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The Magical Art of Cambodian Shadow Puppetry Has Entertained for Centuries

Shadow puppets
The ancient Cambodian tradition of shadow puppetry is performed with leather puppets lit from behind, often by burning coconut husks, and projected onto a white screen, which creates the shadows that the audience sees. Andrea Pistolesi/Getty Images

As a child, you may have crowded around a flashlight or a candle during a slumber party or while playing with your siblings at night, playfully casting silly shadows on the wall in the form of ghosts and turkeys as you drifted to sleep.

But some countries have taken this simple act of shadow play and turned into it into a rich entertainment form that can be traced back to ancient religious and cultural practices.

Various kinds of shadow theater have existed for centuries across much of Asia and Europe — particularly Indonesia, Turkey, Thailand, China, Egypt and India, though some studies, such as one published in 2003 in the journal JSTOR, suggest that the long-standing practice originated in Central Asia or India. Others claim that it originated in China. Sea routes and travel across the steppes of Eurasia may have been the thread that connected these far-flung shadow theaters in different parts of the region.

One Southeast Asian country, in particular, has achieved a worldwide reputation for perfecting the art of shadow puppetry: Cambodia.

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The History of Shadow Puppets in Cambodia

Jennifer Goodlander is an associate professor of comparative literature at Indiana University and president of the Association for Asian Performance. In an email interview, Goodlander, who also wrote the book, "Puppets and Cities: Articulating Identities in Southeast Asia," discusses the two best-known forms of shadow puppetry in Cambodia: sbeik thom (large shadow puppets) and sbeik touch (small shadow puppets).

These terms refer to the single piece of leather material typically used to carve the puppets, which then cast shadows on the walls through the movements and dancing of the performers holding them using one or two bamboo sticks that are approximately 3 feet (1 meter) tall.

Sbeik thom (also written as sbek thom) means 'large leather' and sbeik touch (also written as sbek thom, sbeak touch or sbek touch) means 'small leather.' Both types of performances often narrate tales from the Reamker, which is the Khmer (Cambodian) version of the Indian religious epic, the Ramayana.

The first written recordings of the large shadow puppet theater appeared in a Thai royal court record from 1458. Given the proximity between Thailand and Cambodia, it's unclear whether the practice originated in Thailand or in Cambodia, though some experts speculate that the Thai people brought the performance style back to their home country after sacking the Cambodian capital, known as Angkor, in the 1400s.

Cambodian shadow puppets
A shadow puppet from a workshop in Roluos, Cambodia, depicts a Mer-Monkey, one of Hanuman's soldiers in the Ramayana, who dove into the sea to help build a bridge to Sri Lanka.
Michael Gunther/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Goodlander describes how shadow puppetry unfolded over the course of a millennium in Cambodia, and how it evolved in more recent years.

"Shadow puppetry is one of the oldest genres of performance in Cambodia — there is evidence of sbeik thom performances dating back to the Angkor period (9th century B.C.E.). The large, unarticulated puppets, were used in all-night performances as part of ceremonies and within the royal court," says Goodlander.

"The smaller puppets, sbeik touch, are likely a more recent invention — and these have been used for smaller productions that tour to villages to teach audiences about health."

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The Performance Element of Shadow Puppets

According to UNIMA's World Encyclopedia of Puppetry Art, large shadow theater was historically a form of courtly entertainment. Typically, narrators tell the story while dancers — holding the shadow puppets — perform in front of a screen, accompanied by music. The puppet characters range from princesses to peasants to demons and monkeys.

By contrast, small theater takes place in a booth before a cloth screen, where an external light source illuminates the shadows of the puppets. Seated operators control the movements of the puppets, which may feature tales from the Reamker, but may also feature other adventure tales, stories with farm animals, or modern educational narratives, such as the AIDS crisis or domestic violence awareness.

Goodlander expands on the differences between the two performances. "Besides the difference in how they are articulated — the sbeik thom remains more closely connected to religion and tradition," says Goodlander. "Sbeik touch sometimes tells stories from the Reamker, but it is less structured and more open to creativity and innovation. I saw a sbeik touch performance at a restaurant in Siem Reap [a tourist town, site of the ancient city of Angkor] — the performers were from a local school for the blind."

