Before canned entertainment arrived in the form of moving pictures, there was one art practiced and performed on screens everywhere from Japan to south-east Europe. For centuries before pictures were projected onto a screen from behind the audience, the shadow theatre was projecting onto the screen from behind the screen itself.

The way it works is perfectly simple: All you need is a screen of rice paper, muslin, hide or any other thin, translucent material, a light source and some figures. Secure the fabric or paper in a frame and place the light source behind it. Take the figures and attach long sticks to them. The puppeteer stands behind or underneath the light source and positions the figures between it and the screen in such a way that the shadow of the figure is projected onto the screen.

The construction of the figures is key to a good theatre. They can be made from any translucent material, from carved images, cardboard, or leather, the basic requirement being that the material be rigid and durable enough to stand being held up and waved around. The material must be capable of being cut in a way that allows sufficient light through to create the appearance of features on the figure while retaining a clear outline. Figures in western shadow theatre will typically be made of cardboard, with the spaces papered over with any coloured, translucent material of the right colour; south Asian figures tend to be carved from leather and monochromatic, whereas China has many schools that use all kinds of material. The same materials that are used for the figures are commonly employed for the scenery too. Figures will be anything from 20-50cm (8-18") high though at least one special form, the Cambodian Sbek Thom, uses figures up to 2m (6') in height. In most schools the figures are jointed, sometimes unrealistically like the long, many-jointed arm of the Greek Karagiozis, and they're often caricatures with exaggerated features.

The origin of the shadow theatre is certainly Chinese but its exact beginnings are lost in the depths of time. It's believed to date back at least to the late Tang and Five Dynasties era of China, making it a bit more than a thousand years old in its contemporary form. Descriptions from later Song dynasty writings though place its beginnings much farther back in time, at least in the Han dynasty around 100 BCE. It likely began as a funerary art, the shadows representing the dead. In Cambodia it dates back a thousand years, in Thailand at least to the 15th century CE. In Turkey and the Balkans it has a history of about 500 years. It appears to have spread separately in two directions: south and then eastwards towards India where it became more ritualistic and leather-based figures dominate, and eastwards through Central Asia and ultimately to Asia Minor with the migrations of Turkic peoples, retaining the popularity of cardboard figures and its burlesque character. Every place it spread to added elements of its own folklore, making both the subjects and the styles extremely diverse.

There are three basic schools of shadow theatre, centred on eastern Asia, southern Asia and the former Ottoman Empire. In the Hindu world its significance is largely religious and it's used in ritual representation of scenes from the Mahabharata and Ramayana while Thais use it to tell stories of their national epos. In the areas of the former Ottoman Empire its subjects are much more worldly and it's mostly a vehicle for comedy and satire. East Asian theatre is more versatile and covers a wider range of subjects but is mostly used for entertainment while south-east Asian theatre is mixed and separate forms are used for ritual and for entertainment. As a form of entertainment its stories tend to be operetta-like and evolved to appeal to a general audience consisting mostly of the peasantry.

Shadow theatre is one of the traditional performance arts which may not be faring very well these days but nonetheless stands a chance of surviving the onslaught of television and cinema because it's simple, cool and kids love it. Every country in which it's played still offers opportunities to see it performed and learn the art behind it. Remember, folks, until very recently this was prime time viewing. In some places it still is. Enjoy it, support it.

Georgia Southern University,
Northern Illinois University
China Shadow Play Institute
Kinaree Magazin, Thailand
Athens News Agency

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