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Khon Mask Making
Written by Wadee Kheourai   
Friday, 09 February 2007 20:56

Most visitors to Thailand have the opportunity to experience the masked "Khon" drama, a uniquely Thai version of the Indian "Ramayana" epic, with tales of gods of ferocious demons. Khon was originally developed as an exclusively Royal entertainment, popular at the courts of Ayutthaya and later of Rattanakosin.

In addition to the exquisitely controlled grace and charm of the dance and its symbolic gestures (it takes over ten years to train a leading Khon actor), the most memorable features are certainly the gorgeous costumes with richly gilded crowns and colourful masks.

Each character in the Ramayana, or Ramakian as it is known in Thailand, has a different costume and headdress. Of the leading roles the most easily recognised are the noble God - King, Phra Ram, the demon, Thotsakan, and the local monkey general, Hanuman. There are more than a hundred support characters and most of them wear different styles of masks and headdresses which are lavishly decorated. The making of these masks is an art form that highly specialised and there are only a very few craftsmen in Thailand who have mastered this skill. One is M.R. Charoonsawat Suksawat.

The making of each mask can take many days of detailed work. The first stage is the moulding of a plaster form to the size and shape of the actor's head. On to this is applied many layers of papier mache in order to build up the character's features. For the best masks a special tissue thin paper (hand - made from a tree bark called "khoi") is used. Up to 20 layers of khoi paper are glued on to the form, then the surface is dried and smoothed. The mask is then cut away from the form, the two halves begin rejoined by sewing with fine wire. A final layer of papier mache is added, holes made for eyes and mouth, and the decoration finished using paint, lacquer, gold leaf and coloured glass fragments. For the finest examples semi precious gems are used and real ivory for tusks and fangs.

Information from: Thai Studies by Wadee Kheourai.