Trying to ignore my protesting, rubbery legs I kneeled before the Master and watched intently as he called over a young girl of about six or seven. She rushed to his side and he grasped her small hand, glanced up to make sure I was watching.
Then he bent the tips of her fingers backwards to touch her wrist. She didn’t flinch. I on the other hand was wiggling my own fingers in terror. Just a few moments earlier the Master had tried to bend my fingers to his will and they weren’t as flexible as we’d hoped.
So far my body just didn’t seem to be engineered for the contorting poses of the Thai masked performance called khon. My knees screamed from the kneeling, my body shook from the strain as I tried to hold the angles, I dipped hazardously as I tried to sway gracefully—it just wasn’t working out.
But there was one western foreigner among the Thais of that class who could hold his own. A Canadian who seemed to take the athletic demands of khon in stride and gracefully thundered through the steps. One whose energetic steps emitted the playfulness of the monkey he was supposed to be.
Khon is considered the highest art form in the country.
Benjamin Tardif has been studying khon at the Bunditpatanasilpa Institute in Bangkok for just under two years. And he’s hoping to one day become a National Artist.
The following is a series of photos I took for my final photojournalism project at Thammasat University. In the end I decided that this would be a sufficient way to end my series of posts in Thailand and its surrounding countries since, in a way, it represents my time there: a distant, inquisitive perspective through the eyes of another foreigner in a strange land.
Anyway, please enjoy.
Title Image: When the 29-year-old Canadian began, a master performer told him he’s most suited to play a monkey role. Tardif has been working to capture the character ever since.
“When I dance I have this serious face under the mask—I’m concentrating on my movements. I am the monkey.”
Khon evolved into a vigorous test of strength. The motions of monkey characters for example place an emphasis on the thigh muscles and squats. The artists must also perform acrobatic cartwheels, flips and lifts.
Aside from human characters, all performers in khon wear masks. This means they depend on motions and gestures to convey their moods and thoughts.
The relationship between instructors and students is paramount in studying khon. The students mimic their instructors every chance they get.
Individuals have to earn the right to become instructors and may only do so when they have received permission from their own masters. There is a special ceremony dedicated to the elevation of a student to an instructor.
Outside of Benjamin Tardif’s case, individuals practicing khon are normally selected and groomed for the art form from a very young age. They are assigned to different roles based on their body type, personality and abilities. For example, giants are often tall and solid individuals; monkeys are more relaxed, flexible and limber; and humans are the most graceful and delicate.
Tardif is studying for a Masters Degree in Thai Dramatic Arts and practices a diverse range of traditional Thai dances. Although he is not practicing a khon dance in this image, it also utilizes props like staffs, swords, carts and other items. The students need to practice balancing twirling and mock fighting with their staffs.
In 1932 when Thailand shifted from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy, the once royally exclusive art form came under the jurisdiction of the government. The National Theatre in Bangkok was created the same year to house it and, over time, the Bunditpatanasilpa Institute emerged from the theatre.
“This courtyard is my favourite place in the college. The Grand Master teaches in this space. It’s very old,” said Benjamin Tardif, a Canadian studying the art form.
The pants are called “jongkaben” and they are part of the traditional Thai uniform. Students wear red while masters wear blue.
When Benjamin Tardif showed interest in traditional Thai dances, two teachers from the Bunditpatanasilpa Institute in Bangkok—Wirod Yusawat and the National Artist Prasit Phinkeow—as well as a Master named Somchai Yimyem, who teaches at the College of Dramatic Arts in Sukhothai, stepped forward to help him.
Tardif immersed himself in the culture of the dance and continues to strive forward.
“I know that in five to seven years I won’t be able to dance as vigorously, so I’m pushing myself so I can perform as much as I can.”
Here Benjamin and his fellow monkey performers practice their crying as they personify the character Machanu, one of Hanuman’s son who is half-fish half-monkey. They are comforted by other performers playing Hanuman, a prominent monkey character in khon.
“Hanuman might be one of the most loved character of the Ramakien because he has many superpowers and he’s funny (so the kids love him), but I think it is especially his loyalty, devotion and courage which make everyone so fond of him”.
As with many other forms of dance, khon is taught through mimicry and a focus on positioning. At the Bunditpatanasilpa Institute in Bangkok, instructors move through the students correcting stances and demonstrating motions during the lessons.
The dancing in khon is accompanied by music and offstage speech. When a character speaks the dancer will display gestures connected to the words. Benjamin Tardif, a 29-year-old studying the art form in Bangkok, practices the gesture for “demon”. The two index fingers represent the long teeth of the demon.
“One of the challenges of the khon dance is to be able to perform in harmony with the other performers without seeing their faces because we all wear masks. So we don’t know how they feel or if they are ready. We have to trust our friends because sometimes we have to do some acrobatics and complex balance pyramids, which requires timing and complicity,” said Tardif.
In khon there is a reverence for national actors, who are regarded as the highest authority on the modern adaption of the art form.
“As we learn the dance movements, we learn to respect our past masters’ legacy. The khon dance is a traditional Thai art form that needs to be preserved, so it will be performed as it was intended by our ancestors,” said Tardif.
“We don’t want to pervert the essence of the dance.”
Khon is inspired by the story of Ramakien, a Thai epic adapted from the Ramayana from India. The story follows Phra Ram, an incarnation of the god Phra Narai, as he fights to free his wife Sida who was kidnapped by the love-struck demon king, Tosakanth.
King Taksin of Thailand translated and wrote the earliest known adaption. The version of the Ramakien of Rama I is well known as a literary masterpiece, but it is the Rama II’s texts which have been adapted for the khon performances seen in modern Thailand.
A white monkey mask with an open mouth and coronet is Hanuman. In Thai khon tradition all of the costume’s parts have to be treated with the highest respect, but the masks are considered separate entities. Performers are taught to wai to the mask and pay their respects to the head, Gods and past masters before they perform.
“For me, when I’m all dressed up—before I put on my mask, I pay respect to the artists, masters, ancestors and Gods. To respect khon is to acknowledge that without all these people, we wouldn’t be able to perform,” said Tardif.
When khon dancers don their costumes the clothes are sewn closed. The costume features about 20 different components including a monkey tail, pendant, bracelets and garments representing fur. The only variation between monkey costumes is their colours and the shapes of their masks.
Khon is performed regularly at the National Theatre and the Sala Chalermkrung Royal theatre in Bangkok. In 2006 the Sala Chalermkrung Foundation, Crown Property Bureau and Tourism Authority of Thailand organized a Sala Chalermkrung Khon permanent show. Recently that performance was replaced with a new show featuring Hanuman, a white monkey with four faces, eight hands, earrings, diamond hair and crystal fangs.
I highly recommend going and seeing a show since Thailand is very proud of its arts heritage and does everything it can to preserve these traditions!