Prior to television being introduced to the world, one of the most popular forms of entertainment for Thai people was watching Shadow Puppet Shows. Known in the Thai language as “Nang Talung” these shows were very popular, especially with the people in the South of Thailand and more so in the city of Nakhon Si Thammarat where the figures are an important product and can be bought at many shops within the city. Nowadays, authentic shows are not so easy to find but they do make appearances at local village festivals such as Phuket’s very own Thai Thepkasattri-Thao Sri Suntorn Festival and also temple fairs.
Puppet theatres will vary in size. The smallest of the theatres will be one man shows with a lone puppeteer (Nai Nang) single handedly manipulating all the puppets and providing all the voices. These small theatres will also usually include a small group of people who will provide the amusing sound effects and others who will provide the music.
The elaborate and detailed traditional design of the “Nang Talung” puppets is first drawn by a master artist. The design is then applied to a piece of leather and painstakingly etched into almost lace-like proportion. These marvellous characters can take anywhere from hours to days, if not weeks to make, depending on how intricate the design. The finished designs are then mounted onto two bamboo stick, enabling the master puppeteer to cleverly manipulate the puppet. It is sometimes necessary to add additional sticks, allowing some puppets to move other parts. The actual shows are performed by pressing the flat puppets against white screen with a strong source of light behind it. The manipulation between the light and the screen make silhouette or colour shadow and viewers sit in front of the screen.
The Story… Prior to the performance, there will be a “Wat Khru” ceremony, which pays respects to the teachers of this fabulous art form. The ceremony called “Berk Na Phra” is performed along with ritual background music by the ensemble. The ceremony is then followed by a prologue, a popular one being the “Chab Ling Hua Kham” story. This tells of two monkeys – one black, one white. The black monkey always gets up to mischief, causing constant problems and fights. Despite the white monkey’s attempts to teach him to behave, he never listens, and in desperation, the white monkey ties the black one up and takes him to the hermit. There, the hermit teaches him to turn over a new leaf and unties him. The two monkeys then become good friends.
The prologue is then followed by the main performance, which are now often adapted to include contemporary themes.