'Khon' dance no reason for discord

'Khon' dance no reason for discord

The Support Foundation staged a performance of the classic khon dance episode, 'The Allegiance of Phiphek' earlier this month. (Photo provided)
The Support Foundation staged a performance of the classic khon dance episode, 'The Allegiance of Phiphek' earlier this month. (Photo provided)

Members of the public this week rejoiced as the <i>khon</i> mask dance earned global recognition with Unesco adding it to its cultural heritage list after a long wait.

Unesco's Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage which met this week in Port Louis, the capital of Mauritius, decided to inscribe "Khon Masked Dance Drama in Thailand" on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The meeting also added Cambodia's mask dance, known as lakhon khol, to the listing. Thailand's representatives arranged for a khon show at the meeting venue based on an episode that depicted Hanuman finding his long-lost son.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha warmly received the news. He told the media a series of activities linked to khon masked dance would be held to boost public understanding of the classical performance whose storyline is derived from Indian epic, the Ramayana.

"The government will organise various activities associated with khon to boost participation and public knowledge of the performance," said the prime minister.

It's a noble idea for Thailand to promote understanding of this classic performance art. Yet khon education, knowledge and understanding should not be limited to the story content, dancing techniques, accompanying music and chanting merely for the purpose of conservation.

Education should be aimed at making Thais, especially cultural buffs, more open-minded about this classical art, especially when it comes to the origins of a masked dance that features bejewelled costumes and traditional pii pat percussion music.

The dance, which is performed in several countries across Southeast Asia, is a contentious issue between Thailand and its immediate neighbour Cambodia where a masked dance is also presented in a similar format. Some people, driven by nationalism, have tried to claim ownership over the performance. Thailand made its bid for nomination to Unesco in 2016, shortly after Cambodia applied for the status. The efforts drew ire from both sides of the border, with some Thai -- and also Cambodian -- nationalists calling for their government to shoot down the other's bid. Such a contest is ridiculous.

Inarguably, these nationalists, many of whom are stuck in the long-standing Preah Vihear dispute, were blinded by the misconception that status given to one would block the other from receiving recognition. The fact is each country had its own right to make such a nomination and that's why Cambodia's lakhon khol won the status at the same time as Thailand's.

In past years, academics and historians have tried to play down attempts by the two neighbours to claim ownership of the show. Instead, they argue the art is a heritage item that is to be shared. They view the contest over who owns the masked dance as an example of the immaturity of certain people in both Thailand and Cambodia.

The fact is that both countries, like several Southeast Asian countries, inherited the original performing art from India where the epic, written by Valmiki, is known as the Ramayana. Thailand's version is called Ramakien, while it's Reamker for Cambodia.

Whatever it's called, it tells the story of a divine Prince of Ayodhya, Rama, the reincarnation of Lord Vishnu who subdues a demon king, Ravana, and takes back his abducted wife, Sita.

In addition, the story is depicted in other genres including an animated movie and puppet play. But the masked dance is considered the top form.

In Thailand, khon mask dance is produced by a few prominent agencies, including the Fine Arts Department, the Support Foundation under the royal patronage of Her Majesty Queen Sirikit, and Thammasat University.

Only the Fine Arts Department, which also oversees dance and performing art institutes across the country offers a series of performances on regular basis.

The other two agencies at most present a once-a-year show. Some privately-run troupes also enact the drama, although not on such a grand scale.

Performing the masked dance involves tough and demanding training, both for dancers and musicians as the art is considered as national dance. It's not surprising that people are thrilled with the Unesco listing.

The status should give inspiration to artists, cultural officials and educators to maintain the dance's heritage and make the art more accessible to the public.

It's also necessary that they do more to help Thai cultural buffs to let go of the nationalism that may unnecessarily result in neighbourly conflict.

It's good that people want to conserve the art. But nationalism has no place in conservation.

If there is a contest, it must be driven by an aspiration to make the masked dance -- whether it's khon or lakhon khol -- the best it can possibly be, in whichever country.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

Email : anchaleek@bangkokpost.co.th

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