Shadow Play

A flat screen stands wide across the stage. Lit in dull white colour,it waits for the audience to take its seat,for the shuffling and socialising to cease and the announcer to introduce the evening’s performance...

Written by Debesh Banerjee | Published: August 20, 2010 3:01:33 am

A flat screen stands wide across the stage. Lit in dull white colour,it waits for the audience to take its seat,for the shuffling and socialising to cease and the announcer to introduce the evening’s performance — an age-old story about a gallant prince and a beautiful princess. On cue,the screen comes to life with the colourful silhouette of the prince wearing a crown. In a garden full of trees and flowers—also in silhouette— he meets a young woman and,ultimately,a demon with menacing eyes whom he slays with his sword.

Behind the screen,working magic with his collection of puppets and a halogen bulb,sits the storyteller,Suchart Subsin,Thailand’s eminent shadow puppeteer. Subsin’s leather puppets are mounted on sticks and,as he thrusts and hoists them before the lamp,their magnified shadows create life-like images on the screen. Accompanied by music and Subsin’s dramatic storytelling,the moving shadows weave a story of romance and bravery,of fear and courage,and of the triumph of good over evil.

Subsin is among the performers from five countries who are participating at the first international festival of shadow puppeteers called International Shadow Play Puppeteers,organised by Indian Council for Cultural Relations and Network for Promotion of Asian Cinema,as part of Imaging Asia 2010,a film festival celebrating Asian Cinema. The shadow puppetry festival kicked off on Wednesday at Kamani with Subsin’s performance. “Shadow puppetry is called Nang Thalung in Thailand. When I was a young boy,there was no other form of entertainment in our village so I learnt to perform on my own,” says Subsin,72,who is credited with preserving the art form in the Nakhon Si Thammarat province of Southern Thailand. That he managed to hold a packed audience (that couldn’t understand Thai) captive for around an hour at Kamani,is a comment both on his skill as on the intricacy of the art form.

Though India is absent,performers from Iran,Indonesia,China and Malaysia will display their traditional shadow puppetry styles over the next three days.

This evening,the National Academy of Arts,Culture and Heritage’s Wayang Kulit group will present the Malay interpretation of the abduction of Sita by Ravana. This is in keeping with the South-East Asian tradition of using shadow puppets to narrate stories from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Likewise,the seven-member troupe led by Ki Purbo Asmoro from Java,Indonesia,has chosen three episodes from the Mahabharata.

The Malaysian group uses stylised,flat leather puppets and gives a contemporary interpretation to the epics. Lead by Tuk Dalang (meaning master puppeteer) Che Mohammed Nasir Yusoff,who has been performing for 45 years,the group’s repertoire contains stories in which Ram not only goes hunting in the forest,but also instructs his twin sons Luv and Kush to study hard. “Such instances give a contemporary relevance to the epic stories,” says puppeteer Kamrulbahri Hussin,32,who has been performing for 20 years. The show is full of instrumental music — Bala Ganjur,(traditional cymbals) and Joged Bumbung (bamboo percussions) among others.

“Puppetry from Hunan in China is known for its emphasis on the storyline and the use of large-scale actions. Larger-than-life images and action keep the audience engaged,” says Yang Zhou Mou,60,the head of the 10-member troupe,that has also performed for Mao Zedong. One of their popular pieces — to be performed during the festival — is called The Fat Cat and uses recorded sounds from everyday Chinese life in the background. It is the story of a kitten who grows into a big,fat and lazy cat who,as a result,is unable to catch any mice.

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