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Policies and Actions


National level agency/organisation dedicated to preservation and promotion of traditional/folk performing arts

- Office of the National Culture Commission: Ratchadapisek Road, Huay Khwang, Bangkok 10320, Thailand
- Fine Arts Department: Na Phra Lan Road, Phra Nakorn, Bangkok 10200, Thailand

Prominent NGOs working in this field

Arts for Charity Foundation (Mulanithi kusolsilp)
22/9 Ngamwongwan Road, Nontaburi 11000 Thailand
Tel. (66-2)580-9020, (66-2)952-5430/5431
Fax. (66-2)589-3331

Brief chronology-history

Performing arts
<Classical theatre traditions>
During the past millennium the area now occupied by the Thai nation has supported a number of different classical theatre traditions, although only one -- the Khmer-derived country music and dance adopted by the Sukhotai and Ayutthaya dynasties of central Thailand -- was destined to develop into a national classical style.

<Early Southern performance styles>
The southern-style court dances and shadow theatre of the Malay peninsula kingdoms would appear to have been the first to evolve.

During the 8th-13th centuries AD, the Malay peninsula territories of what is now southern Thailand fell under the hegemony of the powerful Srivijayan empire of Sumatra, whose rulers initiated the practice of using female dance as an integral part of the ritual to enhance their powers and express the divine nature of their authority. Throughout the Srivijayan dominions the wife-dancer tradition was steadily adopted by lesser potentates, and in subsequent centuries competitor-states such as Sailendra and Mataram in Java developed related performance genres, commissioning local versions of the great Indian epics Ramayana and Mahabharata as source material and cultivating the courtly music tradition of the gong-chime ensemble.

There is evidence to suggest that, under the influence of Srivijayan, Javanese and later Angkorian courtly performance, the rulers of kingdoms in what is now the Thai/Malay border area such as Ligor, Pattani and Kelantan developed their own classical music and dance styles linked to the devaraja or god-king ideology.

The exact nature of the classical dance-dramas which developed in the courts of southern Thailand between the 8th and 13th centuries is uncertain, but elements of a former country tradition are suggested by the extant folk genres Mak Yong and Manohra. Whilst these two dance forms differ from each other in a number of important ways, both centre on a female dance of strongly Malay-Indian flavor supplemented by the buffoonery of male clowns, and feature gamelan musical accompaniment in the Malay tradition. Each also retains a ritual function ( Mak Yong in particular is often presented in conjunction with the ancient shamanistic ritual main puteri in the belief that it possesses magical healing properties), suggesting that, as elsewhere in the region, the female dance of the southern Thai courts may well have been based on earlier local proto-theatrical activity.

Mak Yong is now virtually extinct, but during the past millennium the Manohra dance, which tells the story of the eponymous half-bird, half-human heroine of the Jataka, has been developed through the addition of playlets into the popular folk theatre genres Lakhon Chatri or Nohra Chatri ; the latter is performed today in several variations both in southern and central Thailand. In addition, the Manohra dance found its way into the classical repertoire of central Siam, and seems also to have subsequently influenced the development of a popular theatre form known as Lakhon Nok (literally out-of-palace play)which continued to please southern and central Thai audiences until its demise during the early years of the current century.

Two related styles of shadow puppetry would also appear to have originated in the ancient court tradition of what is now the border area of Thailand and Malaysia. Nang Talung (literally shadow theatre of Pattalung)is closely related to the Malaysian Wayang Gedek, with which it clearly shares Indonesian origins. It involves a single performer called a nang nal manipulating the translucent leather puppets, recounting the story (which is usually Ramayana -derived)and controlling the musical ensemble. Nang Talung is today performed primarily in the southern provinces of Thailand, the region in which its original evolution probably took place under court sponsorship, but the genre subsequently spread to other areas, and a variation known as Nang Phramot Thai may be found today in the northeastern region of Isan. A related form to Nang Talung is the extant northern Malaysian shadow theatre Wayang Kulit Kelantan (also known as Wayang Kulit Siam ), which recounts stories based on the Malay epic Hikayat Seri Rama, the Malay version of the Ramayana, largely through the medium of Kalantanese dialect.

The annexation of the southern provinces by the U-Thong dynasty of Ayutthaya during the 14th century brought to an end court sponsorship of Malay-influenced dance-dramas, and whilst the latter were destined to exert an important stylistic influence on subsequent central Siamese performance their development in the southern region henceforth became dependent on village and wat support.

<Central performance styles of the classical tradition>
What is generally regarded as the mainstream tradition of Thai classical theatre emerged in central Thailand at a later stage than its southern counterpart, primarily under the influence of the Khmer kingdom of Angkor. The music and dance practices associated with the Shaivite cult of the god-king had been introduced to the Khmer court by way of Java as early as the 9th century, leading to the commissioning of distinctive local reworkings of the Ramayana and Mahabharata epics for use as theatrical source material and the emergence of distinctive Indochinese variants of the Malay gamelan and courtly dance-dramas.

