A series of traditional Thai performing arts, many of them based on works written by His Majesty the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, will be staged as part of the Royal Cremation
THE WHOLE world will have its eyes trained on Thailand on October 26 as the country pays a final farewell to His Majesty the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej in a ceremony that can trace its roots back to the Ayutthaya era.
As tradition demands, the Royal Cremation will be held on the open field known as Sanam Luang to the north of the Grand Palace, which has served as the royal cremation ground since the founding of Bangkok on April 21, 1782. The event will not only stun international viewers with its splendour but make its own mark on history with the grandest royal crematorium ever constructed, solemn ceremonies as well as public performances designed to pay a final tribute and farewell to the former monarch and accompany his soul to heaven.
About 3,000 artists will take part in public performances portraying the greatness of the monarch in front of the crematorium and on three stages on the North side from 6pm on cremation day until 6am the next day and signal the end of the official mourning period.
“The traditions disappeared after the reign of the King Rama VI but were revived during the reign of King Rama IX. Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn ordered that the tradition of all public performances be preserved for the Royal Cremation. These traditions first reappeared during the royal cremation of the Princess Mother in 1996,” says drama expert Chaovalit Soonpranon, chairman of the performance committee for the Royal Cremation.
In the Rattanakosin period, public performances took place for the first time during the Royal Cremation of Somdet Phra Pathom Borommahachanok, the father of King Rama I, in 1796. They were discontinued in the reign of King Rama VI for the Royal Cremation of King Rama V, according to the government website, Rama9.net.
Records show that public performances for the occasion have included the khon masked drama, apuppetry, shadow plays, Chinese opera, Mon dances, thep thong dances, stunt shows and acrobatics. For this occasion, the government is not only sticking to tradition but also adding more unique performances as the country honours the late Monarch’s artistic talents.
“In order to preserve our rich culture, Princess Sirindhorn this time ordered the Culture Ministry to revive all our artistic traditions to honour the late King as the Supreme Artist. His literature is being adapted into traditional Thai dance and modern ballet, while live orchestras will again play his compositions,” Chaovalit explains.
The most significant of these unique arts include the revival of the centuries-old royal puppet performance, the grandest outdoor khon mask dance, a neo-classical ballet based on the King’s musical compositions and traditional dance based on the King’s literature.
There will also be a special khon performance of the Ramayana epic at the ceremonial ground in front of the Royal Crematorium and the Songtham pavilion. His Majesty King Vajiralongkorn, Princess Sirindhorn and other Royal Family members will witness the historic performance up close.
More than 300 dancers will stage the “Phra Ram Crosses Over the Ocean” and “At the Battlefield” episodes of the ancient epic and wrap their performance with the “Blessing Dance” in a tribute to the late King’s dedication to the country.
Dozens of live music, puppet shows and dances will be performed on the three stages set up at the northern end of Sanam Luang.
The highlight is the royal puppet performance, which will take place at the side nearest the Supreme Court. The puppets will be performing for the public for the first time in 150 years, since the reign of King Rama IV. The newly made puppets, created using ancient methods by artisans at the Fine Arts Department, will proudly showcase a tradition that was first performed during royal cremations in the Ayutthaya period.
The Fine Arts Department, with the help of young puppet expert Kamol Karnkitcharoen, has played an important role in reviving the art form.
“Work on recreating the four main characters – Phra (actor), Nang (actress), Yak (demon) and Ling (monkey) actually started last year in the hope that we would be able to perform in front of King Bhumibol. Unfortunately, he passed away before we had a chance to do so,” Kamol says
“This show will be the first public performance since the preservation process was completed. We are grateful to be able to revive this almost extinct heritage and perform to pay our greatest respects and honour to our beloved King Bhumibol who preserved our arts and culture throughout his life. This will preserve our heritage for the next generation too,” says the 40-year-old puppet master.
The performance, which is based on the Ramayana, will see three traditional khon dramatists manipulate the synchronised dancing of the five-metre-tall wooden puppets with 20 strings during a 20-minute prelude. The puppeteers and their assistants are hidden behind the moveable stage and all the audience can see are the puppets dressed in beautiful costumes as they dance.
This will be followed by the telling of Sunthon Phu’s romantic epic “Phra Abhai Manee with hun khrabok (hand-manipulated small puppets).
Breaking the tradition of the royal puppet show being performed only by men in the court, Ancharika Noosingha, 43, is the first Thai woman to preserve this art form.
“As they are heavy with complex strings, the puppeteer must be able to skilfully manipulate the puppets in synchronising the dance movements. When I perform, I become the puppet,” says Ancharika, who has been training hard over the last few months.
“We are grateful to be given this rare performance to deliver the soul of our beloved monarch to the heavens,” adds Pairoj Thongkumsuk, his eyes brimming with unshed tears.
A theatrical adaptation of the Monarch’s popular literary work “Mahajanaka” will also be staged as well as the “Gold and Silver Flower” Thai classical dance, the classical court drama (Lakhon Nai) telling the story of Inao, a legendary prince in East Java, and a play based on the supernatural kinnaree (half-bird and half-human) princess called Manorah.
A live orchestra made up of almost 1,000 musicians, singers and choral singers will present a classical music concert entitled “Tha Keu Doungjai Thai Tua La” (“His Majesty is in the hearts of all Thais of the Land”) featuring the music composed by the late King as well as songs written to honour him on the stage in front of Thammasat University.
This too is the venue for the highly anticipated ballet “Manorah” based on the late king’s 1961 composition of the same name.
Leading choreographer Suteesak Pakdeedeva has given the one-act ballet a neo-classic style and auditioned the best ballet principals from all over the country for this special show. The 29-minute-ballet will performed by 99 dancers to the sound of music performed by 89 members of the orchestra and 89 choral singers.The number is based on the age of the King when he died.
“The Royal Ballet Manorah is recognised as an East-meets-West masterpiece. Our king was very talented, effortlessly blending the classical dance ‘Phra Suthon-Manorah’’ a play from Thailand’s south with modern ballet. He composed the “Kinnaree Suite” featuring five tunes, namely the ‘Nature Waltz’, ‘The Hunter’, the ‘Kinnaee Waltz’, ‘A Love Story’ and ‘Blue Day’,” Suteesak says.
The King then ordered Khunyiing Genevieve Damon, a French ballerina married to an American diplomat, to choreograph his ballet, while Pierre Balmain designed the extravagant costumes for the main characters. It was staged at Suan Amporn near the King’s Rama V statue in 1962 and has since been restaged on special occasions. Suteesak, 58, performed a cameo in the ballet more than a decade ago.
“The new performance will bring a contemporary look to the show. The audiences will see marigolds, the King’s flower, and the vetiver grass he used to protect the land from flooding and drought. The dancers will be dressed in outfits designed by Tube Gallery, which blend the modern with classic Thai costumes,” he adds.
The stage, which is at the northern end of Sanam Luang, will also present a shadow puppet show and a khon performance by artists from the Office of Performing Arts, along with teachers and students from 12 Colleges of Dramatic Arts and the Bunditphatthanasilpa Institute. Other khon performances of episodes from the Ramayana organised by the Foundation of the Promotion of Supplementary Occupations and Related Techniques under royal patronage will also be staged.
This year, the royal khon troupe will for the first time perform for two hours on an outdoor stage in the northern part of Sanam Luang. The performance is a type of khon chak, meaning it is performed in a theatre with the elegantly painted backdrops changing as the story proceeds. It will feature about 1,400 performers and crew.