Sun, 08 Jun 2003

Bangkok's demon dance a devilishly good time

Jason Volker, Contributor, Bangkok

This heat is unbearable, I say to the devil as another glob of perspiration stings my eye.

"Oh, this is nothing," he replies, "just wait till the hot season, now that is real torture!

An apprentice gremlin standing nearby nods in agreement.

It's not easy being a demon. Years of strenuous physical training do not make the slow and sweaty process of being sewn into a weighty costume any less grueling. But this is a familiar ritual for the classical Thai dancers of the National Theater in the heart of Bangkok.

After a full hour of attention from two assistants, a sparkling silver and scarlet demon flashes me a spirited smirk and poses for my camera before bounding off to unleash his crowd- pleasing mischief on the capacity matinee audience.

Thanking my wife's cousin's sister-in-law for the backstage pass (she is a professional demon dresser), I too bound off eager to take my seat for the cultural extravaganza that khon, traditional Thai dramatic dance, promises its patrons.

The gods and monsters of khon have been delighting Siamese audiences for the past seven centuries, though for the majority of its history those audiences only included ancient VIPs.

"In earlier times khon was referred to as lakhon nai (inner theater), which meant it was only performed within the royal palace," said Jarin Khaorungrueng, a khon instructor with the Thai Fine Arts Department.

"With the establishment of the National Theater in 1960, the door was opened to the general public to access this art of kings."

This celebrated "art of kings" consists of a resoundingly exotic orchestra, the throaty yet strangely addictive melodies of old-style Thai singing and the booming voices of side-stage narrators, all accompanying brightly bedecked dancers as they frolic, strut and battle their way through adventure-packed tales of heroes and shady characters, lovers and jealous wannabes, good and universal naughtiness.

A happy hush descends upon the audience as the curtain rises to reveal the green-faced Intorachit, son of the demon king Totsakan, stomping the timber floorboards in all his twinkling finery.

His troublemaking prowess readily apparent from the boisterous postures of his jolly jig.

The princely demon bows before a white-bearded sage, begging to be taught super powers to use in his fight against the righteous.

But this is a patient devil, so he sits in meditation for "seven years" to master the esoteric mantras as the curtain falls on the opening scene.

The crowd bursts with applause.

Today, this is an all-male enterprise, but in earlier eras it was a completely different story.

"Originally, all khon troupes were made up entirely of women. The palace women played all roles, from angels to acrobatic monkeys. They wore painted masks to represent the wide variety of characters needed in each production," said Kanchana Khaorungrueng, a wardrobe attendant at the National Theater for the past 25 years.

In this most visually spectacular of all Thailand's traditional arts, it is these vibrant masks of khon that especially seduce the eye.

"The mask is the spirit of khon," said Kanchanas husband, Jarin. "On seeing the mask we understand the character's personality. There are six different categories of masks: angels, sages, humans, demons, monkeys, and mythical animals.

"For the demons alone there are over 100 masks, each with subtle differences in the eyes, mouth and color. Everything is contained in the detail."

Our dancing demon has succeeded. Intorachit's "seven years" in silence have inspired the dazzlingly dressed gods Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva to grant his wish for magical powers. And in outstandingly impish fashion, Intorachit immediately abandons his lotus posture and declares war on the god Indra!

A collective grin spreads through the audience.

From atop his golden chariot, Intorachit leads his army of rogue warriors against the hapless deity Indra. A stylized skirmish follows in which Indra manages to make a timely escape, but not before losing his favorite weapon to the puffy-chested Intorachit.

Uninterested in quashing his glee, our royal rascal launches into an exuberant solo romp that reveals the strength and stamina of classical Thai dancers and the full knavery of Intorachit's wonderfully wicked character.

That collective grin has grown into a chuckle.

These entertaining antics were first scripted two millennia ago by the Indian poet Valmiki when he composed the epic Ramayana. In 1807 the Siamese king, Phutthayotfa Chulalok, lengthened the Sanskrit original by 25 percent (to make a total of 60,000 stanzas) and added many uniquely Thai ingredients to create the Ramakian, Thailand's foremost literary masterpiece and source of all khon storylines.

The result of this majestic writing spree is the swashbuckling tale of heroic Prince Rama and his allies, and their universe- rattling battle with the villainous demon king Totsakan and his unruly cohorts.

Such is the magnitude of this wildly imaginative work that a khon production of the entire Ramakian, with all 311 characters, would take more than one month to perform. However, this didn't deter ancient dance troupes from regularly performing marathon 20-hour productions staged over two consecutive days.

In today's bustling Bangkok, performances of movie-length "episodes" from the Ramakian are now the norm (which isn't such a bad thing considering the theater's "historically accurate" seating).

The sparsely set stage welcomes the rambunctious Intorachit's return, fresh from his victory over heavenly Indra. It's time to marshal his ogres and pay Prince Rama a surprise visit.

Regally underwhelmed by the fiends at full march, Rama appoints his brother Laksman to command the royal defenses. A climactic brouhaha is brewing.

Martial music rocks the battlefield as Intorachit and Prince Laksman exchange dramatic blows. Our swaggering demon is resolute until agile Laksman climbs on his foe's bent thigh to deliver a walloping strike that sends Intorachit reeling.

The irrepressible Intorachit unleashes his secret weapon the Nakhabart. The Serpent Arrow summons forth a nest of snake-headed actors bearing scaly vipers that constrict Laksman and his troops into slithering submission.

Cue the hero. Rushing to the aid of his unconscious sibling, Prince Rama displays some impressive wizardry of his own by summoning Garuda, lord of the eagles and natural nemesis of all creepy creatures.

Thunder and lightning crash throughout the theater as Garuda claws away the serpents and revives Prince Laksman and his bamboozled soldiers. Our foiled ruffian Intorachit wisely beats a hasty exit, to the accompaniment of a hearty ovation.

But before entering the wings, one last flash of inspired misbehavior stops him in his tracks. He pauses, slowly pivots, looks Rama in the eye, and lets fly a final flurry of finger- pointing that clearly says this is not the end!