Bangkok: Behind the mask

By Kinan Suchaovanich

Any taxi can take you to one of Bangkok's glitzy new shopping malls, but you will have to leave the security of the modern city and tread carefully down a crumbling, fetid alley in a working-class district to find a true artefact of Thai culture.

Once the Saphan Mai ("Wooden Bridge") area housed a thriving community of makers of Khon masks, used in classical Thai dance, but most workshops were shuttered years ago. But look closer, and if your timing is right, in a small, tin-roofed house you will find 56-year-old Prateep Rodpai, one of Thailand's last traditional maskmakers.

The Khon tradition was imported from India around the 10th century. It evolved from a Hindu religious ceremony into a morality play in Siamese royal courts and has since enjoyed royal favour. The cultural equivalent of Japan's kabuki, Khon used to be performed at important social functions such as funerals.

A typical Khon performance recounts an episode from the Hindu epic Ramayana, called the Ramakien in Thailand. Dancers in glittering costumes perform carefully modulated acrobatic moves to classical Thai music.

The exquisitely painted masks are essential to convey the characters and moods of a Khon performance. But in a case of trickle-down culture, the masks are also decorative objects, displayed in homes and even Thai restaurants abroad; and objects of worship.

Prateep can be found most weekends at his Bangkok home working on his masks as he waits for customers to pick up their orders. "I am," he said regretfully, " the last one to still be doing this here.".

Though some years ago he followed most craftsmen out of the city, moving his workshop to Ang Thong, about 110km north of Bangkok, he still keeps a tiny space here, mainly because "some customers refuse to go all the way to Ang Thong."

One recent rainy Saturday, Prateep sold three masks, all representing characters from the Ramakien. Two were for a Khon troupe and the other for a shaman to use in his ritual.

Some customers come from as far away as the United States. "Each culture has its distinct motif. And the Khon mask is probably most representative of Thai culture," said Prateep. "Masks do not have to be worn to retain their cultural significance."

In their Bangkok workspace, Prateep and his wife, Pinthip, are putting the final touches to some masks, painting a spot here, gluing some ornaments there. The whole process is intricate and and the masks need three days to dry in the sun.

Prateep's uncle, the late Sakorn Yang-keawsot, a Khon performer more famous as a puppeteer, taught him the rudiments of Khon mask-making. Prateep still uses the formula passed down from his uncle for his clay: a mixture of rice powder, some paper starch, a pinch of calcium talc and plenty of cement; he keeps the proportions a closely guarded secret.

Chalermchai Chimchanvej, who rents Khon costumes to media productions and manages a troupe that performs at private functions, has been Prateep's customer for years. "I come back for the quality. It is much more difficult now to find masks with good value."

Fortunately for Khon, it can still count on Queen Sirikit, wife of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, as a major patron. It was the 78-year-old Queen who footed most of the bills for this year's epic performance of Nang Loi, an episode from the Ramakien. All seven performances were sold out in days. It was so well-received the organiser put on nine additional performances.

And there is growing interest in Khon among young people. This Mother's Day, eight students at Bangpakok Primary School marked the occasion with a special performance of an episode in the Ramakien where monkeys, one of the many protagonists in the epic, show off their vigour.

Prateep is delighted. "The renewed interest in Khon gives us a lifeline," he says. "Without Khon performances, I won't have a livelihood. But without Khon masks, there'd be no Khon."

Without young blood, Prateep predicts his craft will be extinct in two generations. "I hope there will be a resurgence of interest in Khon. I believe deep in the heart of every Thai there's an urge to explore our past and identity, and Khon is part of who we are."

CHECKLIST

Khon performances: For tickets, dates and other details click here.

Khon maskmaker: You can reach Prateep Rodpai's workshop at Pracha Chuen Rd 18 by taxi, but tourists should have their concierge arrange any visit in advance by phoning (from within Thailand) 081-318-2084.

- AP

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