Sbek Thom,
Kmer Shadow Theater
 

The Sbek Thom is a Khmer shadow theatre featuring two-metre high, non-articulated puppets made of leather openwork. Dating from before the Angkorian period, the Sbek Thom, along with the royal ballet and mask theatre, is considered sacred. Performances, dedicated to the divinities, could only take place on specific occasions, three or four times a year, such as the Khmer new year, the King’s birthday or the veneration of famous people. The shadow theatre was weakened after the fall of Angkor in the last century. However, it has evolved beyond a ceremonial activity to become an artistic form, while retaining its ritualistic dimension. 

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The puppets are made from a single piece of leather in a special ceremony for each character. Shiva and Vishnu, for example, are cut from the hide of a cow, which died accidentally or naturally and are finished in a single day following a specific ritual. The hides are dyed with a solution made from the bark of the Kandaol. The artisan draws the desired figure on the tanned hide, then cuts it out and paints it before attaching it to two bamboo sticks which enable the dancer to control the puppet.

The performances traditionally take place at night in the open air beside a rice-field or pagoda. A large white backdrop is held between two tall bamboo screens in front of a large fire or, nowadays, projectors. The shadow of the puppet’s silhouette is projected onto this white screen. The animator brings the puppet to life with precise and specific dance steps that produce a range of movements. The performance is accompanied by an orchestra and two narrators. Performances from the Reamker, the Khmer version of the Ramayana, might last several nights and require up to 160 puppets for a single session.

The Sbek Thom was almost wiped out under the repressive Khmer Rouge regime but since 1979 has undergone a revival thanks to the few surviving artists. The collections of puppets were mostly destroyed but are gradually being re-made and troupes are being re-formed. So far, three shadow theatres have managed to rise from their ashes but they are terribly short of resources and opportunities to perform. In addition, the transmission of knowledge, techniques and know-how, especially relating to the manufacture of the puppets, is no longer ensured.