23 June 2013

The Shadow Puppeteers

I was lucky enough to be invited to a rehearsal recently of the world-renowned Wat Bo shadow puppeteers and it was superb. A storyteller narrates the story, musicians play on traditional instruments, and the puppeteers perform a kind of slow-motion traditional dance as they also move their puppets in front of a backlit screen.

The Wat Bo shadow puppeteers are world class! As our guide Vireak– himself a highly talented puppeteer – explained, the Wat Bo troupe recently performed in New York at the 'Season of Cambodia', a celebration of this country’s visual and performing arts.

Shadow-puppet theatre is a centuries-old tradition here in Cambodia, probably because the materials needed are readily available and inexpensive. The puppets are made of tanned cow hide, 2 or 3mm thick, from which the unwanted pieces of leather have been cut or chiselled to create something resembling a stencil. The puppets we saw were large, perhaps a metre tall, and heavy to carry. No wonder then that when we arrived at the rehearsal, the puppeteers were doing a series of warm-up exercises. You have to be fit to be a puppet performer.


Another factor that no doubt contributes to the ongoing popularity of puppet theatre is the flexibility of the venue. The puppets work in silhouette, so with a strong back light and a large light-coloured screen – a bedsheet would do the job – a performance could be held almost anywhere; it could as easily be set up between palm trees in a rural village as in a modern theatre.

The story depicted is usually the Reamker, Cambodia’s interpretation of the Ramayana, an ancient Hindu love story. This epic tale is well known to all Cambodians, young and old alike, so they can easily identify the various characters and anticipate the narrative. 


Smaller puppets are also made for other types of performance, with long sticks being used to move their partially flexible limbs, and these now form part of the souvenir trade for visiting tourists. All the puppets are handmade and obviously required a high degree of skill to create. Luckily, these creative skills are still being passed down to young Cambodians, generating an income for talented artists and preserving one of Cambodia’s traditional art forms. 

When I was wandering around one of the local wats a few days after seeing the Wat Bo rehearsal, I encountered a local woman who runs a small NGO, the House of Peace Association, where the children are being taught puppet-making skills. I had a wonderful chat to the woman and, of course, purchased one of the smaller puppets, as a souvenir of my time here in Cambodia and as a way to support the continuation of this traditional art form.