A mural from the Wat Thong Thammachat temple in Bangkok depicting a hun krabog puppet performance, including a rather boisterous audience scene.
This antique painted screen from the collection of a Thai prince shows a nang yai performance from backstage. Note the puppeteers, musicians, and actors in costumes standing by for their performance to follow.
The Chakri sovereigns realized that in order to establish the Ramakien as a true national epic, art forms that were more accessible than literature would have to reflect the tale. The second Chakri monarch, Rama II (reigned 1809-1824)-who directed the composition of another version of the Ramakien in verse form, was a noted patron of the arts and took particular delight in dance and drama performances. It was under his auspices the uniquely Thai masked dance pantomime known as khan was developed. Khan performances take their content exclusively from the Ramakien, and rather than attempt to synopsize this lengthy work, deal with specific episodes, with alluring titles such as The Floating Lady' or 'The Golden Deer'. Khan performances were considered sacred rites and until the establishment of a constitutional monarchy in 1934, were held only within the royal court. The general populace, however, was not excluded from the Ramakien. Under the patronage of King Rama II, a shadow theatre, which first appeared in Thailand during the Ayuthaya era, was revived and adapted specifically to Ramakien performances. Known in Thai as nang yai, (literally, large hides) elaborately cut figures made from buffalo hides about one meter in height were held behind a translucent screen and manipulated to the sounds of a traditional Thai piphad orchestra, consisting of oboe-like woodwinds, xylophones, gongs, and other percussion instruments. Narrators relate the story and deliver the lines of the characters represented by the shadow figures. Hundreds of these intricately cut hides portray the dozens of Ramakien characters individually, paired and in groups, with differing background scenery according to the episode being performed. After this art form nearly disappeared during the late 1900's, it was revived under the patronage of a Thai princess, Her Royal Highness Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, at Wat Khanon, a temple in Ratchburi province, west of Bangkok. Beginning in 1994, over 300 elaborately crafted nang yai puppets have been constructed, and regular performances are given at the temple in the small town of Photharam. The puppeteers and musicians are all local high school students. Their skill and commitment attracts a regular pilgrimage of puppetry aficionados to this otherwise remote area. Yet another performing arts genre that flourished during the reign of Rama II was hun luang, or court puppets. As the name implies, these performances, like the khan, were given only within the royal court. Hun luang are full body marionettes, standing about one meter tall.