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Mann Kosal creates a shadow puppet at his Sovanna Phum Arts Association studio earlier this year.
Mann Kosal creates a shadow puppet at his Sovanna Phum Arts Association studio earlier this year. Athena Zelandonii

The master re-emerges from shadows

Master shadow puppet-maker Mann Kosal, who nearly quit his trade earlier this year, has confirmed that he will not only continue teaching the craft through the Sovanna Phum Arts Association, which he helped found in 1993, but will hold a class this Sunday that will be open to the public.

In June, the 56-year-old announced he was retiring, citing back pain, a rent hike on his studio, a lack of income and management woes.

But a successful campaign undertaken by a team of students, spearheaded by sisters Rithy Lomorpich and Rithy Lomorkesor, that raised $30,000 will allow the master to continue his craft – for now.

For decades, Kosal has taught the UNESCO world-heritage tradition of sbek thom to younger students pursuing the theatrical art. The new funding means that “we can now open the shadow-puppet class to those both inside and outside theatre, such as schools, companies, workshops or individuals,” he says.

After two decades of practising the craft, which was all but lost under the Khmer Rouge, Kosal says he is glad the next generation helped out. “I feel grateful on behalf of the Sovanna Phum Arts Association, because this team of young people supported me and helped to raise these funds, and their work has promoted the association through their media campaign, through donations from their piggybank savings, workshops and more,” he says.

Mann Kosal at work.
Mann Kosal at work. Athena Zelandonii

The success of the campaign has brought a windfall of demand from NGOs, schools and other organisations for Kosal’s puppetry skills.

“Now there is more work than before, because I have to make shadow puppets and rehearse,” he says.

Kosal says people are not only more interested in shadow puppets, but are also keen to learn more about them, adding that he has received multiple invitations to perform, “which could make money to keep our art theatre alive”.

“This weekend we will have a big sbek thom performance with lakhon khol [masked dance] at Sokha Hotel on Friday evening, and a shadow puppet-making workshop at Nowhere on Sunday,” Kosal says.

Syahrulfikri Razin Salleh, co-owner of Nowhere Studio and Gallery, which will host Kosal’s Sunday workshop, says he’s happy to lend his support as well as to share his experiences with the shadow-puppet maker in managing an independent art studio.

“We thought that we could give some help supporting him by doing the workshop at our space, and also [by sharing] how we manage our space . . . to teach how to be independent and sustainable,” Salleh says.

For Kosal, the workshop is a “first” and a “good chance for us to show off our work”.

“I hope it will succeed – if it does, then we will plan more workshops this year,” he says.

The performance at the Sokha Hotel starts at 5:30pm tonight and costs $35 per person (dinner included) or $55 for a couple (dinner included).

The workshop on sbek thom shadow-puppet making costs $60 (Cambodians and students under 21 get a 20 percent discount). Materials are provided. It will take place on Sunday, September 18, at Nowhere, #3Eo Street 312 from 1pm-4pm. For information/bookings call Ajin: 085 402 712

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