The traditional performing arts in Thailand provide an excellent insight into Thai cultural identity and its rich variety. There are both similarities and differences among the traditional performing arts in the various regions of Thailand, as will be seen below. But there is one salient feature that stands out, especially with respect to the performing arts in the central region of the country, the cradle of Thai civilization. And that is the seamless integration between cultural expression and agricultural work, especially rice-growing. The totality of artistic performances is very much connected with the group and community effort required in the production of rice and other crops, in a benevolent environment of abundance, both of water and other natural resources.
The above idea can be seen more clearly below, in a brief description of the more popular performing arts of Thailand.
The traditional performing arts of central Thailand—an area where rice is predominantly grown—are of the “dialogue” type between groups of male and female performers. There might be no music accompaniment that is played on instruments except for the creation of rhythm, all of which is intended to relieve the boredom of work, to inspire unity and comradeship, and to provide entertainment on festive occasions. The creation is mainly one of different types of music (in Thai called “Phleng”), such as Phleng Choi or Phleng Kiao Khao. The verses and repartees of the “phleng” are either from memory or improvised, usually showing wit and competency in language usage. The leading male and female singers are called Pho Phleng and Mae Phleng, while others sing in chorus. The Phleng can be performed without a stage, reflecting the informal and egalitarian culture of village life, but some “phleng” have been developed into popular entertainment and require a stage.
Then, there are some traditional performing arts which require music accompaniment, for example, the Ram Klong Yao (“Dance of the Long Drum”). Some are stage plays with stories called Li-ke and Lakhon.
Brief descriptions of all these arts mentioned above are as follows:
Phleng Kiao Khao (Rice Harvest Song): This Thai performing art is derived from songs sung in the work context. It is performed as a means of entertaining oneself after working hard in the fields. The dialogue is one of courtship and uses sharp, amusing wit with the accompaniment of Thon.
Phleng Song Fang: This is a ‘dialogue’ type of performing art, performed by rice farmers while dehusking paddy. The performers take turns in singing their verses. Others sing in chorus while awaiting their turns.
Phleng Ram Khao San: This performing art clearly illustrates the centrality of rice and Buddhism in the Thai traditional culture. The female-only performers, in groups of four to five persons, embark in boats. They row their boats along the streams and canals and sing verses to persuade households to make merit by donating uncooked rice. The items obtained are taken to temples for the sustenance of monks.
Phleng Ten Kam: This is a dialogue-type of performing art, with performers carrying a sheaf in one hand and a sickle in the other. They sing and perform an act with implements used in rice cultivation.
Phleng Ruea (Boat Song): This is performed at the time of year when the river water level reaches the highest watermark. In the beginning, groups of men and women embark in separate boats equipped with ching, chap, krap and a thon. Singing is done by a member of each boat in terms of courting and repartee. Those whose turn has not come will sing the chorus. The dialogue is improvised and can deal with religious themes as well.
Lam Tat: This is a communal performance, performed at night, and can last till dawn, generating after-work joy and friendship among youth. It mainly uses language as a vehicle, and often incorporates folk tunes as accompaniment. Players are divided into two groups according to gender. One group sings a form of verse in which the last word of each second line of the stanza rhymes. The verses are witty, with double meanings. The other group beats a large Rammana (one-sided drum with shallow body) in accompaniment. In addition to Lam Tat tunes, players often incorporate other folk tunes in the course of the performance. Players wear traditional Thai shirts with brightly coloured flower-prints, to emphasize the light-hearted nature of the Lam Tat.
Phleng Choi: Phleng Choi is similar to the Lam Tat in terms of having two teams, segregated into women and men, but not needing any musical accompaniment. To provide rhythm, the players clap. The dialogue could be topics of worldly affairs, morality, and courtship, some of which are verses with double-meanings. Generally the performance starts with paying homage to teachers and ends with valediction.
Li-ke (Music Drama): This is a very popular stage performing art. The performers are cast according to role in the story and dressed accordingly in colourful, traditional Thai stage attire. In some stories, if appropriate, the actors can be dressed in modern clothes. A curtain in the middle of the stage provides the setting appropriate to the theme of the play. The music accompaniment is provided by an ensemble playing Thai musical instruments. The actors both sing and dance to the verses and tunes. The total effect is a rousing feast to the senses.
Ram Klong-Yao (The Long-Drum Dance): This is performed on all festive occasions such as making merit at home, monk ordination ceremonies, weddings, etc. The players can be male or female. The dance is done for fun and relaxation, without any deeper meaning. It can be a dance with bare hands or with cymbals, and without a preconceived plan. Contortions of all kinds can be incorporated into the dance, depending on the performer’s creativity. The Long Drum is played throughout the dancing, to provide pulse and excitement, both while stationary or during a procession to celebrate something. Thus, Thai performing arts of the Central Region relate intimately with communal life centred on agricultural work and water, in the context of a socio-economic setting of peace and natural resource abundance.
