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Bangkok Puppets

For hundreds of years Thailand's puppeteers have entertained both royal courts and village crowds with shadow puppets and marionettes. Historically, the Ramakien, Thailand's version of the ancient Indian Ramayana epic, provided puppeteers with their subject matter. Today performances are more varied: many stick to the Ramakien or other Thai folklore and moral fables; some are contemporary twists on the classic material; and some depart from it entirely. It's an art form that exemplifies Thailand's lively blend of tradition and innovation.

Shadow Puppets

Shadow puppets—carved animal hide stretched between poles—showed up in Thailand during the mid-13th century. Historians believe the art form originated in India more than 1,000 years ago and traveled to Thailand via Indonesia and Malaysia. By the 14th century shadow puppetry had become a leading form of entertaining in Ayutthaya, where it acquired the name nang yai or "big skin," which is also what large shadow puppets are called.

Today nang yai troupes perform at village festivals, temple fairs, marriages, and royal ceremonies, as well as in theaters. Puppeteers maneuver colorful, intricately carved leather puppets behind a transparent backlighted screen. A narrator and musicians help tell the story. A classical music ensemble called a piphat adds to the charged dramatic atmosphere with rapid-paced ranat (xylophone-like instrument), drums, and haunting oboe.

Large puppets (nang yai) are used to form the set at shadow puppet performances, while smaller puppets called nang thalung are the characters. There are some macabre traditions about how shadow puppets should be made, though it's unclear how often, if ever, these customs are followed today. Nang yai are supposed to be made from the hide of a cow or buffalo that has died a violent and accidental death, while nang thalung should be made with the skin from the soles of a dead puppet master's feet, so that the puppets are literally walking in the footsteps of the former artist. Clown characters' lips should be formed from a small piece of skin from the penis of a deceased puppeteer.

Wherever the animal skin comes from these days, it must be carefully prepared. The hide is cured and stretched, then carved (puppet makers use stencils to outline the intricate, lacy designs) and painted. Puppet makers then mount the leather on sticks. You won't see shadow puppets for sale much, though some markets sell greeting cards with paper cut to resemble shadow puppets. You may find authentic shadow puppets at antiques markets.

Though today shadow puppetry is much more common in Thailand's south, the largest shadow-puppet troupe in Thailand, Nang Yai Wat Khanon Troupe (T. Soifah, Amphur Photharam, Rachburi 03/223-3386), performs in Damnoen Saduak, at Wat Khanon, next to the floating market. Performances, which are on Saturday at 10 am and cost B200, are hour-long versions of Ramakien stories performed in Thai.

Marionettes

Marionettes, born from a blend of shadow puppets and khon, a traditional form of Thai dance, entered the scene at the beginning of the 20th century when Krae Saptawanit, a renowned khon performer, began to make them. Krae's first 2-foot-tall puppet was a miniature version of his own stage persona, with an elaborate costume, a golden mask, and long, curling finger extensions. Soon after, Krae formed a touring troupe of khon puppet performers.

Marionette choreography is highly stylized and symbolic. It takes three experienced puppeteers to manipulate each doll into a series of gymnastic twists and graceful dance moves. Puppeteers dance alongside and behind the puppets, but they remain in shadow; the dramatically lighted and costumed dolls take center stage. As in nang yai, classical Thai music adds to the intense atmosphere and indicates the mood of the story.

The art of puppet making—or hadtasin—requires great attention to detail. Marionettes consist of a frame covered with papier-mâché. Most of the frame is made of wood. Parts that must be able to move independently—like the head, neck, and hands—are made of aluminum and wire, which are more malleable. The hand joints require the most attention, since they must be capable of intricate khon movements. Puppet makers must also attach the sticks the puppeteers will use to make the puppets move.

Once the frame is constructed, the puppet maker adds layers of papier-mâché and then paints the top layer, paying particular attention to the face. The puppets wear ornate costumes of silk and gold leaf. According to tradition, the puppet maker must clap three times to create the completed marionette's soul.

At the Baan Tookkatoon Hookrabok Thai Puppet Museum (Soi Vibavhadi 60, Laksi 02/579-8101 www.tookkatoon.com Weekdays 9-5) you can watch marionette makers at work and purchase puppets. There's also a substantial private collection in the museum, which is a beautiful wooden house. You may even catch an impromptu show. Admission is free, but advance booking is required.

Other Shows

Chiang Mai is a hot spot for contemporary puppet troupes. Hobby Hut (www.cmaipuppet.com) and Wandering Moon (www.wanderingmoontheatre.com) are both based here.

In the southern province of Nakhon Si Thammarat, about three hours by bus from Krabi or Surat Thani, national artist and puppeteer Suchart Sapsin's house has been turned into the Shadow Puppet Museum (10/18 Si Thammarat Rd., Soi 3, Nakhon Si Thammarat 07/534-6394) with regular 20-minute performances (B100) in a small theater; a workshop; and a gallery.

Keep an eye out for performances at fringe festivals and temple fairs throughout the country. For information about upcoming shows, check the website of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (www.tourismthailand.org).

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