Popular Workers' Shadow Theatre in Thailand. (Articles)

By Dowsey-Magog, Paul | Asian Theatre Journal, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Popular Workers' Shadow Theatre in Thailand. (Articles)


Dowsey-Magog, Paul, Asian Theatre Journal


One of the least-known forms of Southeast Asian shadow puppet theatre, the nang talung of southern Thailand, is part of a long tradition of rural ritual performance. But it now incorporates newly invented stories with contemporary music and technique--creating a vibrant, popular appeal among its regional audience, particularly in urban centers and on television. In this article the author offers a brief introduction to the form and explains how changes in contemporary performance are affected by prevailing restraints.

Paul Dowsey-Magog completed his doctorate on Thai theatre at Sydney University and is currently completing a book on Thai shadow theatre titled Demons with Mobile Phones. He has previously published in both Australian and Thai academic journals and now lectures in the Theatre/Media Department of Charles Sturt University, Australia.

Rarely does a traditional genre of theatre become the focus of a hit pop song of the younger generation in any country, and it is rarer still for the music and excerpts of puppet play dialogue to become part of such a song. Such was the case in Bangkok in 1995-1996, however, when the music group Chaamaa was acclaimed for the "Nang Talung Song." This is but one of the many fascinating current trends in the little-known shadow puppet genre of southern Thailand. Other genres of Asian shadow puppetry, which are better documented, include the well-known Javanese and Balinese forms of wayang kulit and the wayang siam of northern Malaysia. (1) Nang talung is a southern Thai genre of shadow play previously considered a primitive form of ritual entertainment for rural villagers in the provinces of Songkhla, Phattalung, Nakhon Si Thammarat, and Trang, where it has always been regarded as "an art form of and for the agricultural society." (2) Despite the current competition with modern forms of entertainment, however, i t is thriving in towns throughout the region.

Shadow puppetry is particularly prevalent in Southeast Asia, where it was often important in court ritual and entertainment. Nang yai, for example, the form of shadow play from central Thailand, common at royal cremations in the past, uses the largest shadow puppets in the world, which are carried by dancers in front of a screen (rather than behind it). Performances, though, are now extremely rare. The smaller regional form, by contrast, has been increasing its exposure to urban audiences as a result of recent developments in the social and industrial infrastructure of southern Thailand. It continues to be recognized as a major cultural symbol of southern Thai identity. According to Wira Chuthithong, a local villager, now an academic: "Nang was like the movies, the only ones then, but it was about our world, the two types of people, the rich and the poor--the nai and the phrai. The clowns were the village people. It's our entertainment" (Wira Chuthithong interview, May 21, 1993).

As a result of the historical isolation and autonomous oral performance traditions of the somewhat rebellious southern rural regions, this form has perhaps been less influenced by royal sponsors and scholars than neighboring types of shadow play such as wayang Siam, wayang kulit, and nang yai. Thailand has never been colonized, (3) but increasing foreign investment, agrarian reform, industrialization, the introduction of media technology, and the rise of the middle class, particularly since the 1970s, have rapidly accelerated its exposure to the "global cultural flow." (4) In the southern rural areas this acceleration has been more recent, and with increasing access to electricity, television ownership, and modern road transport, a new and complex heteroglossia of competing voices is working itself out through these shadow plays. (5) As Victor Turner (1990, 17) suggests, genres of cultural performance are more than a mere reflection of society: "The interrelationship of social drama to stage drama is not in an endless, cyclical, repetitive pattern; it is a spiraling one.

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