A beautiful pinpeat orchestra also often accompanies the performance of the small shadow puppet theater, using instruments such as xylophones, cymbals, gongs and an oboe-like object known as a sralai.

"The pinpeat is a traditional Cambodian music ensemble. It accompanies the performance in sbeik thom, because the puppets are danced." There are also "moments with no music and just narration," says Goodlander.

Eric Bass runs the Sandglass Theater in Vermont, which collaborated with Sovanna Phum, a theater company in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, between 2001 and 2006. In an email interview, Bass describes what he experienced when performing with Sovanna Phum, though he makes it clear that this is only his interpretation of the Cambodian practice and not the words of his Cambodian colleagues:

"Our style is soft and receptive, and the Cambodian art is firm and dynamic. It is essentially a dance form. Cambodian shadow puppeteers stamp their energy into the ground and let the force of the earth reverberate back up into the puppets."

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Shadow Puppetry in Recent Times

However, the rise of the Khmer Rouge (and its dictatorial leader, Pol Pot) and the subsequent genocide between 1975 and 1979 dealt a heavy blow to artisans (like shadow puppet makers and performers), who became a target of the authoritarian state. An estimated 80 to 90 percent of the country's artists were killed through torture, starvation, overwork and other methods.

"During the Khmer Rouge the performing arts of Cambodia, including most of the artists, were wiped out. Puppetry was no exception — most of the puppeteers and many of the puppets were destroyed," says Goodlander. For those who survived the genocide, it took many years to revitalize the Cambodian arts scene and traditional cultural practices that were lost. Goodlander cites the example of a performance troupe at Wat Bo, a Buddhist pagoda in Siem Reap — where puppet performances still take place today.

"Wat Bo was founded in 1992 by the Venerable Preah Moha Vimalakdharma Pin Sem (Venerable Pin Sem), who stated, 'We believe that the arts is the spirit, soul and wealth for the nations, for all nations in the world," Goodlander says.

The Venerable Pin Sem, while living in a Thai refugee camp in 1992, realized the small puppet theater arts were disappearing. So, he made it his mission to revitalize this vibrant piece of Cambodian history.

"Artwork within the walls of the wat, together with childhood memories, provided insight into how sbeik thom had been performed in the past. The Venerable Pin Sem invited 25 other monks to join him when in 1993 the group relocated to the temple Wat Bo," says Goodlander.

"Historically, performances could last up to seven nights, but today there is no one who remembers how to execute the longer performance."

Apart from local festivals and holidays, Cambodian shadow puppetry mainly draws attention from foreign tourists today. But Cambodian organizations are trying to re-engage the Cambodian public with this unique artistic tradition, even bringing together different groups to discuss how to better promote the performances and make ticket prices more affordable for locals.

"Locally — the performances suffer because Cambodian audiences have become disconnected from this past," Goodlander says.

UNESCO designated shadow theater an invaluable spot on its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2005, but interest in the practice has dwindled in the years since its declaration.

A handful of groups still practice shadow puppetry in Cambodia, particularly arts and theater organizations promoting Khmer culture, such as Cambodian Living Arts, Sovanna Phum Art Association (also known as Sovannaphum), Bambu Stage, and Bonn Phum, which is trying to keep the performance art alive through social media and an annual festival.

But the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 devastated arts and performance organizations worldwide, and Cambodia is no exception. Reuters reported that the emergence of COVID-19 forced Sovanna Phum — which had performed for 26 years and was run by legendary Cambodian artist Mann Kosal — to temporarily close in the wake of the pandemic.

But if Cambodia can retain its artistic traditions in the face of a modern, post-COVID world, the country may be in for a cultural renaissance, similar to what happened during the pre-Khmer Rouge "Golden Age" of the 1960s.

"Before the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia had an incredibly diverse and active scene in many kind[s] of performance ... and I believe that will happen again," says Goodlander.

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