Lost Art of Color Puppetry Is Found Again in Phnom Penh

As far as Pich Tum Kravel has been able to determine, the performance of lakhaon sbek por, or color puppet theater, being presented tonight and Saturday at Phnom Penh’s Chenla Theater will be the first such spectacle since the 1930s.

“This form of theater has been lost for a very long time,” he said.

Mr Tum Kravel, an adviser to the Ministry of Culture, has been guiding the Kok Thlok Theater Company to revive this lost art form.

Staged in Khmer with English subtitles, the two “Sbek Por Re­vival” performances will consist of 30-minute pieces in each of the three forms of Cambodian leather puppetry.

“The Fate of a Greedy Man,” about a land dispute between two neighbors, will be staged in lak­haon sbek touch, or small shadow puppet theater.

The piece in lakhaon sbek thom, or large shadow puppet theater, will be a portion of the Reamker-Cambodia’s version of the Indian epic Ramayana—entitled “Sar Neaka­bas, the Magic Arrow of Indhajit” in which a celestial bird comes to the help of a brther of Rama brother in a war started by the king of demons.

As for the piece in color puppet theater, it will be a chapter of the story “Preah Thinavong and Ne­ang Peo,” in which a prince turns himself into a leper to see whether a king’s beautiful daughter will be able to love him with this disease.

Unlike the small and big puppets that are meant to be used against a white background at night to project shadows, color puppets are for daytime performances, said Kok Thlok company Director Eang Hoeun.

For color puppet performances, he said, “the background must be black or red-black fabric…to better see the puppets’ colors.”

Moreover, it requires natural lighting instead of the direct white light needed for shadow puppetry, Mr Hoeun said.

But the main challenge in staging a color puppet show is that it is performed as a drama with costumed actors singing and speaking while holding puppets that portray the characters they play, company member Khuon Vuthy said.

“It’s very difficult because performers must move in a certain way and at the same time perform [classical] dance movements, sing and act” with appropriate emotion, he said.

And since the oval-shaped puppets are of a size halfway between the small and large shadow puppets, they are fairly big objects to handle. They are also beautiful, paint­ed in traditional Cambodian style, with each character standing against intricate, chiseled backgrounds in an array of colors.

According to Mr Tum Kravel who has written several books on the subject, color puppets are the most recent form in the country’s leather-puppet tradition, developed within the last 500 years.

The tradition of large shadow puppets, by contrast, goes back to the Angkorian era and focuses exclusively on tales from the Reamker. Small shadow puppet theater goes back even further: Some pre-Angkorian sculptures depict women handling small puppets, Mr Kum Kravel said.

The show, which will include more than 20 performers, is being produced by Amrita Performing Arts in partnership with Cambo­dian Living Arts and the Ministry of Culture, which has supplied the large puppets.

Performances start at 7 pm; ad­mission is by donation at people’s discretion.

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