Here we distinguish between traditional shadow puppetry and contemporary forms. The former originated in Asia (in China, India and Indonesia, spreading into Central Asia, the Middle East and North Africa) and continues to the present, although diminishing. Introduced into Europe in the 17th century, the form was renovated and rethought in the 20th century.

Traditional Shadow Theatre

When and where shadow puppetry was first introduced is a question on which specialists disagree, particularly in regard to [India] and [Indonesia] where shadow theatre has cultural and religious traits. Leather puppets, exquisitely decorated, are used in a shadow theatre which has become known around the world and is represented in many museums.

The shadow theatre in South East Asia

Asian shadow theatres documented for millennium are diverse in geographical, religious, and cultural backgrounds. The [wayang] kulit purwa of Java (see [Indonesia]) uses intricately perforated and painted opaque figures which are performed by a single puppet master called a [dalang] (Javanese: dhalang) accompanied by a gong chime orchestra (gamelan), presenting [Mahabharata] and [Ramayana] stories. Wayang kulit Banjar of Kalimantan, and wayang kulit betwai in West Java play the same repertoire. Balinese wayang parwa uses simpler yet similar figures for Mahabharata stories accompanied by four gender metallophones. The wayang sasak of the neighbouring island of Lombok tells tales of Prophet Mohammed’s uncle, Amir Hamzah. Comparable genres present varied stories from the Ramayana (wayang Ramayana, in Bali), to tales of Panji the Prince of East Java and local chronicles (wayang gedog, in Java).

Filipino shadow figures were noted in the 19th century but died out prior to revivals in the 20th century (see [Philippines]). Wayang kulit operated widely in the east coast area in [Malaysia] where one finds the now rare wayang jawa (a style based on Javanese wayang kulit purwa) and wayang siam of Kelantan which presents Ramayana stories. Related to the Kelantan art is [Thailand]’s nang talung/nang daloong, which is found among the Thai and Lao speakers. Puppets are translucent and coloured, perhaps due to Chinese influence. Modern tales have largely displaced the traditional [repertoire]. In [Cambodia] ayang or nang sbek touch corresponds to the nang talung. Thailand’s large court puppet genre (nang yai) and Cambodia’s analogue (nang sbek thom) use opaque figures about 1 x 1.3 metres danced by multiple puppeteers moving in the style of court mask [dance] to present largely a Ramayana repertoire chanted by a narrator.

The shadow theatre in China and India

Small translucent, coloured puppet yingxi are found in many provinces in [China], including Shaanxi, Luanzhou, Shandong, Sichuan, Hanzhou, Hunan, Chaozhou, as well as in Taiwan. The figures are manipulated with rods but unlike Indo-Malay figures where the main rod extends like a spine through the middle of the figure and is held from beneath in the puppeteers hand, the yingxi have the major rod attached to the neck and the figures are pressed against the screen with this neck rod held perpendicular to the screen. This allows the puppet greater acrobatic flexibility as it flips, smoothly emulating the spectacular feats of the martially trained dancers of Chinese opera.

The [karagöz] of the Islamic world (see [Turkey]) may be related to Chinese shadows via migrations toward the west or from [India] through movement of outcaste, gypsy groupings north, though some argue local invention. Indian theatres may use opaque figure, like the [ravanachhaya] of Orissa and the [tolpava koothu] of Kerala, both of which tell Ramayana stories. Translucent puppets are found in Maharashtra’s miniature [chamdyacha bahulya], Karnataka’s [togalu gombeyata], and Andhra Pradesh’s [tolu bommalata] and a related theatre of Tamil Nadu, [tolu bommalatam]. The latter two use figures .90 x1.5 metres and a multi-person troupe led by a narrator to tell stories from the Ramayana, Mahabharata, and Puranas.

While generalizations must be treated with caution, some ideas come from some fundamental principles of the art

Death and the shadow theatre

The shadow theatre of [Asia] in both its pragmatic and mythic dimension has a link with death. The puppet is made from hide: goatskin and donkey were used in China, water buffalo in South East Asia, and goat or buffalo in India. Skinning, scraping, and stretching of hide involve the maker very directly with issues of death and transformation. Certain puppets had special requirements: consider the Khmer ascetic figure Preah Muni Eysi that is supposed to be made of bear or panther skin. Meditation might be undertaken before making specific important figures like the Tree of Life or the main god-clown puppet in Java or Bali (see [Indonesia]).

