Masks and the Ramayana — The Great Indian Epic
The ancient story Ramayana, originating in India about 2,500 years ago, inspired the creation of masks. These masks helped to transcend spoken and written langue and to visually express the characters and stories of this complex epic poem.
The Ramayana epic spread southeast to Indonesia and eastward to Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. From as early as AD 1458, Khon masked dramas were performed in Thailand. Masked and face-painted Khon characters wear elaborate costumes crafted from brightly coloured silks with gold decorative elements. Performers portraying demons, soldiers, deities, and monkey soldiers from the Thai Ramakien epic adapted from the Ramayana wear finely crafted masks.
The masks used in the Thai Ramakien dramas are among the most elaborate and colourful designs in the world. These performances had a profound impact on the cultural development of Thailand and several South East Asian countries. The stories played in Khon presentations are invariably those of “Rama,” a reincarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu who is the hero in the Hindu epic.
Originally, all performers except those playing the parts of goddesses, female humans, and some female demons wore masks.
Today, those playing the parts of gods and male humans have discarded the masks but still wear crowns. Demons, monkeys, and animals all still wear masks. The masks displayed include garuda (mythical bird) and hanuman (monkey) (collected Bangkok, Thailand, 2002).
The making of Khon masks is an art form that can take many days of detailed work. The first stage is the moulding of a plaster form to the size and shape of the actor’s head. On to this is applied many layers of papier-mâché to build up the character’s features. Up to 20 layers of paper are glued on to the form, then the surface is dried and smoothed. The mask is then cut away from the form, and the two halves are rejoined by sewing with fine wire. A final layer of papier-mâché is added, holes made for eyes and mouth, and the decoration finished using paint, lacquer, gold leaf, and coloured glass fragments. If it is a demon mask, fangs made of pearl shells are attached on both sides of the mouth. A skilled mask maker will normally have about five or six masks in different stages on the go at one time.