Classical drama gets little backing
Story by ANCHALEE KONGRUT
National artist Thongbai Reungnond, 81, was having the time of his life half a century ago. His lakhon chatri troupe was much sought after for performances. People came to his house on Lan Luang road, begging him to perform the traditional drama, mostly for kae-bon occasions.
Kae-bon is a dance or drama performed to worship deities or Buddha images after a person's wish is granted.
''There were just too many demands in a day. The heavy workload even led me pray to the deities for fewer clients,'' Mr Thongbai said.
In those days the Thongbai Reungnond Troupe were the most famous lakhon chatri performers in Bangkok.
It was originally put together by his ancestor Pra Sri Chumbhol Chim, who moved from Nakhon Si Thammarat to Bangkok during the reign of King Rama III in the early Rattanakosin era, and was the city's oldest lakhon chatri troupe.
However, the troupe, like the performing art itself, has been almost forgotten by the modern world.
One or two major performances are held a year. One is the annual cultural heritage festival in Samut Songkhram's Amphawa district, which is graced by Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn. Another is a festival organised by the Bangkok Bank Art Centre.
The troupe members are all aged well over 50. They charge about 20,000 baht for a two-hour performance.
Originally from India, lakhon chatri has existed in the Southeast Asian region for centuries. Audiences are taken by its beautiful lyrical prose, unique dances and upbeat music.
Mr Thongbai said it was far from certain the newer generation would continue the family business. His son Boonsarng, a famous Thai classical musician, planned to open a museum and lakhon chatri institute at the family house, but the plan still needs support.
The national artist once told his audience: ''I hope people, particularly youngsters, have a chance to see lakhon chatri before it is forever gone.''
For decades, these traditional artists have been left to struggle on their own without state support.
Some lakhon chatri artists provide kae-bon services, dances or a smaller form of drama play at a few shrines such as the City Pillar Shrine and the Erawan Shrine in Bangkok and at Wat Sothon Temple in Chachoengsao.
Anant Narkkong, lecturer at Mahidol University's College of Music, said lakhon chatri seems to belong to the old world, the element which makes it hard to preserve amid social change.
Watching lakhon chatri, he said, is like watching family entertainment and the sense of social gathering is strong.
''Audiences can't help feeling close to the artists while watching the performance. It is interesting that the artists are family members and relatives. It represents a form of traditional society where people were close to each other.''
Mr Anant said it is unlikely lakhon chatri will be able to adapt to the modern world, for it would lose its original form. He was also unsure how this kind of performing art would cater to a modern-day audience. Mr Thongbai said the state may look down on the art as ''dance for ram kae-bon at shrines''.
The Fine Arts Department had recorded a performance and his voice for its teaching archives. ''But I have never been invited to teach nor asked to perform in a national event,'' said Mr Thongbai, who was named a national artist in 2000.
Sujit Wongthes, an anthropologist, said the future does not look bright for lakhon chatri artists. ''Few people know about it. These artists have never asked for help from the state because they realise no one cares for them,'' said Mr Sujit, a patron of traditional Thai performances.