The reality of the puppet that came from death and is reconstructed into a beautiful figure reminds us of the iconic death and reconfiguration process associated with spiritual visions. Take for example the Chinese story that the shadow theatre was created to allow Emperor Wudi (r.140-86 B.C.) to commune with his deceased ladylove. Or that the karagöz theatre of Turkey was created to bring back to life two clowning men, Karagöz and Hacivat, executed while working on the mosque of Bursa. While these stories cannot be accepted as historical actualities, they show a pattern. Shadow theatre is conceptualized as an art that crosses borders of which death is the most perplexing. Both the practicality of puppet creation and the mythos of materializing the voices of a shadow world may help explain why shadow theatre in a variety of Asian countries has an exorcistic function.

In Southern China, a significant episode we encounter is the story of Mulian jiumu (Mulian Delivers His Mother [from hell]). In Java we have the Murwakala (Origin of Kala), a story of the demon Kala (Time) who has been permitted by the high god Siwa ([Shiva]) to eat people but, by commissioning the story of Kala’s genesis, humans can be exorcised and freed of his curse. In Bali, we find both the Kala story and the tale of Bhima Suwarga, about the hero Bhima who goes to hell to release his parents from the lord of death. While these stories are very specific ones and not representative of the whole, they do help reinforce the aura of mystery that shadows the art.

Visualization and miniaturization

Shadow puppetry is an art that collapses the world from three dimensions toward two. Exact replication of the real was of little interest to those who created this genre. The flattened plane of a picture scroll or the friezes of temples, iconographically, have much more in common with the practice of the shadow puppeteer. Indeed, we sometimes are often told that the picture [storyteller] (often a Buddhist priest) is the forerunner of the puppeteer – in southern China shadow puppet theatre is associated with wandering Buddhist priests whose scrolls (pien) about the torments of hell terrified people into good behaviour. On the walls of the Hindu-Buddhist temples of East Java we see episodes laid out panel by panel in a way that reminds us of contemporary Balinese puppetry. On the walls of Thai temples we see paintings in the style of the nang yai, the shadow theatre of the court. If we circumambulate Angkor Wat we will find episodes that are danced with puppets (or presented by masked actors). In Indonesia wayang beber, scroll theatre, is said to be the predecessor of wayang kulit, an art practitioners say was created by the wali, the Islamic saints. The shadow theatre takes the flattened picture plane of the temple wall or the picture scroll. It shrinks the dimensions and allows figures to move by cutting out the characters. Via puppetry, the narrative of the religion’s epic stories can play in the village of the believer. In the puppet screen miniaturization is always at work, but the tale still retains a mystical impression. The puppets can grow suddenly larger or vanish instantaneously. Epic stories are condensed into flat, portable figures that can be carried easily and presented with relative ease by a small group.

Inversion and “negative” thinking

The process of making and manipulating requires negative thinking. In designing puppets the cut out part is the most important. What the viewer sees as the white face or the highlighted pattern of clothing is the part of the figure that is missing. Likewise, in [manipulation] clarity and the smallest dimension of the figure come when the figure is close to the screen. As the manipulator pulls the figure back to him/herself toward the light source, the figure fills the screen. While the technique is quickly learned, it remains an evocative. What the puppeteer sees as the actuality is in some ways the obverse of what the spectator experiences. Figures can disappear quickly or transformations of one puppet to another happen deftly. This sets up the persistent metaphor of the shadow theatre. The puppeteer sees reality and the audience member experiences maya (illusion). As the poet of Arjuna Wiwaha, the 9th century Javanese poem based on the Mahabharata, states, the viewers: “Do not realize the magic hallucinations they see are not real.”

