THE HISTORY OF THE THAI PUPPET THEATRE

Beautiful and intricate, but, at times, a bit creepy, the history and evolution of the Thai puppet theatre is quite interesting, with its rich stories performed through the movements of the puppeteers backstage.

NANG YAI AND NANG TALUNG – IN 2D  

Its most ancient version, the nang yai, involved the use of shadow puppets cut out from buffalo hide. Later on, it became the more compact nang talung, “the small shadow puppet show”; much like the way we moved from big screens to smaller ones to make it more compact and more accessible.

With paler colours than its current 3D versions, the 2D shadow puppets can be compared to the black and white films of a long time ago, before colour and HD were even thought of.

According to scholars, the Nang Yai were brought to Thailand from India, via the Java and Malay Peninsula. Some believe that this art form was the influence of their next-door neighbors, the Khmers, in what we now know as Cambodia. Due to its Indian origin, the story depicted by these puppet shows usually revolve around the Ramayana, known to the Thais as Ramakien.

Although the earliest mention of the Nang Yai is in Thai records from 1458, it was during the Ayutthaya period that it gained so much popularity it was actually mentioned by a monk in one of his poems. Then, a large shadow puppet show was held in a field where tinder was burned. As the puppet moves behind the screen, help up by two poles, a band plays music and a dubber synchronizes with the movement of the puppet figures in real time.

There are no take twos in this performance.

HUN LA KORN LEK – IN 3D

In 1901, Kru Krae Suppawanich wanted to impress the king so much that he decided to create a lifesize puppet that could be used for the theatre. It was, however, a bit too complicated manipulate as the first one, the Hun Lang or Royal Thai puppet, had too many strings. So he created a simpler version: the Hun La Korn Lek, or the 3D art form of puppetry that is still shown today. A bit more modern, the puppets were held above the head of the puppeteers as they danced underneath them while a painted backdrop hid them from the audience.

There was a point in history, however, when economic problems led to the creation of more budget-friendly incarnations of these wooden puppets. The Hun Krabok, for example, made of a papier-mâché head fitted on a bamboo spine, and covered by a sack with hands attached to it, was the answer to a less expensive show.

As this creation was influenced by the Chinese, the tale of the Three Kingdoms of China was one of the popular stories at that time. The theatre also portrayed popular Thai mythology and epics.

THE JOE LOUIS THEATRE

At Asiatique the Riverfront in Bangkok, you will find The Joe Louis Theatre where you can watch the Hun Lakorn Lek marionettes come to life in their performance of the Ramakien. The life-like movements of the puppets are created by the synchronized movement of its 2 to 3 puppeteers. The construction of these puppets is so intricate that even their fingers can be seen moving during the performance.

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