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Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu

Operatic: Thai Khon Dance and Muay Thai Likely have a Natural Lineage Together

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I've always been fascinated by the performative dimension of Muay Thai. Of course there is the strictly danced portions of a fight, the Wai Kru/Ram Muay (in which deities are actually embodied), but also more subtly the role that posture, (Ruup), balance, (Ning) play in not only its aesthetics, but it's scoring. From the mechanical Force = Mass x Acceleration calculative brain, all these dance dimensions are read as artificial, ineffective, or even "fake", but for Thais instead they affectively tap into the deeper potentials of fighting, drawing on principles that make the fighting of Thailand ascend.

In reading about the history of Muay Thai and it's role in the royal court, the way that it was presented to early foreigners, it seems like it was very closely related to traditional Thai Dance. You can read this article about a farang studying Khon Dance to give a sense of what Khon is. This is likely why Hanuman, the Monkey King, is read as a definitive Muay Thai fighter in prowess.



above, Ravana, the demon king, fighting the white monkey Hanuman, in khon masked pantomime.

I've long thought that Vishnu's ethereal archer's repose helps explain just how beloved Samart's disinterested Muay touches a loyal, aesthetic nerve in Thai audience. Samart, I contend, is read - perhaps unconsciously - as Vishnu/Prince Prah Rama (in the Thai version of the Hindu epic, some sources say Ram is a reincarnation of Buddha, and not Vishnu). And this means something.




Muay Thai, ultimately, at its root, is operatic. This is much of what is at risk of being lost as it careens towards western Maul Ball, and mash-em-ups. It isn't just that the fighters and fights are becoming more unskilled, but also the sport and art is becoming unmoored from the deeper potentials of what it has been and what it is. 


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A decent summary of the Ramakien here


These exotic creations are truly Thailand. They are so deeply ingrained in the culture, customs and beliefs of the Thai nation that myth and fact have merged into one epic legend. This deeply evocative tale is a story of magic and wonder, it is the Ramakien.

A tale of truly epic proportions – with recent publications running to nearly 3,000 pages, the only known complete version of the Ramakien was penned by King Rama I in 1804. No one knows when the story first entered Thai culture, but there is evidence of the Ramakien being performed in dances and shadow puppet theatres as far back as the 13th century.

The legend of the Ramakien owes its roots to the Ramayana, an ancient tale from India. Written more than 2,000 years ago by the Sanskrit poet Valmiki, the Ramayana is the story of the Hindu god Vishnu and his 7th incarnation as Rama, the prince and king of Ayodhya. 


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If you want to understand the performative, operatic qualities and meanings of Muay Thai, consider the powerful role of performed "fights" at cremation funeral ceremonies. Here are legends Sagat and Pudpadnoi "fighting" at the cremation of the legend Sirimonkol:




In world of Muay Thai as mashemup, as brought on by hybrid shows designed to appeal to younger, more internationalized Thai audiences, and to westerners as well, such performances would become meaningless displays...because "display" in Muay Thai would have lost its meaning, at least in its deeper context.

Read about this funeral here.

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