insight - Prateep Rodpai
Written by and Photography by Bronek Kaminski
Occupation - Khon Mask Maker
Prateep Rodpai is one of Thailand’s last traditional Khon mask makers, handcrafting them from a simple workshop in the north of Bangkok.
“When I was 13 years old, my uncle, Sakorn Yangkhieosod, who was a mask maker and created the famous Joe Louis Puppet Theatre, brought me to Bangkok from my home in Maeklong to work as his apprentice,” explains Prateep. “He first taught me Khon dancing, which I performed until I was 20 years old. At the same time, he introduced me to the art of Khon mask making, and I assisted him while he gradually taught me the necessary skills. In the beginning, I did simple jobs such as mixing the cement and polishing while I watched him work, and when I was about 18 I finally began creating my first masks.”
Before beginning to make a new mask or starting any creative endeavour, it is customary in Thailand to perform a ritual ceremony to thank your teachers, and the spirits of those who created the art, and pray for success and guidance in the activity. Most Thais believe that if they do not do this, they will not be successful.
“When I first started, I made lots of mistakes. The most difficult part of mask making is getting the proportions of the head right. If you get it wrong, especially at the back of the head, the mask doesn’t look powerful or instill the right feelings in people. It’s very important to study the character and personality of the mythical creature being portrayed by the mask to ensure that you reflect those traits. My first attempts often had the wrong proportions, or sometimes I would use the wrong colours, or paint a pattern upside down, and my uncle would get angry at me and make me start all over again. It was a long, difficult, and sometimes frustrating experience, but gradually I learned and began to perfect the art.”
The process of making a Khon mask is very time intensive. First, a clay mould is sculpted, then ten layers of papier-mâché are applied onto it and left to dry for three days in the sun. Flour and cement are mixed in careful proportions into a thick paste, and features such as the nose and mouth are built up with that. The ears and crown are then added, and again left to dry before the mask is cut from the mould, then stitched back together. Chalk is applied, and the surface is sandpapered before being painted with a lacquer. After another day of drying in the sun, gold leaf or paint is added, and finally, jewels and mirrors are fitted to the mask and the eye-holes are cut out.
Most masks are factory-made these days and dried in a kiln, but they are not so popular with dancers as they tend to soak in the sweat of a performer and begin to deteriorate when they are worn in performances. They also lack the unique character of being individually handcrafted. Prateep makes between three and five masks a week, but due to the length of time the masks need to dry in the sun, production slows down considerably during Bangkok’s rainy season. A finished mask sells for 3,000–25,000 baht, around US$100–850, depending on the style, complexity, and the type of gold used in the finish.
There are more than a hundred different types of masks in the Ramakien (Thailand’s national epic), and these are divided into three basic categories: human, gods and demons, and monkey. Prateep’s best-selling masks are those of Hanuman, the monkey god, and Tosakanth, the ten-headed god, and many people buy these as a pair.
“My personal favourite, however, is the Lord of the underworld – Maiyarap – as I love the purple colour of his face,” adds Prateep.
“There used to be many Khon mask makers in this area of Bangkok, but now I am the last.” Prateep came up with the idea of splitting Khon masks so they could be used decoratively and hung on a wall, and this new style immediately became popular.
“I’ve managed to survive partly because I came up with that concept,” he says. “At the time, people told me it was wrong to go against traditions, but this style of mask has proved very popular with tourists as they’re easier to pack, and take up far less space than a full-size mask.”
Prateep’s main customers these days are private schools that teach Khon dancing, but his masks have sold all over the world to performers and private collectors, and even descendants of King Rama IV. Although Prateep feels the tradition of Khon mask making is endangered, he thinks it will continue in Thailand long after his generation of craftsmen has gone.
“My own daughter is not really interested in it as a career, but she still helps me in the workshop and understands the process very well. I would say that there are only about three to five mask makers left in Thailand who are really good, and it’s traditional to choose an apprentice who shows promise and pass on the art. I am currently training my nephew and I really hope he will go on to master the craft. Perhaps two or three Thais in the next generation will turn out to be good mask makers and keep the tradition going.”
Although Khon performances used to be a very popular form of entertainment in Thailand, they now struggle to compete with modern media.
“These days most people aren’t interested in going to watch a Khon performance when they can easily choose television or watch a film, but Khon masks are a unique symbol of Thailand and Thai culture. If they disappear, what symbol will be left to represent our country? Tuk-tuks? I think it’s important for us to conserve our cultural heritage and keep these ancient traditions alive.
“I’ve been making Khon masks for 43 years now and I really enjoy it, but I suppose if I had to choose another job I’d like to paint murals, especially on temple walls. Creativity is in my blood and I find the work I do deeply satisfying.”
Tamil traders brought Khon traditions to Thailand around the 10th century from India, where it was used in Hindu religious ceremonies. It soon became a popular form of entertainment with the Siam monarchy, being performed at the royal court during social functions, funerals, and weddings.
In a typical Khon performance, a troupe of dancers performs an episode from the Ramakien, which is an adapted,Thai version of the Indian epic, the Ramayana. Each mask represents a different character from the story, and, as their faces are covered, performers need to show the character’s feelings with gestures and motions in their hands, legs, and bodies.
A Khon performance blends acrobatics, dancing, and acting into a show that requires a wide range of talents from each of the performers. The masks themselves are heavy, and one of the skills is being able to perform demanding physical moves whilst wearing one. Some of the characters need to throw themselves into rolls and cartwheels, so their costumes are sewn on to prevent rips, and cords are added inside their masks, which need to be held between their teeth to prevent them from falling off.
Joe Louis Puppet Theatre
Sakorn Yangkhieosod, widely known as Joe Louis, was Thailand’s last puppet master, and founder of the Joe Louis Puppet Theatre. Born in 1922 to a family of travelling Khon performers and puppeteers, Sakorn was brought up with the skills of Khon dancing, mask making, and puppetry.
He later witnessed the gradual decline of interest in puppetry with the introduction of motion pictures, and then television, to Thailand. With dwindling audiences, he was finally forced to close his puppet theatre, and returned to the craft of mask making.
In 1985 he went on to found the Joe Louis Puppet Theatre in an attempt to preserve the disappearing art of hun lakorn lek, meaning ‘small Thai puppetry’. Sakorn went on to impart the skills to his nine children, and together they staged regular performances. Although its revival was culturally important, the shows were not profitable enough to provide a decent living for Sakorn and his family, and they continued to struggle financially.
In 1996, in recognition of his lifelong devotion to the art of puppetry, Sakorn was given the title of National Artist by His Majesty the King, enabling him to raise enough money to open a puppet theatre. In 2006, the Joe Louis Puppet Theatre won Best Traditional Performance at the 10th World Festival of Puppet Art in Prague.
Sakorn Yangkhieosod died in 2007, but his children continue the tradition of puppetry in Thailand. The Joe Louis Puppet Theatre was housed at the Suan Lum Night Bazaar in the centre of Bangkok, but the site is currently under redevelopment.