Puppetry is an ancient art form in Thailand. Traditional “hun lakorn lek” puppetry is reminiscent of Japanese buruku puppetry. The puppets are big and require at least three people to work them (usually one for the arms, another for the feet and third for the facial expressions) and these puppeteers appear on stage during the show.

The main forms of Thai puppetry are: 1) ancient nang yai shadow theatre; 2) southern nang talung shadow theatre; and 3) the three-dimensional puppet theatre hun, with its several sub-categories. In these forms of drama the repertoire is mostly derived from the Ramakien. However, nang talung and hun have had to adapt to the tastes of their audiences, and other stories have also been included in their repertoire. All forms of puppet theatre have retained ritual elements, such as the initial prayers and offerings to the puppets.

The earliest historical evidence that mentions the puppet performance in Thailand is a foreign account written by Bishop Tachard, an envoy of Louis XIV of France, who visited Ayutthaya in 1685. Additional evidence noting about Thai puppet show is a record made by a French Minister Simon de la Loubere, who was also sent to Ayutthaya by King Louis XIV in 1707 during the reign of King Narai. Both written records are considered proxy evidence of the existence of Thai puppet show, probably originated earlier than the reign of King Narai or at least 300 years ago. It is also evident that later during the reign of King Taksin of Thonburi (1767 – 1782) puppet show continued to be regularly performed in various royal ceremonies.

Types of Thai Puppets and Puppetry

“Hun Krabok” figures are made of lightly wood of some kinds (e.g. cottonwood). The puppet’s head, which requires much work and attention during the production of a puppet, measures about 10-15 centimeters in diameter. At first glance, a puppet looks very much like human being. But at a close look, we can see its structure as being consisted of a bamboo core with a diameter of 3-5 centimeters and about 50 centimeters long. This bamboo core is attached to the puppet’s head, and the puppet is then covered by the delicately decorated costume. The costume represents an elaborate work of art and needs to be used with much care. [Source: Royal Thai Embassy Oslo,*]

“Hun Luang” or “Hun Yai” (The Great Puppet): A great puppet is about 100 centimeters tall, adorned with costumes similar to those used in theater art performance and mask dance. It can be said that the royal puppet in an imitation of figures in the performing of theater art and mask dance. A puppet is made of hard, lightly wood and is consisted of different parts tied together by 16 strings. To perform the show, there must be a number of puppeteers; each one of the puppeteers is responsible for a puppet. The puppeteer moves the strings to perform different actions of different body parts. “Hun Wang Na” (Palace of the Front’s puppet) is a replica of Hun Luang, but is unique in its smaller size. Hun Wang Na was not performed frequently. It was performed on special occasions.

“Hun Lakorn Lek” is an imitation of Hun Yai (The Great Puppet) figure in all configurations and aspects such as size, shape, and decoration. It differs from Hun Yai merely in the way the puppeteers control the puppet and movement styles of the puppeteers. Hun Lakorn Lek is a newly created performing art by Master Krae Sapthavanich. He had left behind 30 puppets which are now on display at the open museum of Muang Boran in Samut Prakarn. Hun Lakorn Lek’s fate had been enriched again when Master Sakorn Youngkhiewsod, widely known as Joe Louis, and his troupe bring it back to life. *

“Nang Talung” (Shadow puppet) is derived from a drama play originally from Java called “Wangwayo”. The shadow puppet show is always synchronized with music. And the 5 principal music instruments (so-called five piece-ensamble) used for the play consist of drum (klong), flute (pi), cymbals (ching), gong, and stroke (thab). Additional instruments such as guitar, organ, and fiddle have been recently employed by some troupes. The music commonly played by most troupes is mostly traditional or classical. However, country and pop music now accompany puppet play. *

“Nang Yai” (Large shadow puppet) is originally a prototype of modern mask dance (Khon). The performance of Nang Yai is traditionally held in open spaces. The main components of Nang Yai compose of a 166 white screen held by four bamboo or wood poles on each side. The screen is trimmed by red strip. Behind the screen strands a tinder or a bonfire lightened up to reflect the shadows of the puppet. During the course of the show there is a Thai music band that plays music in accordance with each episode of the performance. Also important in each show is dubber. The puppet figures are made from cow or buffalo hide perforated into different characters in Ramakien story. Each puppet weights approximately 3-4 kilogram. The biggest puppet is that characterize a place, weighing around 5-7 kilogram. *

