Officially the Kingdom of Thailand (Thai: ราชอาณาจักรไทย, Ratcha Anachak Thai), Thailand (Thai: ประเทศไทย, Prathet Thai), formerly known as Siam, is located on the Indochina Peninsula in South East Asia. The country is bordered by Myanmar (Burma), Laos, Cambodia, and Malaysia. Buddhism is practised by the majority of the population.
Puppetry in Thailand can be divided into four major categories: court performance of Central Thai culture since the 15th century; popular performance of Central Thailand in the 19th and 20th centuries; regional genres of the Malay south (see Malaysia) or north-east (see Laos); and contemporary puppetry reacting against or influenced by the West.
There are two important styles of puppetry in Thai court performance. Nang yai (large opaque leather shadow theatre puppetry), which has an analogue in khon (male mask dance), is the oldest art. Hun (three-dimensional rod puppetry) is a later genre influenced by Chinese rod puppetry.
Nang yai can be presented by hundreds of dancers who display leather shadow figures about a metre square above their heads in front of or behind a screen as they dance the Ramakien (Thai verion of the Ramayana) or another story. The intricately carved figures lift the episodes from temple murals off the wall and bring them to life in dance. Some figures are a single standing character, but many show a composite image in which demons and monkeys, locked in battle, swirl in a moment of fury. Figures are danced in khon style on both sides of a 20 metre x 3 metre wide cloth screen, which is backlit by fire (or now electric lamps), as one of the two narrators intone narration and dialogue. Musical accompaniment for the puppet dance and narration is provided by the piphat, the Thai court orchestra made up of wind and percussive instruments.
Khon, the mask art, uses the same text, music, narrator, but costumed performers enact a specific character using papier-mâché masks that cover the entire head. Texts are literary masterpieces of Thai kings or their close associates. Figures can be seen today in the collection of the National Museum and Wat Khanon Temple.
The first reference to this art is from 1458 Palatine Law. It was probably adopted from Khmer artists (see Cambodia) captured when Angkor fell in 1431. The Khmer probably developed the form after contact with the Javanese wayang (see Indonesia).
Hun uses rod figures to tell similar stories to piphat accompaniment. In hun luang (royal rod puppets) figures about 30 centimetres tall were held above the head of the manipulator who danced under them in an enclosed space. A painted backdrop formed the scenery in a proscenium style booth that masked the manipulators’ bodies. Doors on each end of the backdrop allowed manipulators to enter and exit. A hun performance was watched by Simon de La Loubère during the French embassy of Louis XIV to Siam of 1658. Hun were presented in the 17th century as entertainment for royal cremations. The current performance of hun was developed in the reign of Rama I (1767-1809), founder of the current Chakri Dynasty. From 1782, hun troupes were part of the court entertainment department.
King Rama II carved puppet heads himself as well as writing texts for shadow, mask and rod puppetry performance. An important set of hun luang from the collection of Vice-Regent Krom Prararchawang Bowon Wichaichan (1838-1885) can be viewed today in the National Museum.
The performance of puppetry/mask is intertwined with two stories, Churning of the Sea of Milk and the Ramakien.
The Churning of the Sea of Milk is an episode described in the Indian Natyasastra which tells how demons joined gods to gain the nectar of immortality which was churned out of the ocean by wrapping a snake (naga) around the great world mountain. As part of the churning, heavenly dancers and wish-giving wonders emerged. When the demons attempted to seize the emergent nectar of immortality they were subdued by the preserver god, Narai (Vishnu). This story for Thai (like the Cambodians) became a model for an annual ceremony where aristocrats pledged their fealty to the king who was, in Hindu terms, seen as a manifestation of Vishnu and in Buddhist terms a manifestation of a chakrvartin (righteous Buddhist king) and simultaneously like Narai/Vishnu. Puppet and mask performance, it is believed, were first performed in the context of this ceremony to honour the king.
The Ramakien is the Thai version of the Indian epic Ramayana. It tells how Narai (Vishnu) incarnates in the heroic Phra Ram (Rama) who saves Nang Sida (Sita) from the demon Thosokan (Ravana) with the aid of monkey troupes led by Hanuman, a white monkey. The choice of the Ramakien as a theme was natural for kings at ceremonies seeking to enhance their spiritual aura. In Hindu terms, Ram was an incarnation of the world-preserving Narai, the god-hero of The Churning of the Sea of Milk. In Buddhist terms, the story of Phra Ram was a jataka, a story of a previous incarnation of the Buddha that led to his historical enlightenment.
By performing stories of Ram at annual ceremonies to honour the monarch and swear fealty, aristocrats who were the dancers/puppet manipulators showed their loyalty to the monarch, a living manifestation of Vishnu in the world. The performance was both an aesthetic entertainment and a political-social statement. Performances would be held for coronations, cremations and other important events in court life.
Court puppetry waned in the era of modernization since the reign of Rama V (1868-1873). The economic crisis in 1925 forced Rama VII to cut the Department of Royal Performance (Krom Mahorasop) where puppetry was housed. Occasional performances are presented for the birthday of the current king, but performers usually come from rural temple troupes rather than aristocratic or artistic circles in Bangkok as in times past.
