hanuman’s face is white and gold.
“You can’t see my face,” says Wutt, a dancer who plays Hanuman, “so I have to show emotion through gesture and movement.”
Hanuman’s dance sequences involve rolls, falls and cartwheels. The role is so physical that it is played by four different dancers in the 70-minute show.
During rehearsal, Wutt gleams with sweat. He has just practiced a fight scene with the demon god Thosakanth, whose mask is green. At the scene’s climax, Wutt climbs onto Thosakanth’s leg and twirls as he enacts the victorious blow which defeats the demon character.
Lithe and compact, Wutt is both powerful and graceful. “We have to show the character’s feelings with our hands, our legs, body and gestures,” he says. It’s confusing for the audience “if you’re new to the story, but if you have seen the Ramakien six or seven times, you understand the story.”
In the Chalermkrung Royal Theatre’s recent khon performance “Hanuman the Mighty,” Hanuman’s life is told in eight acts. It begins with his mission from the King Phra Rama to give the King’s consort Sida a box and a decorative cloth to wear and ends with Hanuman crowned as Warrior King of a city state.
“He is a magical character,” Wutt says in the dressing room. “He can be as big as a mountain. When he sneezes, stars are formed.”
With the costumer, Hanuman descends into a deep plie, as the seamstress sews on his white costume. The dancers’ movements are sometimes so rigorous that the thick, heavy costume has to be sewn on their bodies so that embarrassing rips don’t happen mid-show.
Just before the show begins, Hanuman’s mask is lowered over his head. When a finished khon mask is ready for its first performance, the master dancer of the troupe places the mask over the dancer’s head in a solemn ritual.
A cord has been sewn inside the cheeks of the mask. He bites the cord throughout the whole dance, holding the mask in place with his teeth while he somersaults or jumps.
Wutt gets into a ready stance, like he’s about to run a race. His grace is in the curve of his fingers, a signature gesture in classical Thai dance. His cue is in about 10 minutes. Through the eyeholes of the elaborate mask, his eyes are bright. His breathing is audible.
Just before the curtain rises, he makes a sudden movement -- a scratching motion with his right hand, just below the mask. A jerk of the head from side to side. And leaping onto the stage, he becomes Hanuman.
Khon performances at the Royal Chalermkrung Theatre change regularly. On now is “"Hanuman Becoming Phra Chakri’s Devotee," every Thursday and Friday at 7:30 p.m. For ticket information, visit Thaiticketmajor.com.