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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Shadow puppetry enlivened by firelight

Shadow puppetry enlivened by firelight

THE Department of Performing Arts, with support from the French Cultural Centre, will present an evening of shadow puppet theatre on May 9 near Wat Botum in Phnom Penh.

On show will be three forms of shadow puppet theatre: Sbek Thom (big hide), Sbek Por (colourful hide) and Sbek Touch (small hide).

Pok Sarann, the deputy director of the Department of Performing Arts, said most Cambodians have never seen shadow puppet theatre, despite the fact that Sbek Thom was classified as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2005.

“The purpose of the show is to promote leather theatre, especially Sbek Thom and Sbek Por, because not many Cambodians realise that the arts of their ancestors are still being performed,” he said. Shadow theatre is often referred to as “leather” theatre because the puppets used to cast shadows are made from cured animal hides.

The Sbek Thom performance on May 9 will recount an episode from Reamker, the Khmer version of the Ramayana, in which Reap (Ravana) plays a trick to make Preah Ream (Rama) believe his wife is dead, triggering a series of fights.

The Sbek Poar performance will be based on the Cambodian legend Preah Sothun and Keo Monorea, focusing on a scene where seven goddesses fly from paradise to swim in a lake in the world of humans. A hunter steals the wings of one of the goddesses, preventing her from flying back to her world.

The Sbek Touch presentation will be a contemporary tale called Khnom Baan Prap Haey! (I Told You So!) in which an illiterate girl from the countryside is forced into prostitution and becomes infected with HIV.

The performances will be accompanied by traditional drum and orchestral music, as well as the voices of narrators.

Pok Sarann said that for the upcoming show, the shadows of the leather puppets will be cast using fire, rather than the electric lights normally used nowadays.

“We want to conserve what our ancestors have left for us,” he said. “Our ancestors didn’t have electric lights. They used torch fire to cast the shadows.”

“Fire makes shadow theatre more lively than electric lights because of the flickering of the flames when the wind blows.”

He said nearly 80 artists from the Department of Performing Arts – including musicians, narrators and performers – will take part in the show at Wat Botum. The performance starts at 7pm, and entry is free to the public.

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