In Asia, the metaphor of puppet as the creature and the puppeteer as god is widespread. The aesthetic of the shadow theatre makes it possible for a single person or a small group to present, via light and two dimensional figures, the vast play of cosmic and divine forces, to call back the great hero-ancestors, and take us into death and the demonic. The puppeteer/narrator who tells the story is powerful – the “god” of the puppets. The performer of the shadow show, through his ability to see the backside of life, has access to mysterious and hidden processes. The microcosm, as represented in the figures, opens him to the larger forces of the macrocosm.

Narratives of the other

Stories for the traditional shadow theatre are diverse, but it is true that the shadow theatre is a medium that is conducive to the extraordinary. Thus we often find narratives where the divine, the demonic, and the animal meet.  The shadow screen easily accommodates floating gods or the great monkey hero [Hanuman] as he leaps across the wide ocean. It allows demons to leap from the earth or grow in size. The shadow world materializes dreams and allows its heroes to fly to other realms. Stories associated deeply with the shadow genre are often border crossing narratives. The Ramayana, which dominates in India and South East Asia, often features the monkey character Hanuman. In China, the theatre can present any of the domestic (wen) or military (wu) plays found in the regional opera. But the popularity of the mid-16th century novel, Xiyou ji or Journey to the West, which features [Monkey King] (Sun Wukong) as he helps his monk-master get Buddhist texts from India, and the stories of snake ladies (White Snake) or Taoist immortals are often emphasized. These narratives exist in other Chinese genres, but the shadow realm is especially conducive to materializing these narratives.

Religions, cultures and shadow theatre

The shadow theatre is not universally embraced in Asia. It seems to thrive best where culture/religion accommodate complexity. Shadows move, bend, and distort as our light source (sun) travels across the sky. Clouds mass into bodies and the land itself becomes a vast screen on which we can view projections that come from powers that move behind the universe, which we intuit but can never fully know. Variants of religion, which are most comfortable with contemplating mystery, riddles, and inversions as a path toward understanding, find shadow puppetry a comfortable fit. The art is not confined to a specific religion or culture, but it may have moved with stories like the Ramayana, Mahabharata or the Journey to the West. As a technique, it seems to have fit Sufi mystics, making the art strong in Indonesia and Malaysia. Taoism and Tantric Buddhism in China have supported it. Hinduism in India was also a fit. The puppeteer who plays cosmic stories on a simple screen is both god and demon and can save the ancestors and the living by his liminal powers as the shadow master who experiences the unseen reality shadowed by our material world.

Modern puppeteers trained in urban settings create productions all over Asia. Their work may borrow from Western shadow technology, use traditional models, or combine both to tell new stories in innovative ways. For example, the Sri Ramanjaneya Togalu Bombe Mela group from Karnataka, India, led by togalu gombeyata master, Bellagallu Veeranna, does a production about Gandhi (Singh 1999), stories of the Independence movement in Indonesia are shown in wayang suluh, and responses to the terrorist bombing in Bali in 2001 are part of I Wayan Sidia’s Wayang Dasanama Kerta (Sedana 2005). In China, modern companies are creating new works with halogen lights or multiple screens such as [Tangshan Shadow Puppet Troupe]’s The Crane and the Tortoise or the [Hunan Puppet and Shadow Show Troupe]’s production of Dancing with Wolves. Asian shadow theatre is old, new, and ever evolving. Practitioners may be Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, or communist socialists. They range from traditional masters, to traditionally trained artists modernizing, to contemporary digital media masters using experimental forms, and collaborating with American, Europeans, other Asians or Latin Americans to create new and evocative work.

Contemporary Shadow Theatre

Contemporary shadow theatre has major centres in Europe, North America, Japan, and Australia as well as seeing new work in Korea, China, South and South East Asia. It takes three forms: using figures and objects (common), bare hands (see [Hand Shadows], also called Ombromanie, rare), and shadows of performers bodies (see [Body Shadows], increasingly popular).