Whilst no record exists of pre-15th century Siamese courtly music and dance, there can be little doubt that the god-king cult which sustained such courtly performance elsewhere in the region was flourishing amongst the Siamese ruling elite during the Sukhothai period, and it is most likely that even before their conquest and annexation of the Khmer kingdom of Angkor in 1431 the Siamese kings would have sought to match the status of their powerful neighbors in every way, including through the arts. Thus, the subjugation of Angkor and carrying of Khmer court dancers into Thailand probably accelerated devaraja or god-king ideology into Siamese court culture.

Whilst derived from Khmer models (which were in turn influenced by Javanese music and dance), Siamese court performance subsequently developed in a unique way changing over the centuries to suit Siamese tastes. As elsewhere in the region, local versions of the Indian epics Ramayana and Mahabharata were also commissioned for use as source material alongside the Jataka (stories of the lives of the Buddha).

The female dance-drama Lakhon Nai (literally inner court play)is the most elegant and refined of the classical performance styles of Siam; its dancers enact stories from the Ramakien (the Siamese version of the Ramayana), from the Jataka and from local stories to the accompaniment of a piphat ensemble (see below)and a chorus of offstage singers. Clowns, who improvise their own dialogue, are traditionally the only male performers involved in the genre and are believed to represent and embellishment of the post-Sukhothai/Ayutthaya period.

The male masked dance-drama or Khon, with its ornate decorated papier-mache masks and richly-brocaded costumes, was the Siamese answer to the Khmer male masked dance-drama Khol. It enacts episodes from the Ramayana to the chanted narrative of a khon pak (narrator)alternating with the accompaniment of the piphat orchestra. Traditional performances of Khon were staged over two consecutive days, but abbreviated versions were later devised under King Rama III and further changes took place in the mid-19th century when performances began to include women dancers. The techniques of Khon, in particular the square stance of the dancers, its tendency to construct visual friezes and its organization into sets (chut, referring to puppets used in a Nang Yai episode)clearly indicated the origins of the genre as a derivative of a text-less Ramayana ballet performed by a large cast - such is the spectacular high-tech Khon currently presented at the Chalermkrung Royal Theatre in Bangkok.

Shadow theatre of the central Sukhothai-Ayutthaya tradition is represented by the now almost extinct Nang Yai, a shadow-and-silhouette derivative of the Khmer Nang Sbek performed with large incised two-dimensional leather puppets to the accompaniment of the piphat ensemble.

Also performed at Ayutthaya was a courtly form of rod puppetry known as Hun Luang (literally royal puppets), which probably developed under the influence of Chinese models and may thus be a form of great antiquity which dates back to the kingdom of Nan Chao. This genre, which used large (1 meter high)puppets to recount stories from the Ramakien, is no longer performed in Thailand. However, a derivative large-format rod puppet style known as Hun Lakhon Lek (little theatre puppets)is still performed, along with Hun Krabok, which uses smaller puppets to perform Ramayana and other stories to piphat accompaniment.

The piphat ensemble, which provides the essential accompaniment to all of the classical forms, is believed to have developed in conjunction with the courtly performance styles. It too is derived from the Khmer model and typically centres on percussion instruments, including various-sized graded gong carillons arranged on circular rattan frames ( khong wong ), small and large bamboo xylophones ( ranat ), cymbals ( ching )and numerous types of drum ( khlong )along with the double-reed oboe known as the pi (equivalent to the Khmer sralai ). As in Cambodia the mahori, a smaller version of the piphat dominated by stringed instruments, specifically the two-stringed fiddle of sinitic derivation known as the soh (equivalent to the Khmer tro )and three-stringed zither known as the jakhe (equivalent to the Khmer takhe ), is often used to accompany wedding ceremonies and other secular rites.

<Northern classical theatre>
Mention should also be made of a third classical dance tradition associated with the northern kingdom of Lanna, which emerged contemporaneously with Sukhothai (13th century)to control a large region centred on what is now Chiangmai. There can be little doubt that this kingdom sustained its own courtly performance traditions, and elements of those traditions have been preserved in a variety of different dances and dance-dramas which have since become firmly entrenched in the northern folk tradition. In more recent times a consort of King Rama V (1868-1910)called Princess Dara Rasmi, who was descended from the former Lanna Dynasty, did much to preserve and develop the music and dance of this region, which still retains much of its original Burmese influence.

Best-known amongst the northern performance styles are the slow and stately female dances or Fon, variations of which are instantly recognizable from their use of colorful costumes and accompaniment by ensembles of regional instruments. They include the Fon Tian, a dance featuring candles which is believed to have been a sacred court dance of the Lanna kingdom, the Fon Leb, a dance by performers with long false brass fingernails, and the Fon Man Kamboe or butterfly dance. Male martial arts dances known as Fon Dab, Fon Choeng and Tob Ma Phab are also popular.

In addition to reviving and promoting the courtly dances of Lanna, Princess-Consort Dara Rasmi also commissioned new dance-dramas known as Lakhon Soh. Accompanied by the pi, these dance-dramas mainly recount Lanna folk tales.

<Folk music and dance of central and northeast Thailand>
As already noted, the folk music and dance of both the southern and northern regions are firmly rooted in former classical traditions. In contrast, both central and northeast Thailand maintain folk traditions unique to the local community, which developed in the absence of courtly sponsorship or stylistic influence.

