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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

See the Shadow Puppets of Southeast Asia

The shadow puppet theater if found throughout South and Southeast Asia, with similar stories being told from Kashmir to Ho Chi Minh. Taking time to check out this traditional theater as you go is a wonderful way to get a glimpse into a barely surviving traditional art form and also give you the opportunity to look into these cultures and allowing you a opportunity to see connections with far away other cultures.

Wayang Kulit

The most famous of the Southeast Asian shadow puppet tradition is no doubt wayang, or the Indonesian and Malay traditions. Wayang is a generic term denoting traditional theatre in Indonesia. There is no evidence that wayang existed before Hinduism came to Southeast Asia sometime in the first century CE brought in by Indian traders. However, there very well may have been indigenous storytelling traditions that had a profound impact on the development of the traditional puppet theatre. The first record of a wayang performance is from an inscription dated 930 CE. Wayang traditions include Balinese wayang, Wayang Jawa, or Javanese wayang, and Malay Wayang.

The following video clip should give you a sense of Wayang Kulit Jawa.

Thailand, Cambodia Laos and other Southeast Asian countries have their own shadow puppets as well. Most often throughout those countries the repertoire is largely the same--the great Sanskrit epic, the Ramayana, and to a lesser extent, the Mahabharata. They also include stories from the local tradition, such as rural comedies and local sagas. Puppets are even being used to spread AIDS education and other services in these countries.

Cambodian Shadow Puppets: Sbeik Thom and Sbeik Poch

In Cambodia, there are two forms--Nang sbeik thom or sbeik thom, "large skins," and sbeik poch, "small skins," appropriate names for leather puppets.  The former is nearly always a formal performance.  The repertoire consists of the Reamker, the Cambodian version of the Ramayana.  In this epic Phreah Ream (Rama) is exiled into the forest with his wife Neang Seda (Sita) and brother R Leak (Lakshmana) by the machinations of his father's second wife.  Neang Seda is kidnapped by the demon Krong Reap (Ravana) who desires her for his concubine.  With the help of the monkey prince Hanuman, they find Neang Seda and rescue her, killing the demon.  However, Phreah Ream does not take her back, fearing she is violated, and she flees to the forest and births him twin sons.  Finding her again, they are reunited after the Earth Goddess testifies to Neang Seda's chastity.

Sbeik Thom Video from UNESCO

Sbeik poch often draws from the Reamker, but it is also often used to put on comedic acts about daily life in Cambodia, such as a farmer's dissatisfaction with his bull in a bull fight.  The following short clip from Cambodia is about a water buffalo fight between two rivals.

Both shadow puppet traditions were nearly destroyed by the Khmer Rouge.

See Shadow Puppets in Southeast Asia

In case you would like to see some performances of this traditional art form while you are traveling, try the following contacts; they either have regular performances or can help you arrange one on your own.

Murni's Villas
Villa Kunang-Kunang
Ubud - Ponggang
Bali, Indonesia
62 (361) 972146

Museum Wayang (Puppet Museum)
Jalan Pintu Besar Barat 27, Tamansari 11110 Indonesia

Kelantan Tourist Information Centre, Jalan Sultan Ibrahim, 15150 Kota Bharu,
Kelantan, Malaysia
Phone : +609-748 5534 / +609-748 3543
E-mail :

Nang Yai Shadow Puppet Drama
Phone: +66-03-223 3386
Wat Khanon, Ratchaburi

House of Peace
Salarean Kok Patri, Krous Village,
Svay Dangkum Commune, Siem Reap District, Siem Reap,
Phone: 012 913 398

Malaysian Shadow Puppet Performance


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