Cambodian shadows


Cambodian shadows
Shadows Khmer Theatre
available on demand
15 artists on stage

Sbek Thom, great Cambodian shadow theatre

The great Cambodian shadow theatre is quite original. Indeed, unlike the Ayang, it is not composed of  the shadows of forms or objects created by the projection of light onto a white screen. Originally, the brazier was behind the screen and the leather puppets were held at arm’s length by dancing puppeteers who manipulated them in front of the audience.

Contrary to the Ayang puppets, these ones are made of one whole piece and are not articulated. The screen is ten metres long and four metres high. The leather puppets, held at a height of one metre sixty, are made with precision according to strict rules and the fabrication is punctuated by rituals which are supposed to bestow the protection of the gods and the spirits on them. When the craftsman creates the ox hide panels, he must respect certain rules which tradition has rendered unchangeable. Here again the most important thing is not inventiveness but rather the respect of a sacred process. One variation on the great shadow theatre uses dyed puppets cut out of more moderately sized leather panels.

Holding the leather puppets above their heads, the dancers perform a choreography which closely resembles that of the Lokhon khol and exactly reproduces the themes taken from the Reamker, the Cambodian version of the Ramayana. The leather bearing dancers are accompanied by a pin peat orchestra and by two narrators who are the masters of ceremony.

Already in decline before 1970, the great shadow theatre was cruelly hit by the war. A complete set of large leather puppets has recently been restored. Dancers are being trained by the two narrators who survived. A leather workshop has been re- created at the Vat Bo in Siem Reap, a town where a new troupe was formed after young dancers had been trained by the rare survivors. The first public performance, organized by the Centre Culturel Français, took place on September 27th 1997.


The Reamker, Khmer Ramayana

The Reamker, the Khmer Ramayana, said to date from the beginning of the second millennium, differs from the original Brahminee legend in many ways, firstly because it is much more concise, conferring a decisive role on Hanuman, king of the monkeys, and on Sovanna Maccha, the mermaid who tries to foil Hanuman’s plans when the latter, with the help of his army, attempts to save Sita, prisoner of the demon Ravana on the Isle of Lanka.

Furthermore, the divine attributes of the deity, Rama- the reincarnation of the god Vishnu in the Hindu pantheon – disappear, leaving a more ‘realistic’ hero, powerful yet vulnerable at the same time, who belongs more to the world of mortals than that of the gods.

This performance highlights the three main episodes of the Reamker, telling the tale of the alliance between Prince Rama and Princess Sita, the wiles used by the demon Ravana to abduct Sita and ensnare Rama, the liberation of Sita by Hanuman, king of the monkeys, and his army, Sita’s putting to the test by Rama and Sita’s exile with the hermit Eisei.


The Sbek Touch, small Cambodian Shadow Theatre

Derived from ancestral forms of Indian and Malay shadow theatre, the small Khmer shadow theatre, Sbek Touch, already existed in the ninth century A.D., if the epigraphs are to be believed.

Thus nicknamed ayang, with reference to the ayai – impromptu satirical jousts between men and women -   the “little leather” shadow theatre with its articulated puppets, proves to be more delightful and closer to the preoccupations of village people than either the “great leather” shadow theatre Sbek Thom or the coloured shadow theatre Sbek Pouch destined for the court.

Very popular in the country, beloved by children and adults alike, the performance begins at sunset among the paddy fields and may last for several hours.


A delightful bestiary: from wit to wisdom

Popular rivalry, covetousness, comical misunderstandings and sharp plays on words: Sbek Touch scenes are simply a number of masked satires of the human condition and its many failings. Under the guise of parodies and stories about animals, the sbek touch is perfectly cut out to educate and inform.
The performance is traditionally divided into two parts: the first contains two stories whose unchanging frame must nevertheless be filled out with numerous improvisations. The second part, which usually draws on Khmer tales, presents scenes specifically created for this performance. From the farcical fighting monkeys sva so and sva khemao to the story of Chul Krobey’s churlish cows, a whole range of beasts battle merrily with each other accompanied by the bright boisterous rhythms of the pin-peat orchestra and popular ditties. Interweaving with humorous dialogues and all kinds of interjections, the music plays a more preponderant part in the battle scenes. Unlike the small Thai shadow theatre, each puppet has its own puppeteer.

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