Now if you were around 500 years ago, chances are that rather than watching TV or playing obsessively with your iPad, you would have sat entranced by shadow puppetry, particularly if you were living in China or India.
While puppetry has always been ubiquitous in Asia, this form of entertainment all but disappeared in Laos after 1975. The puppet theatre, which was patronised by the Champassak Royal Court, saw entertainers abandon their craft and audiences diminish following independence. Gone were the epics and myths based on the Ramayana inherited from the region’s Hindu and Cham lineage. Lao adaptations, such as Phra Lak Phra Lam and the Sang Xin Xay faded from memory. As the years went past, TV, computers and globalised entertainment supplanted the joy of indigenous live performances in villages.
Enter Yves Bernard, movie production designer. In 2006 he started a mobile cinema, transporting equipment in a sturdy tuktuk (a motorised three-wheeler) to show black and white silent movies to villagers around Laos. And Cinema TukTuk was born.
Four years later Yves revived Champanakone Shadow Play when a French architect working at the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Vat Phou in Champassak discovered in a local temple the original shadow play puppets and instruments. These had been carefully preserved by the monks after the last performance in 1975.
Today, with generous support from the French government and the Prince Claus Fund for Culture and Development from the Netherlands, the Champassak Shadow Play Association through the Théâtre d’Ombres et Cinéma TukTuk project continues the cherished tradition of entertaining the people through a medium that almost became extinct.
Adapting to the times by jumping on the bandwagon of modernisation, the Champassak Puppet Theatre adopted a wide screen and mixed media approach. Transformed by its partnership with Cinema TukTuk, puppets, musicians and silent cinema have combined to present multimedia shows that amaze and fascinate. (Check out https://vimeo.com/87134351) The connection between puppetry and cinema is an effective one, especially in the context of rehabilitating and rescuing Laos’ cultural heritage. Faced by rows of mesmerized, laughing children and adults, the puppet show, combined with film, fits the contemporary world, breathing life and current meaning into Lao traditional culture.
But it’s not simply about being entertained. The traditional function of the puppet show, honouring the ancestor’s spirits embodied in the puppets, translates easily into valuing of the environment, or the delivery of health or anti-UXO messages. Thus theatre uses a traditional form of art to address matters of national and global significance, while amusing, entertaining and educating.
INTERVIEW: The Puppet Master
Khamphai Manivone learned puppet making, literally, at the hands of the master: Ajarn Somphone. Recently he talked to Champa Holidays about a craft that is enthralling thousands of people in the Lao countryside.
Oh! - How did you become a puppeteer?
I’ve been a puppet maker for almost 20 years. I was lucky that my teacher was Ajarn Somphone. He was a true master.
He knew everything; the stories, how to make puppets and he even composed the music.
We worked together but after he died I gave up puppetry. Then I met Yves and he encouraged me to start again.
Oh! - How long does it take to learn this craft?
If somebody is really keen to learn puppet making he or she can do so in about six months but it takes about one year of hard work to become a good puppeteer.
Oh! - What materials do you work with and how many puppets do you need for a show?
The puppets are made from animal skin and cloth. Making them, painting them and waiting for them to dry takes a long time. Each show needs about 50 puppets but for smaller ones even 20 are enough.
Oh! - Please tell us something about the shows?
Everything depends on teamwork. There are 14 of us, including Yves, musicians and my assistant. Before the show starts, the story will be explained to the audience and then the music begins. This works up excitement.
Oh! - Which stories are most popular?
Phra Lak Phra Lam from the Hindu Ramayana is the most popular. But we also have others. Some stories have a social or educational message.
Oh! - Do you have any memorable experiences?
Every show is memorable. When we see the audience, especially the children, laughing and screaming, we always have smiles on our faces. When we travel we take happiness everywhere, and we meet new people.
- By Melody Kemp -
Venue: Champassak Shadow Puppets Theatre
Dates: Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday
Time: 20.30 (Duration: 1hr - 15 min)
Price: 50,000 kip (Lao people free)
For more information:
Yves BERNARD. Coordinator. + 856 020 55 08 11 09. French & English
Nom VIENG PHOU MI. Assistant. + 856 020 56 56 92 14. Lao
Support them on facebook: Théâtre d’Ombres de Champasak ATOC ET Cinéma Tuk-Tuk.