There are many varieties of puppets as–forgive them Brits for this hair-raising proverbial saying–there are many ways to skin a cat. This I learned from the recently concluded 4th ASEAN Puppetry Festival 2012 which was held from November 2-10 at the Goodman Arts Centre in Singapore.

The puppet and his master
(Wayang Ajen, Indonesia)

There were rod puppets, human arm puppets and marionette or string puppets from Vietnam, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Philippines and Indonesia. Some were uni-dimensional while others were in 2D. All of them increasingly face bleak prospects in competing with the mainstream entertainment media, especially in an age where digitally-native generations are so used to to visually stunning effects in storytelling.

And then there was shadow puppetry.

I have been exposed to this art form during my childhood in the Philippines and this recent encounter brought back so many wonderful memories, chief of which was how we did not mind the perennial blackouts back then since these were perfect occasions to play with our DIY puppets.

The Toad, the Naga and the King of the Sky
(Makhampom Theatre Group, Thailand)

The “Ponhakay” by Sovana Phum Art Association from Cambodia, in particular, makes for a compelling example why we need to conserve this almost vanishing art form. It is very beautiful! How I wish I had the chance to watch a performance during my visit to the country a few weeks ago.

(Sovanna Phum, Cambodia)

The Ponhakay is the Khmer version of the Ramayana. It tells of the romance between the spirit Ponhakay and Hanuman, thrown together by the hands of fate during the war between the Ayuthia and Langka kingdoms.

It is presented in the form of large puppetry. I tried holding one large puppet at the backstage after the performance and it was quite heavy. One of the puppeteers told me that the puppets are made of cow leather and are manually carved using nail and hammer.

And unlike shadow plays where performers are normally positioned between the light and the screen made of white curtain, the Ponhakay play featured puppeteers shifting from behind the screen to the front and back. How’s that for a 3D effect?

Cambodian shadow puppets are made of cowhide

After the well-received performance, the puppeteers made a gracious offer to the audience to try our hands at shadow puppetry. Some, including me, made a quick dash to the backstage and marveled at the exquisite details and intricate carving of the puppets. I watched as a child played with one while across the stage, a gentleman posed for the camera while holding a large puppet.

Perhaps this art form will not yet vanish into the shadows, I told myself.

A boy trying his hand at shadow puppetry


Here’s a short videoclip of the performance.


4 thoughts on “Sovanna Phum and the Art of Shadow Puppetry

  1. Pingback: Guest-house hopping in Siem Reap | Galang Pusa

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