Before the age of television soap operas and movies, Thai people entertained themselves by watching Shadow Puppet Shows. In Thai these are known as “Nang Talung” and were popular in Southern Thailand. Although you cannot see them so much these days, you might be lucky at a village festival, temple fair or some other kind of celebration such as a wedding. I was fortunate to see this show at a temple fair in Nakhon Si Thammarat.
The size of a puppet theatre will vary. At the very least there will be a puppeteer, Nai Nang, who manipulates all of the puppets and will also provide the voices. In addition there will be a small group of people from folly artists who provide sound effects to others who play musical instruments. However, this particular puppet show was a one man band and this old guy was doing everything by himself. Quite an incredible feat as you can see by the number of puppets he has to manipulate.
Like these children, I was just as fascinated by what was going on behind the screen as I was watching the show from the front. The puppets are made from cow’s hide which has been dried and flattened. These are then cut into the different figures, coloured and then varnished. This can take anywhere from hours to days, if not weeks for the more intricate designs. Once ready, two pieces of bamboo sticks are fixed to the cow’s hide which are used to manipulate the puppet. Some puppets might have extra sticks to manipulate other limbs.
A puppet theatre can have as many as 150 different puppets if not more. These are as varied as kings, princes, ladies, ogres, villagers and a large group of clowns. There are also stage props such as trees and houses. Sizes of the puppets range from one foot to two and a half feet. Although many of the characters are traditional and haven’t changed for generations, you will also sometimes see more contemporary outfits. For example cowboys, movie stars and gangsters with guns. In the old days, many of the female puppets showed more of the face while the men were always shown in profile.
Although you may not be able to understand what is going on in the show as it is all narrated in Thai, you should be able to appreciate the humour. I certainly found it fascinating to watch as I had never seen a genuine shadow puppet show before. I think these puppet theatres are surviving as they are adapting by putting on performances with contemporary themes. If you want to learn more about this ancient art, then I suggest that you visit the Thai Shadow Puppet Museum in Nakhon Si Thammarat.