Unlike traditional or modern shadow theatre in Asia, Western shadow theatre is not particularly well known. It was only in the 17th and 18th centuries that shadow theatre was introduced to [Europe] from Asia where it seems to have originated. It probably spread through the trade routes from Asia to the Middle East: it was known in the 11th century in Arabia, and developed in [Egypt] by the 12th century. Hetty Paerl suggests that the Chinese shadow theatre was brought to [Turkey] through Persia (see [Iran]). Subsequently, it became known in [Greece], [Romania], Yugoslavia and southern [Italy]. Italian showmen carried it across the Alps to [France], [Germany], and England (see [Great Britain]) beginning in the 17th century. The lack of acceptance in Europe before the 20th century can be explained by the prevailing philosophy. The pan-Asian worldview that values dream, meditation, spiritualism, and transcendental ways of seeing, as well as reason, was foreign to European rationalism.

With its lack of materiality and its ephemeral nature, posed between dream and reality, the shadow could only disturb the Western thinking which needed a tangible physical medium. Europeans were much more comfortable with three-dimensional [string puppets] and [glove puppets]. With the notable exception of the theatre of [Séraphin], French master showman of “Ombres Chinoises” (1770), and [Le Chat Noir] (The Black Cat) [cabaret] (1887) in France, and, in the 20th century, the [Schwabinger Schattenspiele] (Shadow Theatre of Schwabing) of Otto Kraemer and [Lotte Reiniger] in Germany, the work of [Jan Malík] in Czechoslovakia, and that of Frans ter Gast in the [Netherlands], shadow theatre was not considered as an art in itself in Europe. It was at most a very naturalistic theatre of simple silhouettes cut out of cardboard and projected onto a rectangular screen, giving a performance of great simplicity with no real possibilities for development. The situation changed in the 1970s and 1980s. New forms of shadow theatre, some revolutionary, appeared in a number of countries simultaneously.


Three figures stand out: physicist Rudolf Stoessel of Switzerland, Luc Amoros of France and Fabrizio Montecchi of Italy. Relatively independently of each other these three artists experimented with techniques using halogen lamps that were developed in the United States in 1958.

The advantage of this lamp for shadow theatre was that it was a light source that offered new possibilities to this art. Whereas in the past, because of the diffuse nature of the light, the shadow puppeteer had to manipulate figures directly against the screen to obtain a distinct and clear shadow, the halogen lamp allowed the puppeteer to move the puppet away from the screen and manipulate in the entire space behind the screen without losing any of the shadow’s definition. Depending on its distance from the lamp, the figure could appear as large as a giant or as small as a dwarf. Secondly, the additional development of portable halogen lamps allowed the artist to change the figure at any time. This technique required concentration on the part of the performer, but allowed him or her to create new shadows during the course of the show and this led to an enhanced expressiveness. Thanks to the halogen lamp, the two-dimensional nature of the shadow theatre was superseded: a third dimension could be introduced and this discovery was essential in giving the theatre a new dynamism.

Such new possibilities stimulated Western artists and encouraged them to engage in further experimentation. All possible light sources were, with time, carefully examined. In addition to the halogen lamp, artists experimented with all kinds of sources: cinema projectors, slides, overhead lighting, flares, strobe lights, and candles.


The basic rectangular screen attached to a frame, which had been used for hundreds of years, gave way to other geometric forms – triangular, trapezoidal, oval, or semicircular screens were explored. In Schattenrisse (Silhouettes), the Swiss Hansueli Trueb used sail-shaped screens that could be moved back and forth on wheels during the show. The Meininger Puppentheater (Germany) took a circular tent, using all of it as a projection surface. Some troupes, such as the theatre Anu in Germany, chose to project shadows on the surface of buildings. Screens could be moved with ropes and pulleys ([Amoros et Augustin] in France, [Teatro Gioco Vita] in Italy) allowing the viewer to see the event from different angles. Other experiments were made with the size of the screen: in Japan, the shadow plays (Kageboushi, translated as shadow figure or silhouette) used huge screens of 5 metres x 10 metres, while others preferred small screens, stretched for example on a couch, as in the case of the German troupe Figurentheater Paradox.

