Photo & People

Thai Khon Mask: The Immortal Art

‘The masks are never discarded; the older they are, the more they’re worth,’ our interpreter translated the answer to our question about the disposal of damaged Khon masks.

A mask of a monkey character in the Thai Khon dance, characterised by its open mouth with bared fangs.

PowerShot G7X Mark II​, 8.8-36.8mm lens, f/2.0, 9.92mm, 1/60 sec, ISO125

We used the camera’s ‘Sharpening’ feature and ‘Fine Detail’ picture style to shoot a vivid image that captures all the fine details of this mask. Smooth bokeh subtly blurred the background to keep the focus on the primary mask.

We are speaking to Prateep Rodpai, one of Thailand’s foremost authorities on the making of masks for performers of the Thai Khon Dance. And from what he’s told us, profit is certainly not the only reason the masks are preserved.

The entire art form – a Thai interpretation of the epic Ramayana - is considered sacred in Thailand. From the costumes and masks to the dance performance itself, every aspect is steeped in ritual and ceremony.

A row of Thai Khon masks at various stages of completion.

PowerShot G7X Mark II, 8.8-36.8mm lens, f/2.2, 8.80mm, 1/320 sec, ISO800

This one shot covers the long journey from a featureless papier mache shape to a beautiful finished mask. The dimness of the studio made this shot rather tricky. We had to try many times before getting this photo which – as is sometimes the case – happened at least partly due to luck.

Before starting his apprenticeship, for example, a mask-maker like Prateeep must consult with Brahmin priests and undergo a ceremony to obtain permission from the divine. It’s believed that if he did not, he might go insane. Once permission was granted, his teacher presented him with the basic tools of his trade: a brush for painting, a sandstone mold to shape tiny mask ornaments, and an instrument to pierce eye-holes in the masks.

Prateep Rodpai sitting by a window in his Bangkok studio, with a partially completed mask and all his tools.

PowerShot G7X Mark II, 8.8-36.8mm lens, f/1.8, 8.80mm, 1/500 sec, ISO400

A work-in-progress shot of the mask-making process – with a partially completed mask and all the artist’s tools on his small work table in his Bangkok studio.

Backstage, pre-show ceremonies are mandatory for dancers to obtain blessings to portray their mythical characters; and apologies to said characters are required should they mess up.

Even with damaged (but never discarded) masks, there is ritual involved. Unless he made the mask himself, Prateep must obtain permission before making any repairs to masks bearing the visages of gods or ascetics.

The brushes used in painting Thai Khon masks on Prateep Rodpai’s small work table.

PowerShot G7X Mark II, 8.8-36.8mm lens, f/2.8, 22.67mm, 1/80 sec, ISO400

This close-up of the artist’s tools show worn brushes and paint stains that reflect constant use and long years of dedicated work.

With such deep reverence for the art, also comes a fierce resistance against any attempts to change it.

Prateep’s masks are almost identical to the ones produced over 100 years ago, when the Thai Khon Dance was an aristocratic art form performed exclusively in the royal palace. He has a manual with highly detailed instructions on making each of the hundreds of masks in a Thai Khon performance, which he must follow to the letter.

A golden mask of a giant character, characterised by its large fangs.

PowerShot G7X Mark II, 8.8-36.8mm lens, f/2.2, 8.80mm, 1/10 sec, ISO500

We adjusted the lens to focus more sharply on this mask of a giant character in the Thai Khon performance, characterised by its fangs. A smooth background blur further brings out the mask’s fine details. 

This strict adherence to tradition leaves no room for variations to the mask designs. When asked, Prateep refuses to even consider creating Thai Khon masks featuring characters not described in his manual.

Prateep Rodpai talking about his craft with one of his masks slightly out of focus in the foreground.

PowerShot G7X Mark II, 8.8-36.8mm lens, f/2.0, 10.58mm, 1/200 sec, ISO125

In Portrait Mode, the camera selects a large aperture and narrow depth of field to keep only the subject in focus while blurring out the background and – in this case – the foreground as well.

Though the art has devoted guardians, it isn’t exactly a booming industry. Efforts by the Thai government have boosted awareness and popularity of Thai Khon Masks globally, but overall volume of orders remains low. As the market isn’t large, masters like Prateep are highly protective of their knowledge – teaching it only to close relatives.

A golden Thai Khon mask showing a hermit character.

PowerShot G7X Mark II, 8.8-36.8mm lens, f/2.2, 12.76mm, 1/320 sec, ISO800

We chose the ‘Super Vivid’ Creative Filter to catch all the rich details and expression that bring this mask of a hermit vividly to life.

This may have contributed to the perception that Thai Khon Mask masters are slowly disappearing. But according to Prateep, there is actually no immediate shortage of young mask-makers who are trained to do what he does. They just do not have many opportunities to put their skills to use due to the low number of orders for masks.

So perhaps we need not worry about the potential ‘extinction’ of people with the skill to make Thai Khon Masks.

Prateep Rodpai poses with one of the many masks in his studio.

PowerShot G7X Mark II, 8.8-36.8mm lens, f/1.8, 8.80mm, 1/40 sec, ISO800

The proud artist surrounded by his masterpieces. These aren’t all of the masks he has in stock, of course – he has a much larger main studio in his hometown about 100km outside of Bangkok.

This isn’t some fad that explodes onto the scene and fizzles out quickly. It’s an iconic part of Thailand’s identity, and has existed as a small-scale, niche art form for centuries. Today, it has passionate individuals fervently devoted to preserving it exactly the way it has always been, and new admirers from around the world.

We therefore cannot help but share Prateep Rodpai’s optimism that this Thai art – much like the divine characters whose faces he so lovingly crafts, and the masks that are never discarded – is something that will live forever.


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