Sbek Thom, Khmer shadow theatre
Inscribed in 2008 (3.COM) on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity (originally proclaimed in 2005)
The Sbek Thom is a Khmer shadow theatre featuring twometre high, non-articulated puppets made of leather openwork. Dating from before the Angkorian period, the Sbek Thom, along with the Royal Ballet and mask theatre, is considered sacred. Dedicated to the divinities, performances could only take place on specific occasions three or four times a year, such as the Khmer New Year, the King’s birthday or the veneration of famous people. After the fall of Angkor in the fifteenth century, the shadow theatre evolved beyond a ritualistic activity to become an artistic form, while retaining its ceremonial dimension.
The puppets are made from a single piece of leather in a special ceremony for each character representing gods and deities. The hides are dyed with a solution made from the bark of the Kandaol tree. The artisan draws the desired figure on the tanned hide, then cuts it out and paints it before attaching it to two bamboo sticks enabling the dancer to control the puppet.
The performances traditionally take place at night outdoors beside a rice-field or pagoda. A large white backdrop is held between two tall bamboo screens in front of a large fire or, nowadays, projectors. The shadows of the puppet’s silhouettes are projected onto the white screen. The animators bring the puppets to life with precise and specific dance steps. The performance is accompanied by an orchestra and two narrators. Inspired from the Reamker, the Khmer version of the Ramayana, the performances stage scenes of this epic, which may last several nights and require up to 160 puppets for a single presentation. Many of them were destroyed under the repressive Khmer Rouge regime, which almost annihilated this sacred art. Since 1979, Sbek Thom has been gradually revitalized thanks to the few surviving artists. So far, three shadow theatres have managed to rise from their ashes, ensuring the transmission of the knowledge and skills, including those relating to puppet making.