Shadow theatre has a long tradition in many countries, but it is in Southeast Asia and Thailand especially where it became high art. There are other forms of shadow puppetry in Thailand, Nang Talung in the South for example, where crowds are entertained by articulated puppets telling bawdy jokes. But Nang Yai, which probably predates the Ayutthaya period, was reserved for the royal family and reached its zenith in the Rattanakosin Era when stories from the Thai epic, Ramakien were performed for the court.
Whereas in other shadow theatres, the puppets are small with moving parts, Nang Yai ‘puppets’ are static pictures held up against the illuminated screen. The movement comes from the puppeteers themselves. Until recently, Nang Yai was a dying art, but now its traditions are being preserved and promoted at Wat Khanon in Ratchaburi. The temple not only looks after Nang Yai puppets, but also teaches a new generation of puppeteers to stage the elaborate performances.
The temple has been associated with Nang Yai since the reign of King Rama V the Great (r 1868-1910) when many of the original puppets were commissioned by a venerable figure known as Sattasunthorn, or Grandfather Khom. He wanted larger puppets for a greater dramatic impact and so joined forces with two local craftsmen, Chang Ja and Chang Puan to make the figures. The first puppets told the story of the Monkey King Hanuman, but the artists went on to create hundreds more from cowhide and exotic materials; such as, bear and tiger skin. Some 313 of their creations are now on display in Wat Khanon’s museum.
The museum itself is housed in a traditional Thai building with pleasantly creaky floors, and the puppets are displayed against light boxes so you see them silhouetted in all their glory. Some are so big that you need to stand back to take them in.
But it is by looking closely at the details that you realise what sublime pieces of art they are. The figures of gods, warlike demons, kings and supplicant hermits are carved and cut from the leather with exquisite skill. They are highly detailed but robust enough to be used in show after show. By looking at the puppets close up, you can see the painted colours that come out so brightly in performances. The museum puppets, are now too fragile to be used in the shows, so in 1989, new ones were created and presented to the temple by Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn.
Shows take place in the theatre on both sides of a 10 metre-wide backlit screen. Music is provided by a traditional piphat orchestra playing Thai versions of xylophones, gongs and woodwind and a talented narrator, whose voice ebbs and flows with the movement on screen, tells the story. It’s in Thai but you don’t need the language to be captivated by the colours and action as the huge puppets are illuminated.
The puppeteers move with military precision to bring the scenes to life. They’re young but need great strength and flexibility to hold the heavy leather puppets for painful lengths of time. They stamp their feet in time to conjure up marching armies, glide and shimmer across the stage and use gymnastic leaps to place the shadow puppets properly.
Nang Yai dates back centuries, but each performance is vibrant, exciting and truly captivating. What’s more, in each show the good guys win, the bad guys lose and all is well with the world. It’s story telling at its purest. So next time when you visit Thailand, head to Wat Khanon. It’s only by supporting traditional entertainment; such as, Nang Yai that they’ll survive for future generations to enjoy.
Wat Khanon is located around two hours by car from Bangkok.
The Nang Yai performances take place on Saturdays and national holidays but check in advance as sometimes the performers sometimes take the puppets on tour.
Tel: +66 (0) 32 23386
Museum: Open daily 08.00 – 17.00 hrs.
Scheduled Demonstrations: Saturday 10.00 – 11.00 hrs.