Editor’s Note: This article was produced in collaboration with the Arts & Culture MA concentration at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

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Preserve or adapt, change or disappear? The quandary that most long-practiced arts eventually face is once again brought into focus, this time at the Crossing the Line Festival, where a new performance piece is employing a very old art form: shadow puppetry. A practice commonly believed to have originated in Asia (though its exact provenance is uncertain), the craft of shadow puppetry had historically been passed down, master-apprentice style, through the generations. With varied technologies and media dominating contemporary performance, practitioners of puppetry and scholars say this ancient form of theatre is under threat of extinction. 

Shadow-puppet theatre is a global art form in which figures are illuminated by a light source onto a translucent screen, projecting shadows that are used to enact a narrative. For countries where shadow puppetry is a living art, the stories told during the course of a performance tend to be folklore, narratives of heritage. Indeed, shadow-art traditions are included on UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage in hopes of safeguarding them and raising awareness about their importance. 

Shadow puppets from Fire in the Hand, made in collaboration with master craftsmen in Indonesia

For the Crossing the Line Festival, New York-based artist Christopher Myers chose to employ shadow puppets in Fire in the Head, a theatre performance about renowned 20th-century Polish dancer and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky. Myers worked in collaboration with master craftspeople in Indonesia to design and create the shadow puppets used in the work, which made its world premiere at the festival this fall. “There’s a way in which this kind of directness and indirectness of shadow [puppetry] plays with questions I’m so passionately interested in — about how our images are thrown up on the screen of the world and how we manage that,” Myers said in an interview with Hyperallergic. The narrative arc of the shadow puppets followed along with the depiction of Nijinsky’s inner conflicts, which was immortalized in the diaries he left behind. 

Elsewhere in New York, meanwhile, the Chinese Theatre Works company has been using shadow puppets since 1990 as part of its efforts to adapt traditional Chinese performance practices for American audiences. While using traditional-style puppetry, the group draws on overhead projectors as a modern way of creating shadows. A similar technique is employed by San Francisco-based ShadowLight Productions, formed in 1972 by one of the few Americans trained in traditional Balinese shadow theatre, Larry Reed. His experimentation with the form led to “live animation film,” combining cinematic aspects like electric light sources to create live montages. 

Shadow puppets illuminated at Chris Myer’s Fire in the Head performance, part of French Institute Alliance Français’s Crossing the Line festival

Contemporary takes on traditional practice aren’t always wholly embraced, of course. Alexx Salazar, PhD candidate at the University of London whose thesis deals with reimagining culture and tradition through Cambodian shadow puppets, is well steeped in the tension between those who wish to preserve the static nature of shadow play and those who want to see it evolve. For the traditionalists, Salazar points to history and the 1970s Cambodian genocide. Millions of Cambodians were killed by the Khmer Rouge regime and those surviving were forbidden from practicing their culture. “There’s still that sense that Cambodian traditions are at risk of being lost … I think that’s one of the driving forces behind people who want to strictly preserve tradition,” she says. 

In China, efforts to preserve the art form have taken on a special urgency. Jianbo Peng, director of the Digital Museum of Shadow run by the China Academy of Art, has dedicated the last 15 years to creating an online archive that catalogues thousands of shadow-puppet images and videos. He says (with the aid of his son, Jiachen Peng, who provided translation) the work of preservation is a deeply urgent task. Many of the traditional Chinese performances were done by people in rural areas, many of whom are now over sixty. He notes that young people are less interested in learning the art form — it takes many years to become a puppet master, and with today’s version of moving images like film and television, shadow puppetry seems slower and outdated. “We have to find a better approach to engage young people to be involved in this art,” Peng says.

Shadow puppets from Fire in the Hand, made in collaboration with master craftsmen in Indonesia

Rahul Pulavar, who is a 13th-generation shadow puppet practitioner from India, doesn’t think of old versus new in dichotomous ways — he prefers the term “intermedial process.” Pulavar, a graduate student in the department of literatures, cultures, and languages at University of Connecticut, says he thinks traditional shadow puppetry can be conserved by practitioners using modern technology while also championing the authenticity of oral tradition and aesthetics. As for whether it’s a dying art? “We are speaking to the present,” he says. “We speak to the past and we will definitely speak to the future.” 

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Radiyah Chowdhury

Radiyah Chowdhury is a Toronto-born master of arts student in Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. She’s specializing in arts and culture.

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