Shadow Puppetry: See the Maestro at Work
Nakhon Si Thammarat is a gem of a city in southern Thailand. Located close to the eastern coast of the Gulf of Thailand, it is a must-visit for those seeking an authentic Thai travel experience. Being a little off the main tourist route has ensured that Nakhon retains a very local atmosphere — even when visiting its main sights such as the amazing Wat Phra Mahatat.
But perhaps the best sight in Nakhon Si Thammarat lies hidden in a soi – a small street away from the main road – in a quiet part of town. Nang talung shadow puppets are an art form common to some of the Sumatran-influenced Straits countries in Asia: Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. However, nang talung likely originated in India. In Thailand, there are records of nang talung since the times of Ayutthaya, where it was a common entertainment at the royal court. But let’s go back to the present. In Nakhon Si Thammarat we can visit a real nang talung maestro.
Mr. Suchart who is now in his 70’s is a repository of this ancient art. In his house, you will find a small museum, a workshop, and a theatre, where – behind the lit curtain – you can watch a puppet performance. Take some time to browse through his small collection of puppets from different locations, some of them over a hundred years old. Walk into the workshop and, if lucky, one can see the family of Mr. Suchart at work. The puppets are crafted out of cowhides. It’s a time consuming laborious job to produce them.
For a little fee, one of Mr. Suchart’s sons will make a performance on the small stage. The light is lit and the characters pop into action. A joker, a prince, and a monkey dominate the stage. The plot is whimsical and there are modern additions such as a plane and a motorcycle. But the storyline follows the ancient and timeless adventures of a prince who has fallen in love. It is funny, but more than that, somewhat moving to witness a public art that has been central to the culture of Nakhon Si Thammarat and the region for many hundreds of years.
In a digital age, it is refreshing to enjoy a shadow puppet show at the house of one of the last masters of this art.
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