The salient pattern of northern Thai performing arts is the Fon (Dance), a dancing art performed by pairs of dancers. On important occasions, there could be hundreds of dancers performing the Fon in spectacular symmetry. The dancers are selected from pretty girls, and are dressed in multi-coloured clothes typical of the region. The Fon is a slow and stately dance. Its magnificence comes from the beauty of the dresses and the perfect unison of the movements.
The Fon has been in existence for hundreds of years, especially at the northern royal court, but now roupes have been formed to perform at temples which often act as benefactors and sponsors, thus keeping the tradition alive. The music accompaniment uses traditional northern Thai instruments, including gongs.
Many variations of Fon are performed. The Fon Thian (Candle Dance) is done at night in the open with the performers holding a candle in each hand. The dancers move along, and the candles are visible as a graceful display of light, in addition to illuminating the beauty of the costumes and faces of the dancers, providing a sum total of a uniquely northern Thai art form—that of “graceful beauty in a candle-lit setting”.
The Fon Lep (Dance of the Long Fingermails) is similar, in regard of manner and occasion, to the above Fon Thian, except that the dancers wear six-inch long brass nails, and the performance is often held during the daytime.
The Fon Man Mongkhon is a beautiful dance, a blend of northern and central Thai arts, with some adaptation from Burmese art (northern Thailand has a long history of cultural association with Burma) which results in a quickening of tempo. Each dancer puts on a long floor - length traditional Thai skirt, with a short long-sleeve blouse crossing down just below the waist, and a knee-length long scarf. The hair of the dancer is partly wrapped into a central knot and partly flowing down to the left shoulder. Fresh flowers are attached to the hairdo, the total combination being one of well-rounded beauty and grace which is very pleasing to the eye. This dance is performed on all festive occasions.
The Fon Dap (Sword Dance) is another dance, with performers moving about graciously with swords in their hands, and sometimes in their mouths, to the accompaniment of rousing music.
Mo Lam: This is a traditional performing art well-known in northeast Thailand (called Isan in Thai). It is a type of folk singing with music accompaniment. The singer is called Mo Lam and the musician is called Mo Khaen. The Mo Lam sings in verses with the backdrop of folk tunes. The subject of the verses can be about Buddhist ideals, courtship, or Jatakas. Or, it can be a dialogue type of verses. These verses are either recited, or improvised, or else conceived impromptu.
There are several variants of the Mo Lam. One popular variant is called the Ordinary Mo Lam Mu (Group Mo Lam). In this case, one to thirty players are dressed according to the story-setting and their roles, and the performance is on stage with curtains to cover entries and exits. The stories are taken from the Jatakas or made up in order to teach certain religious ideals, or it could be merely to provide pure entertainment.
The Khaen is used to provide music accompaniment, and the performance is usually done at night. Other Mo Lam performances have specific themes. Mo Lam Phi Fa aims to heal an ill person by inviting a benevolent spirit, the Phi Fa, to drive out the evil spirit causing the illness. The Mo Lam Phak Wan is a courting performance sung by young men as an invitation to young women to pick the Phak Wan (the leaves of a tree used to make soup) together. The verses aim at wooing the female and can also describe the forest scene in a romantic way.
Nora: This is the most important of the Southern traditional performing arts. It has been the mainspring of Thai dramatic art for hundreds of years. The cast is male and female, and the main literature of the play has been the story of “Phra Suthon and Nang Manohra.” The stress is more on dance movements and scripts rather than on the story. Nowadays, other stories are also used for performances.
Nang Talung (Shadow Puppetry): Another famous southern traditional performing art is Nang Talung or shadow puppetry, reflecting the cultural influence of Java, which is strong in Southern Thailand.
In Nang Talung, the shadow puppets are made of cattle hidescraped into thin slices and cut into shapes and sizes according to the stories. The puppets may include heroes, heroines, ascetics, jokers and even objects such as trees and palaces, depending on the story. These puppets act out certain movements by the puppeteer’s manual manipulation. The light behind the puppets casts shadows on the white screen stretched in front of a small raised stage.
The puppeteer will do all the singing, commenting and speaking. Music accompaniment is provided. Modern Western instruments have been added recently.
Originally the performances were limited to the Ramakian, Manohra and the like, but at present any story may be performed by this traditional art. The verses are of various types, such as eight syllabic verses, four syllabic verses, three-five syllabic verses, etc. But the verses, music and puppeteering must synchronize.
Nang Talung may be performed during all festive occasions.
Taken from: Thailand: Traits and Treasures. The National Identity Board, Royal Thai Government 2005.
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