Moreover, artists overcame another obstacle, the idea of the screen as a permanent barrier between the public and the performers, preventing contact. The simplest solution was to have the manipulators play in front of the screen and not behind (playing in the open). Screens could be moved with ropes and pulleys (Amoros and Augustin in France, Teatro Gioco Vita in Italy) allowing the viewer to see the action from in front. Thus, the Teatro Gioco Vita performers and Theater des Schatten (Shadow Theatre) began to play in front of the screen in full view of the audience. The [Dorftheater Siemitz] found a different but also convincing solution: the shadow of the player was shown while he/she was manipulating the puppet behind the screen.

Teatr Ten’ (Russia; today, [Moskovsky Teatr TENb]) and [Puppet Players] (Germany) also rejected this physical barrier, alternating on each side, behind the screen as shadows and in front as real actors. Radically eliminating the divide at the end of Silhouettes, Hansueli Trueb came across the screen and tore it into pieces to the surprise of the public. [Larry Reed] of Shadowlight Theater in California (United States) has had performers appear as shadows, humans, and then figures in ever diminishing sizes. Chinese Theatre Works in New York uses projections and people in tandem to tell Chinese based tales. Both these groups have collaborated extensively with companies in Asia sharing their techniques and creating new shadow methods that are then reworked by Balinese, Taiwanese, Hong Kong or Japanese groups with whom they collaborate.


The puppet has also been explored. All possible materials have been tested: newsprint, cardboard, wood, metal, textile, parchment, wire, and all kinds of synthetic materials. Contemporary painting also had its influence on the making of puppets: the elegant and often simple figures have sometimes given way to more expressive forms like those of Luc Amoros, [Jean-Pierre Lescot], Tadeusz Wierzbicke, and Herta Schönewolf. I Made Moja, son of a noted Balinese artist who lives in San Francisco and creates figures for Larry Reed, explores Chinese brush painting techniques for landscapes on gels. Since shadow theatre and painting are closely linked, it is understandable that many shadow players come from the visual arts.

Spiritual roots of shadow theatre

The debate on the spiritual roots of shadow theatre has been as important as the technical innovations. This issue was particularly important to Fabrizio Montecchi, of Teatro Gioco Vita, who realized how far shadows were from the Western cultural thinking and pointed up the impasse of being the first real shadow theatre in Europe. He showed that this type of show satisfied a societal need for images that was later served by the discovery of photography and [film]. This illusory art was the predecessor of those genres, and yet still remained neglected as “an anthropologically anomaly in theatre”. In Corpo sottile (Subtle Body, 1988), Fabrizio Montecchi tried to find the deeper meaning at the base of the elements of shadow theatre – light, screen, body, space and the shadow itself (“misunderstood and repressed”). He returned the art to its own language. His liberated shadows are more than just illustrations: they begin to reveal their own story, reality, and logic. One also sees the accuracy of Montecchi’s ideas in the performance of troupes such as Theater 3 (Switzerland), Compagnie Mossoux-Bonté (Belgium), or Poesie Polar (Germany). These companies’ performances are not so far from narrative theatre, but simultaneously, give new life to shadows, restoring the suggestive power and expressiveness from which this theatre rises.

At the intersection of the arts

The latest trends at work in the shadow theatre indicate that it is more open to other art forms. This development is very visible at the International Festival of Shadow Theatre in Schwäbisch Gmünd, held every three years since its inception in 1988, where the exchange between [cinema], [opera], drama, pantomime, [music], [visual arts], [dance], and shadow theatre is fully expressed (see [Internationales Schattentheater Zentrum (ISZ)]). The latter has also profitably used its contacts with other forms of puppet theatre. In summary, we can see that many shadow theatre artists in Europe during the past four decades have contributed to the renewal of their art.

A unique, floating form, distinguished by its artistic richness and dynamism, shadow theatre explores areas untouched or neglected by other types of theatre. Its strength undoubtedly lies in the presentation of myths, fairy tales, ballads, and other fantastic stories of wonder. Shows can be warm and yet at the same moment biting. Australian [Richard Bradshaw] insures that humour is never forgotten. Many puppeteers around the world have recognized the artistic possibilities hidden in the art of shadows and enriched the repertory. Attracting a widening audience in the West as well as Asia and the Islamic world, the shadows are finally emerging from darkness to find the light.


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