Khmer Shadow Theatre
By: May Titthara, Picture Courtesy of the Ministry of Culture ( November, 2002 Volume 2 No.11 )

Shadow puppet theatre is the traditional Cambodian art form of performing narratives using the shadows cast by figures cut out of cowhide. Some shadow puppets have arms and legs that can be moved, or mouths that can be opened to imitate the speech and songs of a narrator. Shadow puppet theatre often includes comic characters, and is usually based on stories of ordinary life. "The shadow puppet theatre is known by different names in different places. The common ones are Sbaek Doik, Ayong and Nang Thalong," said Mao Keng, director of the Department of Performing Arts.
"Khmer shadow puppet theatre was probably derived from Malaysia, as in the Angkorian period Malaysia bordered the Khmer Empire," Mao Keng added. "Some suggest that Nang Thalong puppetry originated in a village called Malayang in Battambang province," he said. "Some names of Khmer art-forms are derived from the names of famous artists whom audiences were fond of," Mao Keng explained. "And some took their names from the name of the place where the art forms were first created," he said. Shadow puppet theatre is thought to have been much influenced by performances held in a village called Kampong Trayang in Siem Reap Province, not far from the temples of Angkor. Since ancient times, the inhabitants of Kampong Trayang performed 'Takkata,' a kind of puppet theatre in which the puppets are made of wood. Takkata is an ancient art form that the inhabitants of Kampong Trayang handed down from generation to generation. Performances continued until the year 1970, when Cambodia's civil war began. "It is undecided whether Kampong Trayang village, where the wooden puppet-theatre used to be performed, is where the name Ayong, or 'puppet theatre' come from," Mao Keng added. "Most residents of Siem Reap province call leather shadow-puppet theatre Sbaek Doik, or small leather, and rarely use the name Ayong," he continued. "And for comic character puppets, which are the favorites of most audiences, most troupes in Siem Reap province usually use the name Apok or Asou, and ot the name Ayong." Most shadow puppet troupes in Battambang province call their art form Ayong, Nang Ta Long or Namtalong. Troupes in Battambang and Siem Reap provinces are different to those elsewhere, because the name Ayong is commonly used in Phnom Penh and most other provinces.

One famous characteristic of Phnom Penh's shadow-puppet theatre is a duo of comic character puppets that are also called Ayong. One of the characters is an old hunch-backed man with a bald head, who always carries an axe whose name is Ayong. His partner is called Ayao, who is a man with a bare head and a long mouth like a beak. These two characters are an essential part of many stories, and a favorite with audiences. Traditionally, the duo help people who are in difficulty, save them from harm, and help get rid of their enemies Because of the skill of the puppeteer at comic techniques and at performing the character of Ayong, shadow puppet theatre borrowed the name Ayong for the comic puppets. So when someone says "Let's go and see the Ayong," it means "Let's go and see a performance of shadow puppet theatre." "The art forms of Tukkata or Ayong, which both mean puppet, and have been popular with Khmer people since time immemorial. Tukkta or Ayong are inanimate objects, such as wooden or clay figurines or plastic dolls, which can be jerked, pulled, or played with by a puppeteer," said Mao Keng.

Shadow puppet theatre is always performed at night. Performers use torchlight or electric light to cast shadows of their leather puppets' engraved designs. The performers build a small theatre at about head height, with a covered roof and walls. In the front, they tie a white cotton sheet like a screen, and put a banana stem behind it to hold those puppets not in use in between scenes. Before a performance begins, the players conduct a ceremony known as Hom Rong. The performers offer candles, incense, flowers and food to the spirits of the people who used to the people who used to perform shadow puppet theatre in ancient times, and ask them for good luck in that evening's show. The Hom Rong ceremony is also a good opportunity for the performers to collect their thoughts and focus themselves before the shadow puppet show starts.