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. The spiraling process is responsive to inventions and the changes in the mode of production in the given society."
Direct government intervention in nang talung was applied mainly through repression and censorship by local officials in the 1970s when the persistent antihegemonic views of agricultural and working-class performers began to reveal Marxist tendencies. Such performances were known as nang kaanmuang (political plays). In recent years local educational institutions and cultural museums acting as sponsors and advisers to performers have facilitated indirect regulation and reorientation of performance. Teachers and professors in southern universities and teachers' colleges, while improving the literacy rate and proselytizing new Buddhist doctrine, have prioritized the promotion of a "modern" ideology following national ideals that prefer science to superstition. Nang talung was previously regarded as primitive rural entertainment. But as a result of government initiatives to promote regional traditions, the educational establishment has set about refining the form into a suitable moral vehicle for expressing and valorizing the artistic tradition of the south. This campaign has affected its audience appeal, particularly as political comment and ribaldry are limited at shows on college grounds. Academic sponsors and television broadcasters influenced by them also prefer traditional musical instruments. Many performers are now qualified teachers who bring the values acquired in tertiary training to their performances.
But as a consequence of its urban promotion by academics nang talung has extended its political and commercial significance in provincial centers and market towns. Today it has become a popular workers' theatre appealing to much larger audiences, both rural and urban, than before. Over the past twenty years, this trend has paradoxically resulted in performance traditions becoming more standardized on the one hand and yet, on the other, even more adaptable to changing popular tastes in entertainment. Local audiences now commonly refer to performances as nang booraan (ancient nang) and nang samai (modern nang) although these are not distinct styles but rather the opposite ends of a flexible continuum. Nang sarnai suggests that the performers tend to be more contemporary in approach with more use of modern music and extended dialogue. Nang booraan performers, by contrast, tend to be a bit more conservative or "traditional." There is, however, no fixed definition. Most performers utilize both old and new stories, old and new music, and old and new characters, depending on audience tastes, and may also use traditional story types and characters with new music and vice versa.
Characteristics of Presentation
In common with other Southeast Asian forms of shadow play, nang talung performances usually occur at commercial and temple fairs or at domestic rituals and ceremonies, though they are becoming more common on Thai television, even outside the southern region. Performers are also becoming regular demonstrators of "regional tradition" on the immense variety of TV chat shows in the capital. The open-air performances, five to eight hours long, usually commence at eight or nine in the evening. A single puppeteer, the nai nang chants poetry, narrates the story, and in a number of voices conducts the dialogue for thirty to fifty characters drawn from a collection of about two hundred. He is assisted by five to ten musicians. The troupe takes the name of the nai nang He may use his own name with the prefix "Nang," as in Nang Nakharin or Nang Narong, or occasionally his full name, as in Nang Chuliam Kingthong, though the surname is usually dropped in his local area. Sometimes he will adopt a stage name or nickname or f requentiy add the name of his favorite clown character -- as in Nang Prom Noi, Nang Im Theng, and Nang Pathompi Ai Luukmii. Sometimes a performer may wish to announce that he is a qualified teacher (khruu) and will add this to his name, as in Nang Khruu Arun.
When the colored and translucent leather puppets are manipulated in front of an electric light, the audience sees colored shadows or projections on the decorated white cloth screen, which is often partially covered in advertisements. Puppets are grouped into several character types recognized by the audience. Detailed information about the persona of each new figure is usually given in verse when it first appears in the story. Kings and queens are typically crowned and wear ornamental apparel similar to that worn by traditional court dancers. The yaks--grotesque demonic creatures with magical powers modeled on old temple sculptures--are often characterized merely as impious evil people. Heroes and heroines are usually the children of royal parents or attractive young people dressed in contemporary fashions who continue to act and speak in a more "noble" or educated way than their companions. Supporting characters include deities with a halo and the ability to fly, skeletal ghosts and spirits, older villagers , bandits, officials and policemen, and the rusi, a type of learned ascetic. New figures include national politicians. Puppet props of newspapers, guns, cigarettes, spectacles, motorbikes, microphones, and even aircraft are not uncommon.
The most important characters are the clowns, who are blackskinned and often grotesque or animallike. There are six major clowns, supposedly based on real village characters, (6) who usually appear in pairs as companions or servants to the aristocratic protagonists. Clowns have arms jointed and movable jaws capable of rapid manipulation. Performers adopt different clowns as personal favorites--which audiences believe to have ritual potency--or may invent new clowns during their careers. The ritual power of puppeteers is considered by many people to be important in providing enjoyable and thought-provoking entertainment. Petitioners seeking spiritual intercession may use gold leaf to gild revered clown puppets in a similar fashion to orthodox temple treatment of statues of Buddha. The clowns, who epitomize the stereotype of the unlearned but streetwise peasant, are the only figures that maintain their names and personalities among the stories and are readily identified by audiences throughout the south. (7)
After introductory music, performances begin with a series of ritual episodes that combine Buddhist prayers with local …
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Publication information: Article title: Popular Workers' Shadow Theatre in Thailand. (Articles). Contributors: Dowsey-Magog, Paul - Author. Journal title: Asian Theatre Journal. Volume: 19. Issue: 1 Publication date: Spring 2002. Page number: 184+. © 2008 University of Hawaii Press. COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group.
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