The ancient art of shadow puppetry’s roots stretch back centuries. Today the Cambodian art form is being reinvented for the modern world. By Marissa Carruthers
A collection of giant shadows dart across the white screen that stands in front of a crowd sat cross-legged on cushions on the floor. A collection of intricately carved characters in the form of an army of monkeys glide from one side of the screen to the other as they portray the battle between good and evil – all lit to the backdrop of a blazing re of coconut husks that burns behind the sheet.
During the next hour, the troupe of highly trained artists will take on more than 80 roles, swapping the puppets, which stand at more than one-metre tall, with speed to depict a silhouetted scene from the age-old tale of Reamker – the Cambodian version of the Indian Ramayana epic.
Following in the steps of their ancestors, the Wat Bo troupe of shadow puppeteers in Siem Reap are keeping a tradition that dates back to pre-Angkorian times alive. And it is mainly thanks to one man that shadow puppet, or sbaek in Khmer, shows continue to be performed in the kingdom today.
After surviving the Khmer Rouge reign of the 1970s, monk Venerable Pin Sem, made it his mission to revive Cambodia’s once vibrant art scene. As an artist who had practised drawing, sculpture and music before the turmoil, he felt it was his duty to reconnect his country to its rich artistic heritage and set about the task while living in a refugee camp on the Thai border.
Recalling the shadow puppet shows that enchanted him as a youngster living in Siem Reap, Pin, a member of the Board of Buddhist Chiefs in Cambodia, invited 25 monks to join him in crafting a set of carvings in 1988. Sharing what he knew with his peers, the troupe started putting on shows, and in 1993 relocated to Wat Bo in Siem Reap, where Pin and the troupe are still based today.
Two years later, trained performer Vann Sopheavuth joined as group leader and since then has led the troupe in a quest to keep the traditional theatre form alive. “It is very important for Cambodian culture that shadow puppetry continues. It has been part of our heritage for thousands of years and is very special,” he says.
Sbaek is a performance that is unique to Cambodia, with bas-reliefs from 7th century temple Sambor Prei Kuk in Kampong Thom featuring female puppeteers using figurines in a ceremony. The art form is believed to have originated in Siem Reap, where performances mainly took place in paddy fields or pagodas as part of rituals, ceremonies or birthdays for monks or other important members of the community.
The classical show is a sacred form of theatre with each performance seen to be an act of worship. is belief is so entrenched that special measures have to be taken when carefully hand-carving three of the tale’s characters from large pieces of cow hide – a meticulous process that takes up to 20 days. While cutting these characters, artists must wear white, abstain from alcohol and lead a sin-free life. The cow hide must also come from an animal that has died of natural causes rather than being killed.
“We have to show respect for the tale and the three important characters,” Vann says, referring to the Reamker’s Hermit, the Master and Preah Ream. “This is a story with a very moral message and we must be pure when delivering it.”
Sharing the legacy of sbaek with Cambodia’s young is a task the troupe takes seriously. “Children need to learn about the history of shadow puppetry,” says Sa Ang Tip, who joined the troupe in 2003 after becoming enthralled while watching rehearsals during his first few days as a monk at Wat Bo. e monk devoted the next three months to learning the art, which sees performers hold the hide carvings on two sticks as they duck and dive behind the large screen to recreate the epic tale. “It’s part of who we are and we want everyone to know about this rich Cambodian culture,” he says. Telling the complete tale is saved for formal ceremonies, as it takes four hours a day over one week to perform. The condensed version, reserved for schools, tourists and international shows, focuses on one scene and usually lasts about an hour.
Since the troupe joined forces with the NGO Cambodian Living Arts in 2000 – although it now operates as an independent body – shadow puppetry has been shared with thousands of youngsters around the country, as well as with the world. The performers have travelled across the globe to deliver spell-binding performances to countries such as Malaysia and the US. “It really is a privilege and an honour to be part of keeping Cambodia’s culture alive,” Sa Ang adds with a smile.
The Reamker is a story of good overcoming evil and tells the story of Rama, or Preah Ream. With the help of his brother and the monkey Hanuman, he tries to rescue his wife Sita, or Neang Seda, from a demon with 10 heads and 20 arms. The 12 years it takes him to free her from the island of Langka are embroiled with battles between supporters of the demon and Preah Ream, including the battle between the pure white monkeys and the evil black monkeys. When they are reunited, Preah Ream orders his wife to be killed after doubting her love for him. But his brother lets her escape into the forest, where she has a son and raises him. It is while she is in exile that she meets the hermit Eisei. Years later, the son is reunited with his father, Preah Ream, who attempts to win back Neang Seda’s heart. Eventually he succeeds.
Performances can be seen at Wat Bo, Samdech Tep Vong Street, Siem Reap, where the troupe put on private performances. For more details, visit: wwwcambodianlivingarts.org.