Thailand Ministry of Culture’s Department of Cultural Promotion has declared a year of activities in 2019 to celebrate ‘Khon’, Thailand’s masked dance drama, which has been inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, a decision reached at the 13th Session of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Mauritius on 29 November, 2018.
‘Khon’ masked dance drama is Thailand’s first Intangible Cultural Heritage element to be proposed for listing to UNESCO after Thailand joined the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of UNESCO in September 2016.
According to UNESCO’s inscription on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, “Khon, the Khon Masked Dance Drama in Thailand, is a performing art that combines musical, vocal, literary, dance, ritual and handicraft elements.
Khon performances – which involve graceful dance movements, instrumental and vocal renditions and glittering costumes – depict the glory of Rama, the hero and incarnation of the god Vishnu, who brings order and justice to the world.
The many episodes depict Rama’s life, including his journey in the forest, his army of monkeys, and his fights with the army of Thosakan, king of the giants.
On one level, Khon represents high art cultivated by the Siamese/Thai courts over centuries, while at another level, as a dramatic performance, it can be interpreted and enjoyed by spectators from different social backgrounds.
Khon has a strong didactic function, reinforcing respect for those of a higher age and status, mutual dependence between leaders and followers, the honour of rulers and the triumph of good over evil.
Traditionally, Khon was transmitted in the royal or princely courts, and in dance masters’ households. Today, however, transmission occurs mostly in educational institutions, while still adhering largely to traditional methods.
Concerted efforts are made to ensure the continuity of the practice, including through the establishment of training and performance clubs that help reach out to young people.”
Here’s a 10-minute video documentary on “Khon, masked dance drama in Thailand” on UNESCO’s YourTube channel, published on 29 November, 2018.
Khon is one of Thailand’s most significant performing arts. The Department of Cultural Promotion under the Ministry of Culture declared “Khon, masked dance drama in Thailand” as the national Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2009.
Khon is an important traditional style of dance and art dating from the Ayutthaya period. This form of dramatic art has its own unique identity incorporating different fields of the arts, literature, rituals and crafts. It is a traditional form of entertainment that has been passed down from generation to generation.
Currently, courses to study the masked dance drama are offered at educational institutions of various levels. The true value of this style of dance drama lies not just in its artistic dance forms, but also in its clear use and reflection of “Thainess” as well as in the development of individual styles, especially the Khon in Thailand, which is widely recognised for its refinement and artistry.
To celebrate the artistry significance of the Thai performing arts and “Khon, masked dance drama in Thailand” being inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in November, this year, the Department of Cultural Promotion staged a special Khon performance, “The Allegiance of Phiphek” in Bangkok on 3-4 December.
Throughout 2019, the Department of Cultural Promotion has lined up activities to celebrate the Khon masked dance drama in three parts:
1: Activities to honour individuals and organisations that help advance Khon.
2: Activities to promote greater awareness of Khon’s various forms, including seminars, printed media publicity, a book about Khon, a Ramayana animation, Khon exhibitions, and online publicity.
3: Organising Khon performances in Bangkok and provincial areas. This includes “The Allegiance of Phiphek” performance recently held in Bangkok.
For 2020, the Promotion and Conservation of Intangible Cultural Heritage Commission has proposed “Nuat Thai, traditional Thai massage” for listing with UNESCO. The listing is currently under consideration by UNESCO. Studies are also underway on other aspects of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Tourist can enjoy Khon mask dance shows at Sala Chalermkrung Royal Theatre.
*Information and photographs courtesy of the Department of Cultural Promotion