Kittiporn Chaiboon
Director, Research and Development Group, Department of Cultural Promotion, Ministry of Culture, Thailand

Khon is one of the most significant performing arts of Thailand. It is an important traditional dance and art style dated from the Ayutthaya period. It has its own unique identity and integrates different fields of art, literature, rituals, and crafts.

Craft specialists, who create ornamented headdresses and masks, embroidered costumes, and musical instruments, and make-up artists are informally trained and work as independent specialists. Young apprentices are trained in various courses in workshops and households of the master craft specialists or on the job. All artists and craft specialists related to Khon have to perform Khon during ceremonies to honor deities and past masters and during discipleship rituals or to mark the transmission of new knowledge and skills.

Khon costumes are influenced by royal garments and regalia of the Royal Court of Siam. However, the costumes are always made of lesser materials. The jewelry for Khon is also custom made and mostly handcrafted with casting and repoussé techniques. Many of the Khon costumes visual impact come from gold embroidery that embellishes virtually every item dancers wear. Khon costumes consist of (1) a headdress, including the Khon mask and headdress called siraporn (2) body ornaments called thanim-pimpaporn, and (3) clothing called patsatraporn. Khon costumes are adorned with many complex forms, colors, and designs. They are uniquely sewn with a variety of colored thread and sequins. Embroidery arts require execution by experienced and skillful artisans. Since each costume has a specific style and multiple garment components, the savoir faire of embroidery is uniquely individual.

Traditional Khon and Thai classical drama costumes adhere to dress codes, especially for leading male and female dancers, who use first-tier colors: red, green, and yellow. For the Khon Ramayana epic, character dress codes for body color are specific. For example, Phra Rama is green, and Phra Laksana is yellow.

A young artisan learning the art of embroidery during a workshop © Gingthong Mahapornpaisal

Classical Khon and Thai drama costume embroidery commonly has two types of Thai motifs: partition patterns and vine patterns. The partition patterns are made with embossed stitching techniques over a decorative Thai design pattern. The stitching lines up to form an intricate frame pattern, creating a low relief effect on the fabric. This technique requires a variety of threads—metallic, unbleached cotton, satin, or cotton—to create the colorful lining and effect. Common Thai motifs found in this type of Thai decorative design pattern are funnels, flower petals, and Thai stripes. The vine pattern incorporates a chain-stich technique to form vines and floral designs. The stitching materials are metallic thread, sequins, colorful silk, jewel beetle wings, beads, and gems. Nowadays, only a few well-skilled embroidering masters remain in some communities surrounding old towns in Bangkok.

The Ban Narasilp (or Narasilp House) community in Wat Suntorn Thammatarn (or Wat Kae Nang Lerng) on Larn Luang Street is a descendant of the Khon-lakorn troupe called the Narasilp troupe. The Narasilp troupe has been transmitting Khon performing arts and craftsmanship for many generations. This area has been home to many classical Thai dance and drama troupes since the early Rattanakosin period of the late-eighteenth century.

Mrs. Lamom Susangkornkarn founded the Narasilp troupe at the beginning of the reign of King Rama VI (1910-1925 A.D.). This troupe was famous for performing various kinds of Khon, such as Khon Klang Plaeng, Khon Na Jor, and Khon Chak Rok, and other performances, such as Lakorn (classical Thai drama), and film in the early period.

Later, Mrs. Jinda Pansamut, the second generation of the Narasilp troupe, kept on her mother’s intention and developed production techniques that increased the troupe’s positive reputation for nearly a century.

Khon’s Wai Khru ceremony at Ban Narasilp © Pinit Suthinatr

In 1968, the Narasilp troupe joined the Thammasat Khon troupe, with the lead of M.R. Kukrit Pramoj, to perform Khon, which made the Thammasat Khon troupe well known to audiences throughout the country by the late 1970s. Also, during those days, the Narasilp troupe produced popular performances in various genres, such as musical dramas, stage plays, and radio soap operas.

Nowadays, as a result of the flow of modern western pop culture, Khon and other kinds of classical drama have become less popular. The Narasilp troupe rarely performs today. Therefore, the third generation, Ms. Phumaree Pansamut and Mr. Pinit Suthinatr, has adapted the Ban Narasilp to be a learning center for Khon production making, especially for ornamented body and headdress making and Khon costume embroidering. Moreover, Master Chit Kaewduangyai, one of the great masters of Khon mask making, created all the Khon masks exhibited the Ban Narasilp. The Ban Narasilp is also the sacred place to perform Khon Wai Khru ceremonies, an important ritual of classical Khon and Thai drama students, in which the students pay respect to their teachers and great teachers to express gratitude and formalize the student–teacher relationship.

On 14 June 2018, the Department of Cultural Promotion, Ministry of Culture, awarded the Ban Narasilp descendants and officially opened the Ban Narasilp on Larn Luang Street as a community learning center for learning to make and embroider Khon costumes to maintain continuity and the significance of Khon as a national intangible cultural heritage. In addition, the descendants have been supported with a budget for the training workshop to train a new generation of young artisans in classical Khon and Thai drama costume to safeguard this fine art for humanity.