Sbek Thom | An Interview with a Shadow Puppet Maker

Sbek Thom, a Khmer Shadow Performing Art Navutu Dreams features Sbek Thom, a Shadow Puppet Performance which was almost wiped out of the Khmer culture under the repressive Khmer Rouge regime. Sbek Thom is a Khmer shadow performing art which features two-meter high
Sbek Thom

Sbek Thom, a Khmer Shadow Performing Art

Navutu Dreams features Sbek Thom, a Shadow Puppet Performance which was almost wiped out of the Khmer culture under the repressive Khmer Rouge regime. Sbek Thom is a Khmer shadow performing art which features two-meter high puppets made of cow’s leather. This kind of Khmer shadow performing art is said to be an influence from India since the first century.

In the past, Sbek Thom was only performed in the worship for the special occasions such as Khmer New Year, King’s birthday or for showing respect to some famous people. However, this shadow performance has evolved from a ceremonial or ritual activity to a performing art. Sbek Thom has also been inscribed by UNESCO to the list of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

What is Shadow Puppet Performance like?

The Puppet Shadow performances traditionally take place in an open area on a rice-field or pagoda in the evening. A massive white backdrop is held between two tall bamboo sticks in front of a large fire. The shadow of the puppet’s silhouette is projected onto this white screen which creates a shadow effect. The animators bring the puppet to life with specific movements, and it is often accompanied by an orchestra and narrators of the story.

Interview with a Puppet Maker

We got a chance to speak with Sorn Soran, 23, a shadow puppet maker who hails from Mudrak Commune in Siem Reap, Cambodia. He has been making shadow puppets for already a decade now and he is one of a few people in Siem Reap who aims to revive and introduce this kind of Khmer art to the world.

Q: When did you start making shadow puppets?

A: I started to learn how to make shadow puppets when I was in primary school. I was with Khmer Art Cow Carving Leather or “Little Angel”, a non-profit organization. Our teacher taught us how to make shadow puppets as she believed that we would be benefiting from it. So after class, we were taught the process of shadow puppet making.

Q: How do you like your job?

A: I like my job a lot. I started to do this job back when I was in grade 8. Through making and selling shadow puppets, I was able to support my studies. I am often invited by several resorts, hotels and organizations to showcase this tradition of shadow puppet making. At present, I earn a living through this unique Khmer art. People can catch me doing a shadow puppet workshop at Tang Gram restaurant every evening.

Q: How are shadow puppets made?

A: There is a process of making the shadow puppets. Shadow puppets are actually made of cow’s leather. Firstly, the puppets are made from a single piece of cow’s leather. The leather is then dyed with a solution from the bark of a tree called ‘Kandaol’. After that, you have to draw a pattern on the dyed leather and then cut it out and paint it. Then, it can now be attached to two bamboo sticks to make it look like a real puppet. The puppets are not only used for shadow puppet performances but they are also used as decors at homes. Some hotels and resorts in Cambodia have them on display too.

A: How did you know about Navutu Dreams?

Q: Nick of the Cambodia Living Arts introduced me to your resort as they will have a Live Shadow Puppet Performance here on the 24th of December. He invited me over to do a Puppet Making Workshop for the guests. It is also a great opportunity for me to introduce this unique Khmer art to the world and I’m really excited about it.

On the night of the 24th December, Sorn Soran will be introducing the step-by-step process of shadow puppet making at Navutu Dreams. After the workshop, there will also be a Live Shadow Puppet Performance or Sbek Thom by Cambodia Living Arts in partnership with Bambu Theatre that will truly immerse everyone in Khmer culture and tradition. For more info about Sorn Soran, you can contact him at sorn.soran@yahoo.com or reach him through his mobile 070 – 718 – 418.

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