In early 2019, I decided to inspect all the Thai dolls, masks, and the one woman’s crown in my collection. Some dolls had minor damage, but all dolls, masks, and the crown had missing jewels of glass or crystal. These pieces ranged in size like the ones pictured here, and I replaced hundreds of them, a daunting task.Many dolls were also missing sequins and beads from their clothing. The crown had missing small, jeweled pendants. Well, I decided to delve into repair work and taught myself to create new jeweled pendants for the crown, to repair and reconstruct mask parts for the monkey dolls, and to recreate and replace quite a few jeweled adornments that are attached to the front, back, and sides of the dolls’ costumes. I have several little bins of different types of sequins and beads, so I was able to replace those that were missing. I must admit it took me hundreds of hours to finally finish all the restoration work, but I find these Thai dolls and masks so fascinating, that I was obsessed with their repair.
In this picture, I am showing some of my most important tools for the repair work. I could not have done restoration without ELMER’S Carpenter’s Interior Wood Filler. Kits of various sizes of glass and crystal pieces can be found at craft stores. It’s good to have two to three different colors of gold paint, which, again, can be obtained at craft stores. Pointed toothpicks are essential for building up the wood filler into different levels and creating designs.
Another photo of work in progress.
Here, I am showing different phases of adornment work. First, I draw a design on thin cardboard, such as a cereal carton. In my fingers, I am holding a piece of carton that I have cut into my desired pattern. I have begun layering it with the wood filler. If there are more layers, I have to let the first one dry for at least 24 hours, before I begin adding more filler on top and creating patterns with a toothpick. After all the work with wood filler, which must be completely dry, I brush on a thick layer of ELMER’S glue and let that dry for at least 24 hours. Then the item is painted with gold paint and left to dry. Finally, I add the glass/crystal pieces with glue. After 24 hours, the adornment can be glued to the doll’s costume.
This crown of a female Ramakian dancer had many little pendants missing/broken off. They were intricate, and it took me a good while to recreate and replace them. The flower adornment attached to the crown is classic, and I did not have one. I tried to order one from Thailand on the Internet, but no luck. I was very fortunate, as a relative of mine was visiting Bangkok this year and brought this flower accessory back for me. Now the crown is complete!
crown itself 19″ tall
Many thanks to Sankara Subramanian for enhancing my photo-essay.Founder | BE ON THE ROAD | https://www.beontheroad.com
The Indian epic ‘Ramayana’ is not something that influences the culture and history of India and Sri Lanka alone, but it is also an integral part of Thailand’s culture. Known as ‘Ramakien’ – the uniquely Thai version of Ramayana, it is deeply rooted in the Thai way of life. While I already knew this association with Ramayana, I discovered an interesting tradition on my recent trip to Thailand. That tradition is the making of ‘khon masks’ and its usage in the classical dance-drama of Thailand.
Let me break it down for you. ‘Khon’, founded in the Ayutthaya era, is a classical dance-drama of Thailand that involves singing, dancing, acting, acrobatics and music. Stories for this khon dance-drama are based exclusively on the Ramakien and making up its characters are gods, ferocious demons, monkeys and some 400 other type of characters. While the khon drama as a whole is an amazing experience, it is the richly gilded crowns and colorful masks that catch all your attention. And on this trip of mine, I got to know more about these vibrant colored khon masks and even got to see the making of this traditional art.
Originally, khon masks were worn by all performers except those playing the parts of goddesses, female humans and some female demons. 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. This art of mask making is limited to a very small set of highly skilled artisans who follow the traditions of many years ago.
Mask Making Process
The artists start with a plaster mold to which fifteen layers of papier-mache are added. The paper used is a special kind called ‘koi’. It is same type of paper which Buddha’s teachings were written upon for temple manuscripts. The glue used for the papier-mache is made of rice flour. After the mask has dried, it is cut off the mold and additional layers of papier-mache are added to cover the cut. A resin from the sumac tree, lac, is then formed into strips and applied in order to accent the mouth, ears and eyebrows. Various highlights are then added such as tiaras and earflaps made of buffalo skins. Finally, actual gold leaf and fake jewels are applied to the tiara or crown and facial details are painted on. Often, the masks are not made by one individual, but rather, several of the artists in the workshop contribute parts.
As you see, it is a fairly complex and intricate process. And adding more spice to this process is the fact that there are more than 300 characters that can be divided into 5 basic categories: demon, monkey, celestial, human and animal masks. My personal favorite are the demon masks as they are vibrant and if I may, ‘magical’. It is these masks that make you feel the power of the character.
If you are wondering, why an Indian epic such as Ramayana and a dance drama based on it is popular in a country with Buddhist beliefs, you should explore this cultural side of Thailand on your next trip to this Buddhist kingdom. To understand properly, you should definitely see a khon dance drama first at any of the traditional performances in Bangkok or any other city. Then, you should visit a mask making facility, such as the one I visited near Ban Amphawa and see the work and detailing that goes into it. If you are the curious type, you can ask questions about the masks and the overall dance-drama to the artisans or you could read it up online or through a book. Finally, you should see the khon dance drama performance again to understand it at depth.
And for all those traditional souvenir hunters, you could buy a khon mask (that comes in various characters, shapes and sizes) to decorate your home or to gift it to your friend or family. Whatever you end up doing, you are bound to appreciate this dance, drama and ancient tradition from Thailand.