An ancient art

The art of puppetry is an ancient one believed to date back more than 3,000 years.  In some places, modern variations have developed using the materials and technology of today. However, many countries have their own unique version of puppetry which are still practiced today in traditional form.

Water Puppets of Vietnam

In Vietnam, water puppets called roi nuoc, which means 'puppets that dance on water', is an ancient art that dates back to the 11th century in the Red River Delta.  This art form in unique to north Vietnam, and has in recent decades become known outside Vietnam.

A water puppet 'band' performing. ©kidcyber

A water puppet 'band' performing. ©kidcyber

Water puppetry is performed by up to eight puppeteers, who stand waist-deep in a pond of water, standing behind a bamboo screen. Using string, wires and bamboo poles, the puppeteers make the puppets glide across the water. It is thought that this form of puppetry was performed at times when the rice paddies were flooded.

The plays are generally based on traditional tales and myths. The puppets are about 60 centimetres tall, and stand on small wooden platforms. They are made of wood that has been painted and then lacquered and are therefore waterproof.

A group of water puppets backstage between performances. ©Getty

A group of water puppets backstage between performances. ©Getty

The audiences sat on the shore to watch the plays, which are accompanied by live musicians performing music, sound effects and the puppets' voices.  Songs telling the story being acted are performed by cheo (Vietnamese opera) singers.  Performances last for about an hour, and sometimes include fireworks over the water.

The puppeteers take a bow at the end of the performance. ©kidcyber

The puppeteers take a bow at the end of the performance. ©kidcyber

Today performances take place in traditional village ponds, on portable tanks built for travelling performing artists, or in specially constructed buildings  where the pool stage is built in.

Watch water puppets : be patient with the first bit with just one puppet...  he's introducing the show ... and the action soon gets going! 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n8bSD_3xgyA

Thailand

Puppetry is an ancient art form in Thailand in the form of nang (shadow puppet plays) and hun (puppet plays with doll-like puppets). The ancient stories always have a moral lesson of good versus evil, of reward and punishment, but later the stories included folk tales of adventures, heroes, romance, of lost children finding their way home.  The word 'nang' means projected image. A Nang theatre group usually has up to ten puppeteers and musicians.

Thai shadow puppets are colourful, but the colours aren't seen during the puppet show because the light will be behind them. ©Getty

Thai shadow puppets are colourful, but the colours aren't seen during the puppet show because the light will be behind them. ©Getty

There are two kinds of Nang puppets: 

  •  Nang Talung are made of animal hide, usually about 50cm high. They are flat, made of animal hide with holes that the light shines through.  Their jointed arms are controlled by string.
  • Nang Yai puppets are about a metre high. They do not have jointed arms. However both kinds move behind a screen with light behind it, so their shadows are on the screen.

Each Nang puppet is a particular character, made to a common style. They are always made in the same way: male characters are always in profile (side on) and female characters always face the audience.

This is what the puppet show looks like from the back: puppeteers and musicians sit behind the light, the puppets in front of the light, against the screen. ©Getty 

This is what the puppet show looks like from the back: puppeteers and musicians sit behind the light, the puppets in front of the light, against the screen. ©Getty 

A piece of cotton is stretched on a frame, and the puppets are flat. Puppeteers sit behind the screen, with a light shining on it. The flat puppets are between the screen and the light so their shadows appear on the other side of the screen, where the audience sits.


There are also figure puppets, which are known as Hun (which is a Thai word for modelling, meaning modelled in clay). There are half figures and full figure puppets. The movements of the puppet are those of the khon dance drama performed by dancers.

Hun Krabok (rod puppets) are called that because a short stick of bamboo is the main frame of the puppet. Only the top half of the puppet is made. The half figures each have a thin rod attached to move them, and each hand has a thin rod attached to move it. The puppeteer holds the rod in the left hand and moves the puppet's hand rods with the other hand.  The puppet stage has a fancy curtain behind it through which the puppets enter and leave. The bottom part of the curtain has a screen that hides the puppeteer, and a screen hangs in front of the curtain.

The full body figure puppets, called Hun Lakorn, is a form of puppetry that almost died out, but was revived by an old man called Sakorn  Yang-keawsot, whose adopted English name was Joe Louis. In 1984, he set up a booth at a Bangkok fair to demonstrate the ancient art of making masks. However, he had with him a puppet he had made, and this attracted much attention.  When the government discovered that the impoverished Sakorn was the last living person who knew this ancient form of puppetry, and they paid him to teach this art and to revive performances. In 1996, the King gave him the title of National Artist, and he established a small theatre, which is called the Traditional Thai Puppet Theatre. The Royal Family are patrons of this theatre, which still thrives and sometimes tours to other countries.

The Hun Lakorn puppeteers make the same movements as the puppets. ©Getty

The Hun Lakorn puppeteers make the same movements as the puppets. ©Getty

Each handmade Hun Lakorn puppet is moved by three puppeteers dressed in black. One holds the puppet up and moves the left hand, one moves the puppet's feet and the third moves the right hand. The art is made more difficult because the puppeteers make exactly the same movements as the puppets, that is, the movements of khon dancers. This means the puppeteers must learn to be dancers as well as how to manipulate puppets.

Watch some dancing Joe Louis Hun Lakorn puppets on stage:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ttOOMZokZk0

Japan

The traditional puppet style of Japan is called bunraku, and dates back to before the 17th century.

A Japanese bunraku puppet elaborately dressed in traditional kimono. ©Gett

A Japanese bunraku puppet elaborately dressed in traditional kimono. ©Gett

The puppets are about half life-size, and each is moved by three puppeteers dressed in black. They work together to move not only the limbs, but also eyes and eyelids, eyebrows and mouths of the puppets so that there are facial expressions.

The stories are usually traditional tales of heroic deeds, tragic love stories, and tales based on historical events.

The performances are long. Today a performance is divided into two parts: one in early afternoon and one in the evening. Each part is also divided into two smaller parts.

Indonesia

  A wayang kulit puppet being made of buffalo hide. ©Getty

  A wayang kulit puppet being made of buffalo hide. ©Getty

Wayang puppets originated on the island of Java around the 11th century, adopted from India. It developed to the form we see today,  and then spread through to other islands.

There are two forms: wayang kulit, made of flat leather pierced with decorative holes, and wayang golek, three dimensional wooden puppets. The word wayang means puppet and also the theatre, both with or without puppets. 

Wayang kulit are shadow puppets accompanied by live gamelan music, and the plays are narrated. The puppets are manipulated in similar fashion to the Thai shadow puppets, between a screen and a source of light.

Wayang kulit as seen by the audience. ©Getty

Wayang kulit as seen by the audience. ©Getty

Most wayang plays are based on Javanese versions of Hindu epic stories involving battles between gods and heroic men, about good and evil.

Other stories are based on Javanese legends and folk tales, and are about protecting villages from bad luck or bringing good harvests. 

Each character always looks the same. The stories are epics with many characters and complexities so it helps the audience know who's who.

Can you see this puppet character in the performance photo?  © Getty

Can you see this puppet character in the performance photo?  © Getty

Wayang performances usually last all night! It is not uncommon to see audience members and even performers nod off, but as the stories are traditional and well known, they pick up the plot again quickly.

 

Watch wayang kulit: see the puppets being operated and then see how it looks from the audience side of the screen.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ry3cuoKzDzI

 

 

 

 

Make your own shadow puppets and put on a show!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BHw-4UOcj40