In the old days, before movies and T.V. soap operas, people were entertained with Nang Talung. This is the art of shadow puppets that first became popular in Southern Thailand two or three generations ago. It has since spread to other parts of Thailand, like the north-east, but many people still see it as an art form from the south. Unfortunately it is very rare to be able to see a shadow puppet show these days. Movies and T.V. shows are the preferred form of entertainment these days. However, during my recent trip to Nakhon Si Thammarat, I was lucky enough to be able to watch three shadow puppet shows.
Thailand’s most famous shadow puppet master is Mr. Suchart Sapsin. He has been making puppets and putting on performances since he was a teenager. He is now 72 years old and has been named a national artist of Thailand. In 1985, he said that he had a once in a lifetime opportunity to perform for H.M. The King. Apparently the performance greatly impressed the King and he thanked Suchart for keeping the ancient folk art alive in these modern times. “He also asked me not to hold back my knowledge and skill, and that I should pass it on to the next generation.” Suchart went on to say that “it was then that I decided to build a museum”.
The Shadow Puppet Museum, or “Ban Nang Talung Suchart Supsin” in Thai, is located in the same compound as his family home in Nakhon Si Thammarat. It is only a short ten minute walk from the famous pagoda at Wat Phra Mahathat. The museum is open every day and has no admission price. However, near the entrance there is a small shop selling genuine puppets and it is appreciated if you buy something or at least make a donation for the upkeep of the museum. Suchart’s son is now involved in the running of the museum so at least the shadow puppets will last another generation at least.
The museum itself is on the second floor of an old wooden building built on stilts. Here you will find a large collection of artefacts which trace the history of shadow puppets back more than 200 years. As well as a large collection of puppets, there are also the different musical instruments that are used during the performance. In the old days they didn’t have any electricity so they had to use a lantern which is now on show here. Not all of the items on display have English labels, but they have produced a couple of excellent brochures in English which will help guide you to understand what you are looking at.
Downstairs we had a chance to see how they made the shadow puppets. These are made from buffalo or cow hide which are treated and then dried on a frame for three days. Once ready, the design is drawn on the leather and then small intricate tools are used to cut out the shapes. A basic puppet could take 3 or 4 hours to complete. But more complicated designs will take days if not weeks to complete. Once the puppet is finished, they are then painted using black, green, red and yellow colours. Bamboo sticks are then fastened to the puppets. Some only need 2 or 3 sticks but others need more as they will move things like eyebrows and tongues.
While we were there we were very fortunate to be given a performance by Suchart himself. These are not regular shows. If you want to see a shadow puppet show you would need to telephone in advance to make an appointment. Suchart operated all of the puppets himself and also did the different voices. However, there was one other person that provided the music and sound effects. It was actually really good as he managed to blend an ancient art form with modern contemporary issues. In the show that we watched some of the props included mobile phones, motorbikes and airplanes. It was a really good show and we all enjoyed it immensely.
I have posted more pictures on my Facebook Page.
The Shadow Puppet Museum can be found at 110/18 Si Thammarat Road, Soi 3. For further information, please call 07 534 6394.