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Shadow puppetry in Phnom Penh

Mayuri Mei Lin​ / Khmer Times Share:
KT/ Fabien Mouret

The ancient art of storytelling through shadow puppetry, where cut-out figures are held between a light source and a translucent screen, was on full display in Phnom Penh this week.
Preforming arts group Kok Thlok Association made its sbek thom, the Khmer term for shadow puppetry, debut on Wednesday at the National Library of Cambodia and performed episodes of the Reamker, a traditional Cambodian poem based on the Sanskrit epic Ramayana. 
The troupe performed two episodes from Reamker which, like the original Ramayana, tells the classic tale of good triumphing over evil through vivid characters such as Prince Rama, Queen Sita and monkey god Hanuman. 
The exact origin of the art form is unclear, with some accounts stating that it started more than 1,000 years ago in China or India, while others insist its roots date further back in Southeast Asia. However, what art critics can agree on is its ornate and vivid storytelling capabilities. 
With nothing more than an intricately designed puppet against a white screen, the life and animation of the characters are often left to the artists controlling them, who must be skilled both physically and vocally to effectively portray each character. 
Coupled with the necessity for puppeteers to coordinate with one another to ensure that audiences are transfixed on the puppets rather than those who control them, the complex art form has earned a unique reputation in the performing arts world.
The make and design of the puppets vary according to region, with Chinese ones resembling royalty and Indonesian ones resembling Hindu or Buddhist gods, but most of them are often made from thin pieces of leather attached to sticks which control them. 
In the Cambodian sbek thom, “the artisan draws the desired figure on the tanned hide, then cuts it out and paints it before attaching it to two bamboo sticks enabling the dancer to control the puppet,” according to Unesco. 
Performances in the kingdom typically take place outdoors, in rice fields or at pagodas, and are accompanied by an orchestra and several narrators. 
While many elaborate shadow puppets were destroyed during the Khmer Rouge regime, the art form has seen a revival, with surviving artists passing down their skills to the next generation.

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