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The Enduring Power of Southeast Asia’s Traditional Shadow Puppets

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Naga, a mythical serpent (late 1700s–early 1800s), West Java (all images © The Trustees of the British Museum, courtesy the British Museum)

For centuries, shadow puppet theater not only captivated audiences across Southeast Asia but also held ritual significance for various local communities. Held outdoors at night, the performances unfolded around the simple setup of a stretched white cloth, lit by an oil lamp, on which the shadows of puppets would dance to orchestral music. Spectators would watch from both sides of the cloth; so rather than existing as simple black cutouts, many of these puppets boasted colorful, detailed designs, often crafted by the puppeteers themselves. The British Museum owns over 700 of these objects from Southeast Asia alone, and 85 from Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand are now on view in an ongoing exhibition. Used to dramatize folktales, local traditions, and epic tales, these ogres, clowns, villagers, court figures, and other characters today represent some of the oldest relics of a community activity that has experienced great change in the last few decades.

“Once, shadow theater performances in Southeast Asia were exclusively ritual activities that also provided entertainment,” curator Dr. Alexandra Green told Hyperallergic. “Even today, they can retain ritual significance. Performances summon helpful spirits and dispel harmful ones, purify individuals and communities, ensure successful harvests, and offer blessings to all attending. During performances, puppeteers recite sacred incantations and make offerings.”

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Togog, a clown (late 1700s–early 1800s), West Java (click to enlarge)

Many puppeteers used hide to create their characters, attaching bamboo to their limbs to enable movement. No examples from Southeast Asia that date from before the 17th-century are known to exist, Green said, although the tradition may have began in Java before spreading to other parts of Southeast Asia. The ones in the museum’s exhibition draw largely from the collection of the British statesman Sir Stamford Raffles, and date from the late 1700s to the 20th century.

Even today, people commission performances for major events, from weddings to funerals or around harvest time. While puppeteers may draw large crowds and make a name for themselves, many of the names of those working centuries ago are now lost. Aside from creating the puppets, voicing them, and directing the orchestra, some even wrote their own stories based on characters in more popular epics such as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, two ancient Indian texts. Shadow puppet theater developed over the years in Southeast Asia as stories passed from puppeteer to puppeteer who often edited or embellished them in their own personal styles.

Of course, performance styles also vary between countries and within regions. In Malaysia and Thailand, puppeteers usually kick off performances with specific ritual sequences such as a battle between two deities that is then stopped by a holy man to restore balance to the universe, Green said. The characters on stages in Southern Thailand — where shadow theater is still closely associated with local identity — tend to move just slightly, with puppeteers focusing more on dialogue. Speech is particularly important in Java, where audience members listening to their puppeteer are believed to receive protection from misfortune.

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Installation view of ‘Shadow puppet theatre from Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand’ at the British Museum (click to enlarge)

The puppets themselves, particularly those representing figures like heroes, major gods, and important clowns, also hold sacred meaning, as they may help people connect with the spirit world. Their makers, who may own collections of over 200 puppets, would cover highly cherished ones in cloth or wrap them in thread before storing them separately from their more common props.

While the tradition of shadow theater has largely disappeared in Malaysia, it still flourishes in regions such as southern Thailand and Java, according to Green, although often updated for modern times. Electric lights, rather than oil lamps, now provide the necessary atmosphere; music may sound out from amplified, electric instruments; and hide puppets share the stage with plastic ones. Performances now also follow narratives from contemporary novels, films, and even reflect current events, with puppets modeled after figures including bureaucrats and business leaders. And thanks to the internet and social media, puppeteers today may soar to celebrity status, such as Ki “Catur ‘Benyek” Kuncoro, who in 2010 founded Wayang Hip Hop, a theatrical group that marries Javanese hip hop songs with shadow puppetry. Far from simply pure entertainment, shadow puppet theater’s enduring legacy is a marker of how it creates an important place where people may gather and connect with their local culture and beliefs.

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General (early 1970s), Southern Thailand
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Ogre (mid 20th century), Southern Bali
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Ogre (mid 20th century), Kelantan, Malaysia
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Lady (late 1960s), made by “Midin,” Kelantan, Malaysia
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Rama (mid 20th century), Kelantan, Malaysia
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Sita wearing a forest hermit headdress (mid 20th century), Southern Thailand
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Installation view of ‘Shadow puppet theatre from Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand’ at the British Museum (click to enlarge)
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Installation view of ‘Shadow puppet theatre from Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand’ at the British Museum (click to enlarge)
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Installation view of ‘Shadow puppet theatre from Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand’ at the British Museum (click to enlarge)

Shadow puppet theatre from Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand continues at the British Museum (Great Russell Street, London, United Kingdom) through January 29, 2017.

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