Shadow Puppets Ecologically Enlightening

There’s a new twist to the traditional Khmer art of shadow puppetry: Educating people about the downside of deforestation and hunting wildlife.

Dark shadows are flying across the screen in villages on the outskirts of Phnom Penh as a group of shadow puppeteers travel the countryside to perform “Life in the Forest.”

In the prologue to the play, two men meet and, since they are bored, agree to match their buffaloes in a fight.

But both buffaloes break their necks and die. The commune chief offers some advice.

“Stop your conflicts. Both of you have made mistakes because you have ordered the fighting for your fun. Go with me to watch the performance of the shadow puppets that will educate you about the benefit of life,” he says.

At the start of the play, the hunt­er orders a dog and a monkey to go into the forest to catch animals for him to shoot.

When they fail, the hunter instead orders the dog and monkey to befriend the animals and invite them home so the hunter can shoot them.

A trail of killing then follows—further emphasizing the creator’s point that animals and society should work together peacefully.

Sin Sumi, 44, director of the per­formance, formed the shadow pup­pet group, Chhum Polpean, two years ago when he read the original play, “The Hunter,” on which “Life in the Forest” is based.

Most of the group’s 15 members, including Sin Sumi, work at the National Theater, and many are part of singing, dance or music troupes that have traveled to Thailand, Vietnam, Laos to perform.

Sin Sumi carved the shadow puppets out of leather, and about two years ago, the group began rehearsing the play.

The first performance was in November 2000. Since then, Chhum Polpean has received grants from Worldwide Contri­bution, Unesco and the Phnom Penh Players.

“Life in the Forest” is different from other shadow puppet plays because it portrays a contemporary theme instead of a traditional epic, said Jane Martin, a producer and member of the board of the Phnom Penh Players.

Shadow puppets have been part of Khmer culture since the Angkor period, said Ros Vasnna, 52, a professional singer and member of Chhum Polpean.

But shadow puppetry became an endangered art form after the Khmer Rouge regime decimated much of Cambodian culture.

Today, however, the art form is endangered because of a lack of funding. There are only about 20 well-trained shadow puppeteers in Cambodia, Martin said.

Chhum Polpean will perform , at 7 pm today in Anlong Kngan commune, Russei Keo district.


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