Nang Talung

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, an expert on Asian dance and drama at of the Finnish Theatre Academy wrote: “The nang talung shadow puppets of South Thailand vary in size from 15 centimetres to almost 50 centimetres. They are made of translucent calf hide, painted in bright colours. The figures are usually cut in full-face form, unlike, for example, the puppets in Indonesian shadow theatre, which are mostly shown in profile. In most cases, at least one limb, but often several limbs as well, can be manipulated, unlike the situation in the ancient nang yai, where the puppet is a static image. [Source:Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance, Theatre Academy Helsinki ** ]

“Older existing puppets display a typological development from solemnly decorative nang yai-related figures to a less restricted comic-strip style. Along with the Ramakien the repertoire of nang talung includes plots borrowed from likay folk opera and even from the cinema, and the puppets may portray Western officers, operetta heroes and heroines, or even cowboys. **

“The popular characters are the stock clowns, such as Ai Nol, Ai Tong, Al Muang, and Ai Klang. They offer obscene humour, often characteristic of nang talung and always loved by the audience. Each has its own characteristics: one constantly moves its mouth, while another has a phallus-shaped index finger, and a third has features of southern Thai aboriginals. **

“Nang talung requires a group of some ten performers, including the leader, who usually acts as the main manipulator and narrator, his assistants, and the orchestra. The stage used to be a small hut of bamboo, matting, or corrugated iron. The puppeteers and the orchestra sit inside the hut and they are separated from the audience by a white screen. Nang talung is still performed in the Pattalung district of Southern Thailand, although cinema and television have eroded its former popularity. **

History of Hun Puppetry

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen wrote: “The nang talung puppets are often simply, or even coarsely, executed. On the other hand, the three-dimensional, rod-operated hun puppets reflect the aesthetics of classical dance and the khon mask theatre. They are sometimes even made by the same artisans who make the khon masks. The material for the puppets is either wood or lacquered papier maché, which is the material for the khon masks as well. The costumes, gestures, and movements of the puppets imitate classical dance. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance, Theatre Academy Helsinki,**]

“Hun was originally popular even at the court, as shown by the impressive collection of puppets in the National Museum in Bangkok. The large court puppets or hun luang were used in the first part of the 19th century. They are some one-metre tall and they were operated with strings from below. The exact technique of their complicated manipulation is no longer known. The repertory of hun luang included Ramakien and local epics such as Phra Aphaimani, discussed earlier. **

“In the latter part of the 19th century King Rama V ordered smaller puppets made by the Chinese community of Bangkok. These puppets, some 40 centimetres high, are called hun lek and they were intended for performances derived from Chinese repertory. Their complicated mechanism was modelled on the larger hun luang puppets. In the 1880s Thai-style hun lek puppets were also created. Their repertory included Ramakien and Thai epics performed in the lakhon nai and lakhon nok styles, from which they also derived their performance practices and music. **

“In the early 20th century a new form of puppet theatre was created. It was hun lakhon lek and it was performed for ordinary audiences. The puppets are some 50 centimetres high and they are operated from below with bamboo sticks. The audience can see the mechanism as well as the dance-like movements of the puppeteers, which make hun lakhon lek a kind of combination of puppet theatre and dance-drama. The repertory includes scenes from the Ramakien, although comical elements are often emphasised more than, for example, in khon. **

“Another form of popular puppet theatre created in the 20th century is hun krabog. The puppets are some 50 centimetres high, but they have no movable arms or legs. Their hands, manipulated by bamboo rods, protrude from the cloak-like costume of the puppet, which also forms the puppet’s body. Thus the manipulation of the puppet is simpler compared with the complicated court puppets. Hun krabog is still performed and its repertory includes Ramakien as well as other Thai epics. **

“Thai puppet theatre has been revived in the late 20th century. Different forms of puppet theatre have been regularly performed at several festivals. The Joe Louis Puppet Theatre has created its own version of Thai puppet theatre by combining it with elements of Japanese bunraku puppet theatre in which three puppeteers manipulate one doll. The company has its permanent stage in Bangkok. Another group making experiments with traditional puppetry is the Siam Puppet Theatre. In its productions puppeteers dance while, at the same time, manipulating the large hun luang-type puppets with strings from behind.” **

Nang Yai, Theatre of the Large Shadow Figures

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen wrote: “Nang yai (“large puppet”) is an ancient form of shadow theatre in which dancing puppeteers perform scenes from the Ramakien by presenting cut-out leather figures against a semi-transparent cloth screen. In the latter part of the 20th century it became very rare but attempts have recently been made to revive it. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance, Theatre Academy Helsinki,**]

