Hun: Thai Doll Puppetry

By Virulrak, Surapone; Foley, Kathy | Asian Theatre Journal, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Hun: Thai Doll Puppetry


Virulrak, Surapone, Foley, Kathy, Asian Theatre Journal


The rod-puppet theatre of Thailand has been revitalized in the last thirty years by the work of artist and puppet maker Chakrabhand Posayakrit. His research into hun has contributed to a resurgence of knowledge and performance of this court-influenced art.

Puppetry is one of the earliest theatre forms in Thailand and has two major variants: the nang (shadow figures) and the hun (doll theatre). Information on the nang has been available in English since the writings of Prince Dhaninivat (1968; 1975) on the large, opaque shadow figures of the court/temple traditions. The nang talung, which uses smaller translucent figures and is found in the Malay peninsula south of Thailand, has been discussed by Smithies and Kerdchouay (1975) and more recently by Broman (1996). This report focuses on the doll theatre, which until the work of Chakrabhand Posayakrit (1997) and Chandavij and Pramualratana (1998) has been less well documented even though hun is believed to be one of the early forms of Thai theatre.

Hun are three-dimensional doll puppets which are created from carved wood or papier-mache. Costumes are usually ornate and follow the conventions of classical dance. The figures are operated from below by a central rod attached to the head. Today the operation of the arms is done by rods, but the older hun luang of the royal courts have an elaborate sting mechanism running through the central rod to control movement. The iconography of the figures is well defined, and a close relationship with the khon (mask theatre) is apparent. The repertoire favors traditional tales from the Thai Ramayana (the Ramakien) as opposed to local stories. Today there are three major variants of hun: hun luang of the royal courts; hun krabok, a rod-puppet theatre which developed at the end of the nineteenth century influenced by Chinese and Lao puppetry; and hun lakhon lek, a rod-puppet form which emerged at the beginning of the twentieth century and uses several puppeteers to manipulate a single figure.

Hun luang as a court art is mentioned in the literature of the Ayutthaya period in the sixteenth century and was noted in 1658 by La Loubere, Louis XIV's envoy to the Siamese court. By the seventeenth century hun had become an important performance in the context of the royal cremation ceremonies and this practice continued when the capital was transferred to Thonburi in 1767. Detailed information on this theatre emerges only after the capital was moved to Bangkok (Ratanakosin) in 1782. Rama I (1767-1809) is credited with establishing hun luang (royal puppets) in the form known today. Until the beginning of the twentieth century, hun luang was performed along with female dance (lakon nai) and mask dance (khon) at important state events. The second Bangkok monarch, Rama II, is known to have carved two puppet heads himself and ordered many new figures. From 1782, kings and princes had hun troupes both for entertainment and to enhance official events. Court support of hun declined in the reign of Rama V (1868-1 873) and ceased after the economic crisis in 1925 forced Rama VII to cut the Department of Royal Performance (Krom Mahorasop) in 1926. At this juncture the figures of the hun luang were bequeathed to the National Museum, where the set graces the state collection. The hun luang on display today in the museum are from the collection of Vice-regent Krom Prararchawang Bowon Wichaichan (1838-1885). Figures are about two feet tall with intricate strings which manipulate fingers, wrists, arms, and legs. The lines pass through a wooden tube on which the head and torso are mounted. Traditionally a puppeteer would manipulate a single figure emulating the intricate court dance to the accompaniment of the phiphat, the Thai court music ensemble. The Ramakien, which is closely associated with the masked court dance (khon), and the stories of lakon nok, the all-male performance genre of the central region, were the favored repertoire of hun luang. …

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