Sbek Thom and Sbek Toch are the two main genres of the Khmer Shadow Theatre. The former is even featured on the list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity since 2009. On social media, tens of thousands of Cambodians are calling for their immortalisation; but that does not practically satisfy the condition that these sacred art forms need – to be preserved. A group of puppeteers, despite their struggles and lack of assistance, gives weekly performances, hoping the public will join them in keeping the shadow puppets alive. Story by Taing Rinith.
Phoeun Kompheak’s students know him as a Professor of French Language at the Institute of the Foreign Languages while cinemagoers recognise him as the actor who played the Father in Angelina Jolie’s Golden Globe-nominated First They Killed My Father. All of his artist friends, meanwhile, know the 43-year-old as a dedicated backer of Khmer traditional art, especially the shadow theatre.
On one Friday, Kompheak arrives at the National Library of Cambodia at 2 in the afternoon, not to read books but to set up the stage. He is later joined by 12 artists, all in their 40s or 50s. Some are sweeping and washing the ground while the others are setting up the sound equipment. A large semi-transparent screen, about 10 meters wide and 4 meter high, was erected on poles approximately 2.5 meters above the ground.
Since March this year, the National Library has allowed Kok Thlork Association of Artists, of which Kompheak has been the head for almost ten years, to give regular performances of Sbek Touch and Sbek Thom on Fridays within its compound. The association, aiming at preserving endangered Khmer traditional art forms, used to give performances, where people could see for free when they were still funded by the donation from some generous French people and America-based Friends of Khmer people.
“All of our artists are volunteers, who are very passionate about this form of arts and do not want it to disappear.”
Just five minutes before the performance starts at 6:30, while the artists, all already sweaty, are preparing behind the stage, only about 15 people are in the audience seats, which are plenty enough for 60. Most of them are foreigners, who want to learn about Khmer art and culture.
Kompheak comes onto the stage and announces in Khmer and French that the evening is going to begin with the Sbek Toch performance of Kong Hean (Kong, the Brave Man), a well-known Khmer folktale; however, it is customary to start with a comedic scene first.
As a traditional Cambodia Pin Peat orchestra in front of the screen starts playing, the light is dimmed, and two men and their buffalos, in form of leather puppets with movable limbs. They started having a funny conversation about their wives before they go on to bet on a buffalo fighting. After the match, the loser refuses to pay and the two fight until a policeman comes and arrests them both.
Then, the puppeteers perform the main story. Kong, a farmer, is travelling with his two wives to visit his mother when a ferocious tiger attacks him. He is so afraid that he climbs a tree to save his life while his two brave wives beat the tiger to death. Realising that the tiger is dead, Kong comes down and pretends to beat up the tiger with a staff. A man passing by asks who killed the tiger and Kong says he did while his wives, wanting to save their coward husband’s face, keep silent. From then on, Kong become famous and later becomes a general serving the King.
Next is the Sbek Thom performance of a scene in Reamker, a Khmer version of the Ramayana, which depicts the battle between Peali, a monkey king and the uncle of Hanuman, and Touphi, a powerful buffalo king.
Unlike the puppets in Sbek Toch, Sbek Thom puppets are large, 1 to2 meters tall, almost round non-articulated leather silhouettes, in which the characters are engraved as if in a frame. Eight puppeteers are moving with grace and dignity both in front of the screen and behind it.
The dance movements are dictated by the puppets the puppeteers are operating. Sitting next to the orchestra is a narrator who is both telling the story and giving the characters their voice in verses and rhymes. Next to him is an LCD projector that shows the English translation of his words.
Those who see the performances for the first times are showing great impression for them. One of them is Jochen Didden, an educational researcher from Belgium.
“Sbek Toch is so expressive and there are lots of humour in it, which makes it fun to watch and a very good tool for education,” Didden says. “In Sbek Thom, meanwhile, the artists are so elegant and talented that they can make story interesting and stunning.”
Behind the Screen
Kompheak has spent thousands of dollars on building the stage and buying the equipment, food and drinks for the artists, and with such a small audience, he never sees it as a business venture. Without his income from working as a French translator for the Khmer Rouge Tribunal Court of Justice, he adds, the Kork Thlok Association would have closed a long time ago.
“Usually, there is much less than that, even two or three people, but today a friend of mine invites some foreigners to see the show,” Kompheak says, smoking a cigarette to relieve his stress.
“A ticket costs 3 dollars for locals and 12 dollars for foreigners, but it is not unusual for me to call in people on the street to see it for free just for the seats to be filled.”
However, all artists are happy simply because they can keep showing people their skills. Having been working with Kork Thlork Association since its creation in 2008, Pokdy Rama, an official at the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts and a theatrical master, spent almost all his spare time on making puppets and writing script for the association, although he never receives a single riel for it.
“I don’t want the shadow theatre to disappear,” Rama says. “So, I am doing my best to make the young generation see it and love it, like I did when I was their age.”
40-year-old Pech Phan, another artist and narrator, says his wife keeps asking him to quit the group and focus on his job as wedding singer, but he never follows her, not even when she threatens to divorce him.
“I love this form of art as much as I love my life.”
According to the local record, Sbek Thom’s origin dated back to the pre-Angkorian period while Sbek Toch, despite its unknown origin, is speculated to be an influence of Javanese shadow puppet play Wayang Kulit. Both are deeply integrated into the Khmer people’s lives and beliefs, and they were usually performed at traditional ceremonies in the past. However, no thanks to the tumultuous history of Cambodia, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, a lot of the artists perished, and the art has been on the verge of disappearance, especially as they are replaced by modern entertainment, such as film and modern music.
Kom Pheak, Kork Thlork Association’s director, says tens of thousands of local social media users “like and share” the association’s Facebook posts about the performances but not even one percent of those come to see them.
“I think the best way to preserve this art form is to create an art-adoring habit in Cambodian families,” Kompeak says. “Parents bringing their children to see traditional performance once a week or even a month is a great way to start doing that.”
“You can buy our 30-dollar premium ticket, which allows up to three people to see our performances for one whole year. By doing that you are doing our traditional art scene a huge favour.”