“The origin of shadow theatre is a standard problem in Asian theatre studies, as it has been performed over a wide area from Turkey in the west to China in the east. Similarly, the origin of nang yai is one of the widely discussed topics in Thai theatre studies. One could summarise by saying that there seem to have been several attempts to explain the origins of this unique form of shadow theatre. **

“According to a popular theory, nang yai originates from South Thailand and was received there through the Srivijaya Empire. It could also have been transmitted via the sea routes directly from India, which is often regarded as the cradle of many of the Southeast Asian shadow theatre traditions. Asian shadow theatre traditions employ similar, static picture-like images as used in nang yai. Moreover, in no other tradition in the whole of Asia do the puppeteers dance while operating the figures as is the case in nang yai. The only “sister” form with similar practices is sbek thom in Cambodia, which is discussed in connection with Cambodian theatre.**

“Early surviving nang yai figures, which were made during King Rama II (1809–1824), show a variety of stylistic features, such as the mask-like faces of the demons and monkeys, which clearly relate them to the Ramakien imagery of the Central Plains of Thailand. Whatever the origins of nang yai are, it is self-evident that it is organically interwoven into the Thai Ramakien tradition as a whole. **

“Nang yai is the earliest theatrical art form mentioned in Thai literary sources. The Ayutthaya Palatine Laws of the 14th and 15th centuries mention nang yai on several occasions. This indicates that nang yai must indeed have been well-established even by then. There even exist references indicating that nang yai may have been performed during the Sukhothai period, but since these references belong to the fictional literature of later periods, scholars have been very cautious in accepting this as a fact. **

“Nang yai is supposed to have originally been court theatre with many religious and ritual features. Making the puppets and holding an actual performance involved many ritual features. Nang yai plays were performed in the evening by the light of coconut-shell fires. The evening performance was sometimes preceded by a prologue in the afternoon, the nang ram (nang rabam), which was performed in daylight. **

“In the latter, the puppets were painted in bright colours, while puppets for the evening performances were less colourful. Common to both types of puppets is their decorative style, deeply related to the aesthetic principles of the visual arts of the late Ayutthaya and early Bangkok periods. The leading characters are often depicted as individual figures sitting, walking, fighting etc. The larger figures may include Rama in his chariot, couples such as combatants or lovers, or even complete scenes. **

Dancing Puppeteers

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen wrote: “The nang yai is an exceptional and clearly very archaic form of shadow theatre. In most Asian shadow theatre genres the puppets are rather small human figures, cut-outs, often with movable limbs. The nang yai puppets, on the other hand, are large, 1–2 metres oval or almost round non-articulated leather silhouettes, in which the characters from the Ramakien are engraved as if in a frame. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance, Theatre Academy Helsinki,**]

“A large screen, 7–10 metres wide and some 3 metres high, is erected on poles approximately 2.5 metres above the ground. In front of the screen are often the musicians of the traditional Thai piphad orchestra, consisting of oboes, xylophones, gong sets, and other percussion instruments. Sitting and sometimes standing among the orchestra are two narrators, who recite and sing the text enacted by the silhouettes on the screen. **

“The puppeteers move with their figures both in front of the screen and behind it. In Asian puppet theatre the puppeteer usually has a distinctly vocal role, often reciting and singing the lines. In nang yai the manipulator acts merely as a dancer, supporting the large leather figure with two rods in his hands. **

“The dialogues and long palace scenes appear to be static, but in action scenes, the manipulator dances to musical tones of the accompaniment reflecting various moods and situations. His movements and positions, seen by the audience from under the screen, must correspond to the character of the figure he holds. Heroes express restrained masculine energy, demons have strong, open movements while princesses move gracefully. The nang yai is thus a complex art form, combining figurative art, the stock melodies of Thai theatrical music, and the art of singing, as well as dance movements. **

Decline of Thai Puppetry

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen wrote: “In the latter half of the 20th century, nang yai was in danger of extinction, as it was performed by only one group of aged puppeteers outside Bangkok. The College of Dramatic Arts in Bangkok and its sub-branches around the country have been trying to maintain the tradition as a part of classical dance-drama, particularly in the play Inao, in which it is performed as a play within a play. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen,Asian Traditional Theater and Dance, Theatre Academy Helsinki]

“In the late 20th century and the early 21st century nang yai is every now and then performed at theatre festivals, and fear of its extinction is no longer so acute. In contemporary productions, which combine traditional forms with innovations, nang yai is sometimes combined with dance and other theatrical forms.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance, Theatre Academy Helsinki, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourist Authority of Thailand, Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated May 2014

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