Illuminating shadow puppets

Our free exhibition delves
into the world of shadow puppet theatre from
Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. Full of movement and mythology, shadow puppet
performances have endured for a very long time – some of the puppets in the
display date from the 18th century!

 Shadow theatre uses numerous stories, including the epics that
originated in ancient India, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Puppeteers also
create original stories based on characters from these epics or in response to
current affairs, as well as dramatising local tales. The Ramayana story was once a favourite – it follows
the story of Prince Rama and his wife Sita, the white monkey Hanuman and the
demon-king Ravana. When Sita is kidnapped by Ravana, Hanuman assists Rama in
rescuing her. These puppets below of Rama and
Ravana are from Malaysia.

 To provide a balance in
shadow theatre, ogres, ghosts, demons and zombies appear regularly alongside
gods and humans in performance. Fearsome beings must be controlled within the
stories in order to maintain spiritual harmony. These three below come from Bali,
Java and Thailand. They date from the late 1700s to the 1960s – shadow puppets
and the stories associated with the performances have endured and evolved for a
very long time.

Animals play important roles in Southeast Asia and in
shadow puppet theatre, from creatures essential to agriculture to being
symbolic or relating to the spirit world. Animal puppets can be static or articulated, depending on
their roles in performance. Below, a
composite animal and Anila the monkey from Hanuman’s army show the differences
between the two styles.

Shadow puppets from Southeast
Asia include a huge range of characters. Clowns are popular in performances as
they add humour and fun. They also speak in dialects,
adding local relevance to the main story.
These clowns from Java are made from animal hide with handles made from buffalo
horn. They are decorated with paint and gold leaf. The different types of
articulation can be seen in these two puppets of Semar (short and stout) and
Petruk (tall and skinny but with a pot belly).
In additon to moveable arms, Semar also has a moveable jaw.

You can see the free exhibition Shadow puppet theatre
from Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand
in Room 91 until 29 Jan 2017.