Cambodian shadow theater has a long history, dating back over a thousand years to early Angkorian times. It is one of the most revered and loved art forms in the country, but, like many other cultural traditions, was nearly destroyed in the 1970's during the tyrannical reign of the Khmer Rouge. Efforts are being made to recover the lost history of shadow theater and bring it back to its former glory and popularity.
Shadow puppets are traditionally made in the region of Siem Reap, the location of Angkor Wat. Cow skin is cured and stretched out on a frame to dry for about 2 weeks. For this reason, shadow puppets can only be made during the dry season. The outlines of the puppet are cut using a knife, while the finer details are carved out with a chisel and hammer. It takes about three weeks to complete one puppet. Shadow puppets can be bought in the many markets in Phnom Penh, make beautiful wall hangings and are a popular souvenir.
There are two major forms of shadow puppet theater in Cambodia. Sbeik thom (big skin) traditionally tells the story of the Cambodian Ramayana. The puppets can be as large as 2 meters and have no moving parts. The narrator of the story also directs the orchestra (pien piet) while the puppeteers themselves remain silent throughout the performance.
Sbeik touch (small skin) is the less formal of the two forms and more improvisational. The stories told are usually about farm life, unrequited love, heros and villains and battles. The puppets used in this form are smaller and have moving parts. The puppeteer has more impact on the performance since s/he is also a contributor to the narration. The stories may or may not be accompanied by the orchestra.
Shadow theater is slowly regaining popularity in Cambodia and I had the opportunity to see several performances during my time there. Most of these were sbeik touch and were attended by large and appreciative crowds. Although my language skills never allowed me full comprehension of the story, I could tell that most of the stories were comedies by the reactions. Shadow theater performances hold a special place at most major festivals and celebrations like the Khmer New Year (April 13-15) and the Water Festival (end of November) and many theater troupes participate in free showings. Shadow puppet theater arts are also available at the Royal Phnom Penh University of Fine Arts.
Because of its popularity, shadow theater is being redeveloped with the help of foreign aid agencies as a method for educating youth and promoting awareness of various health issues. Centre de Developpement Culturel et des Arts Populaires Khmers, a French NGO, collected funding to train youth and establish a traveling shadow puppet theater group. Orphans aged 10-16 were trained in the traditions of making puppets and helped to write scripts dealing with issues like poverty, homelessness, drug awareness and AIDS prevention. These were then performed in village schools throughout the Siem Reap province.
To see pictures of Cambodian shadow puppets go to: