Soon to be on a well worn path or a lost art?
Bann Silapin, Klong Bang Luang (aka Artists' House -บ้านศิลปิน) is not yet on the tourist map, but their Thai puppet dance can very well pin this little sleepy community as a 'must visit'. In the middle of cosmopolitan Bangkok, the old way of life and art are finding its place in the community. The Thai puppet dance deserves more than just a new life but a center stage. Without support and recoginition, this dance team can disappear like another before them.
Hoon Lakorn Lek or Thai puppet dance is a combination of Khone (Thai masked dance) and puppet show. Three puppeteers are on full scale stage control a 3-foot tall puppet. The front puppeteer controls the head movement and puppet’s left hand. The person in the middle controls the feet. The back puppeteer controls the right arm. The puppeteers perform right along with the puppets. They dance and jump gracefully in unison with the character. Wearing black outfits and black masks, the puppeteers disappear into the background, only the characters float around playing an episode of Ramaya, a popular Indian epic. At The Artists’ House, this classic good-against-evil story glued me and the rest of the audience to their seats.
Along the original narrow Chao Praya River, which is currently called Klong Bang Luang (คลองบางหลวง), a 100-year-old house sits at the end of a narrow walkway along the water. The house serves as a refuge to artists, especially the Thai puppet dance performers. The Thai puppet dance was popularized by a well-known, international award recipient puppet company, Joe Louis.
The Joe Louis Puppet Company performed at Suan Lum Night Bazaar (สวนลุมไนท์บาร์ซ่า) until late 2010 when the Bazaar abruptly closed down. Employees scattered around. Some came to the Artists' House and joined a new company, Tumnai Company(คณะคำนาย). At the Artists' House, the performance is free, but donations are very much appreciated. Outside gigs, like birthdays, weddings and the likes are keeping them alive.
Sewn Into Character
The puppet dance started off with a demonstration on how a masked dancer is fitted into his costume. At the price tag of 10,000 to 20,000 baht, a lot more than a monthly average starting salary, the puppet company cannot afford to buy a costume, so they rent them and custom fit prior to each show.
The actor in Ravana character (a demon king), starts with a black t-shirt, indigo ¾ pants and white stockings. A helper wraps a traditional yellow cloth around his pants, and ties it with a muslin belt. He hangs embroidered cloth from his waist on each side and across his back-side. This under layer is finished with a white stretchy balaclavas and white gloves. A beautiful, embroidered top is sewn on him with a foam piece inserted into the chest area to enhance his chest. The shoulder pieces and cuffs are sewn on. At this point, I couldn’t help thinking, 'I hope he doesn't need to go to the bathroom!'
Next goes the jewelry: ankle bangles, body straps, bangles and a necklace. The last piece before the show is the mask. There are 2 little holes where the eyes can see through. A string hangs inside for the actor to bite down to hold the headpiece in place. This insures that while the character cartwheels, the head stays on. And he came cartwheeling in!
The show featured an episode when Hanuman meets Ravana’s niece and falls in love with her. The story was narrated prior to the show. After Ravana, cartwheeled in, Hanuman, the monkey king, came out to fight with him. The puppets and Ravana were beautiful to look at and the act was exciting and entertaining. Kids and adults alike were mesmerized by the sight and sound.
The puppet show had its largest audience on the day that we were there. Easily 150 people packed in the little old house. Students from the most southern provinces came to see them, the first of such a group. Nobody knew how to get the big bus to weave through such small streets to get to the Artists’ House. As this troupe gets popular, I can see a lot more tour buses like this one. However, seeing the popular Joe Louis Company disappear overnight concerns me that The Tumnai Company can take the same route.
The glimpse of an episode made me wonder how beautiful this would be if they had a proper stage and scenes. I can imagine the adorned characters gliding on stage with exciting Thai musical instruments. I want this art to continue on for others to appreciate and for future generations to build on.
For art lovers and theatre goers, Artists' House is a must visit. For those who with kids, this puppet show will keep your kids mesmerized for half an hour. It was such a treat to see such a great art, even if it is at a crossroad.Artists’ House -บ้านศิลปินคลองบางหลวงPhone: 02-868-5279Mobile Phones: 089-125-3949 , 081-258-9260 Hours: Monday and Tuesday 10 am to 6 pmWednesday, Thursday, Friday 9am to 6 pmSaturday and Sunday 9am to 7pm Puppet Show 2pm daily except, for Wednesday Getting there: There are several ways to get to Klong Bang Luang community and the Artists' House. By car, enter Soi Phetkasem 28 (pronounced pet-ga-same) all the way to Wat Kuhasawan (over 200 years old). Park your car at the temple's parking lot. Walk toward the canal, at the end of the parking lot. There are houses and a few shops along the canal. Walk all the way through to the Artists House. When you cross the alley watch for bicycles and motorcycles. Remember they think they have the right of way at all times. By car through Soi Charan Sanitwong 3 (pronounced Ja-run-snit-whong), go all the way to the end of the road. Park and walk across the canal. At the end of the bridge, turn immediately left and walk all the way to the end. By boat, you can take a boat at most piers along Chao Praya River. Keep in mind, loud noises and pollution from the engine are not welcomed by the locals. Perhaps, you can help by ask them to go slowly along the canal and enjoy the slower ride.