As in neighboring Laos, rituals to propitiate the spirits, melodic recitation of stories inscribed on palm-leaf manuscripts ( an nangsu, literally reading a book)and the use of song by Buddhist teachers were all influential factors in the development of early forms of community entertainment in the central and northeastern regions, and during the first millennium AD various styles of singing with melodies derived from word tones began to emerge.

In central Thailand the predominant folk performance style takes the form of a dialogue between performers and is classified as phleng (song). Usually performed by groups of men and women or by individual man/woman teams to only a basic rhythmic accompaniment, phleng involves either memorized or improvised repartee between the principals. The most popular style found throughout the central region and Bangkok is lam tat, in which groups of men and women (two to three of each)sing a form of extemporized verse full of double meaning in which the last word of each second line of the stanza rhymes; they are accompanied by three to four persons who beat time or occasionally perform folk tunes. Many related forms once existed, but other than lam tat only Phleng choi and Phleng i-saew are still performed widely today.

The northeastern region of Isan developed for many centuries under Lao sovereignty, and its community continues to share many forms of cultural expression with its neighbors across the Mekong River. Here, as in Laos, the most widespread folk performance genre is lam, virtually all varieties of which are accompanied by the unique Isan/Lao mouth organ known as the khaen. One of the oldest varieties of lam, known as lam phun, predates the development of repartee - it involves a male singer or mohlam (literally performer of lam )recounting Jataka (Buddha's lives)or local legends and histories.

Later styles of lam such as Lam khlon and Lam moo develop risque improvised dialogue between men and women to a fine art; other varieties such as Lam phi fah (which involves female spirit propitiation dances)indicate the ritual origins of some varieties of the genre. Nowadays, as in Laos, lam performers in Isan often combine their art with more modern forms of entertainment and make use of modern musical combos, but a number of important authentic mohlam still perform regularly.

Several other non- lam folk genres from the Isan region are also noteworthy, such as the central Thailand-style dialogue genre Phleng korat performed around Nakhon Ratchasima, the unique music and dance of the Phu Thai people of northern Isan and the kantrum music of southern Isan.

<Ethnic minority music and dance>
Each of the hill tribe communities of northern and northwestern Thailand also preserves its own unique style of music and dance, which function in either a celebratory or a ritual manner, those of the Hmong and the Yao being particularly noteworthy.

<Popular theatre - Likay>
By the latter half of the 19th century new popular theatre styles were beginning to emerge throughout Southeast Asia in response to the needs of the growing urban population. The activities of the itinerant bangsawan theatre troupes from Malaysia were an important catalyst in this process, creating a ready market for more entertaining and realistic styles of theatre.

A new indigenous style of folk theatre known as Jikey developed during this period in the northern states of Malaysia under the influence of the Muslim chant known as dikir or dikay. It achieved great popularity and very quickly spread north, where it is believed to have influenced in its turn the creation of the Thai popular theatre Likay and its Khmer counterpart Yike. An operatic genre presented in Western style, Thai Likay involves a company of 12 to 16 persons accompanied by an ensemble of both traditional and modern instruments, presenting mainly stories based on local legends. It is still very popular today, amongst both urban and rural audiences alike.

Legislation in this field

Does not exist National organizations responsible for preserving and promoting of traditional/folk performing arts support the performing troupes by providing them an opportunity to perform and demonstrate their performances, giving them awards, and giving them monetary support.

Category/types of performing arts

Dance: Ram, Rabam, Khon (Mask Dance), Wora, Fon, Serng
Shadow play: Nang Yai, Nang Talung
Drama: Lakhon Nok, Lakhon Nai, Lakhon Dukdanban, Lakhon Pantang, Lakhon Sepha, Lakhon Chatri, Likay
Puppet: Hun Krabok, Hun Lakhon Lek
Singing: Moh Lam, Phleng Korat, Phleng Throng Krueng, Lam Tad, Phleng Keaw Khow
Traditional Music: piphat, mahori, Krueng Sai


Office of the National Culture Commission
1999 Sillapakarnsadang Khong Thai (in Thai).
Office of the National Culture Commission.
(99 entries)
(Format: print)

Audio・visual documentation collection

- Office of the National Culture Commission
Ratchadapisk Road, Huay Khwang
Bangkok 10320 Thailand
- College of Dramatic Arts
Rachini Road, Bangkok 10200 Thailand

Form of documentation: photograph, audio cassette, video cassette, Print and text
Available for viewing/listening

Aspects of traditional/folk performing arts in education

Traditional/folk performing arts are included in the education curriculum nationally at elementary level of all schools.
They are elective courses in some secondary schools, high schools, and universities.
There are colleges and universities which specifically provide courses on traditional/folk performing arts. These courses are available for Certificate, Bachelor's and Master's degrees.

Data provider

Ms. Sudhasinee Vajrabul
Director, External Cultural Relations Division
Office of the National Culture Commission
Address: Ratchadapisek Road, Huay Khwang, Bangkok 10320, Thailand