Popular Puppetry of the 20th Century
Royal support of puppetry waned as Thai monarchs focused on economic and social challenges of the 19th century and Thailand’s neighbours were colonized by European powers. Aristocrats however kept the arts alive, sometimes in the provinces and sometimes reaching out to the new audiences in the swelling capital of Bangkok.
Hun krabok developed as a popular urban genre where viewers purchased a ticket to watch. This is the rod puppet genre: the wood or papier-mâché head is fitted on a bamboo rod that serves as the puppet spine. The puppet’s hands attach to a cloth bag that forms the figure’s body with wooden rods attached to the figure’s wrists and hidden inside the wide costume. Characters approximate the movements of classical dance. Hun krabok emerged around l893 and is based on Chinese models. The Chinese tale of Three Kingdoms (Samkok) was among the stories performed.
Perhaps the most popular hun krabok story was Phra Abhamani, Sunthorn Phu’s epic 19th century hero. Phra Abhamani is an exiled prince whose musical ability endears him to all. He marries an ogress-wife in whom jealousy and tenderness entwine. Phra Abhamani even attracts the affection of Queen Lawang (a Thai version of Queen Victoria). Other Thai legends were also presented.
Cheun Sakunkaeo (b.1907) was an important artist trained in hun krabok by her father. She was instrumental in hun krabok’s l970s revival. She taught drama students at Thammasat Univerity (Thai: Mahawitthayalai Thammasat) and Chulalongkorn University (named for King Rama V, 1853-1910), both in Bangkok. She trained the visual artist Chakrabhand Posayakrit.
In yet another development, hun became a popular urban entertainment in Bangkok under Krae Suppawanich, an official of Ayutthaya (a former capital of Siam) who established a Bangkok Troupe during the reign of Rama V1 (1910-1926). Sakorn Yangkiosod (b.1923, see Joe Louis Theatre) was born into this troupe. Though the form was outlawed from the l940s to the l960s, in the l970s he revived the form, calling it hun lakon lek, and developed figures 70 centimetres tall, operated by up to three manipulators.
Marionettes, probably developed along Chinese models, also were presented in the 20th century. However, string puppets have not been an important Thai style.
The third type of puppetry is regional performances of traditional village arts. Nang talung is the translucent shadow theatre of the Malay south and is linked to Malaysia’s wayang of Kelantan. The puppet master, the nai nang, has ritual and performance similarities to the dalang of the Indonesian theatre (see Nai Nang).
Small figures of 30 centimetres are manipulated on an open-air screen about 2 metres in length in a staging house which is raised above the ground. The percussion ensemble includes a mixture of Thai and Malay instruments; the language mixes central Thai dialect and southern patois. The traditional repertoire was based on Ramayana stories, but modern presentations opt instead for melodramatic episodes, romantic interludes, and uproarious comedy. The flat leather puppets have a centre rod and an additional rod for each hand. Clowns are the most popular characters in this form that remains to the present. Considerable decline in the last decade has caused puppeteers to abandon traditional stories and musical acompaniment in favour of newly conceived tales and popular music with drumsets and guitars.
The shadow puppetry of Lao speakers in north-east Thailand, nang daloong, is comparable to the nang talung of the Malay south and ayang (nang sbek touch) of Cambodia. Figures are usually opaque. The language is Lao and the action is accompanied by the ubiquitous kaen, a reed panpipe which is favoured in Lao music.
The contemporary period has brought two major movements in Thai puppetry. One is a revival of traditional genres. Performances of nang yai are staged regularly by the temple troupe of Wat Khanon and new figures have been commissioned by the Crown Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn for the group. She has also helped contemporary artists like Chakrabhand Posayakrit restore the hun luang. Students from theatre programmes at Chulalongkorn and Thammasat universities and local theatre companies flocked to the 1998 Asia-Europe Puppetry Festival in Bangkok to demonstrate their attempts to revive hun luang, hun krabok and hun lakon lek, and exhibit nang talung and nang yai. Efforts toward revival reinforce nationalism, the monarchy, and Thai culture in face of globalization.
But other artists have embraced global flows, seeing potential for innovation and education. By the 1970s, Thai professors were introducing puppetry, often in conjunction with programmes in children’s theatre, at Thammasat University. Professors trained in the United States and Europe learned techniques of glove, rod, or string puppets as taught in the West. Educational campaigns on HIV/AIDS issues and training which encourages pre-adolescent girls to avoid the sex trade have all been the topics of NGO-sponsored puppetry for social change. Puppets have been popular in the media: in the l990s, the favourite children’s television show used glove and rod puppets in the style of the Muppets of Jim Henson. The show was created, written and directed by Thais, but modelled on Sesame Street.
Thai puppeteers see themselves as both heirs to a rich legacy of puppetry and collaborators in a global art. Hun and nang, marionettes and Muppets – all are genres that are part of contemporary Thai puppetry.