The Shadow Puppets of Nakhon

It’s not every day that you get to visit the workshop of a national treasure. Suchart Subsin, who died last year at age 77, was a master of the ancient art of Thai shadow puppetry. It’s a form of theater—dating back at least to 400 BC—that tells stories with flat figures made of cow or buffalo hide that are shown in silhouette against a backlit white screen. The puppeteer manipulates the jointed figures and narrates the play (written in poetry), using a different voice for each character and accompanied by percussion and woodwind instruments.

Chris manipulates the arm of a shadow puppet
A large puppet like this can take a month to punch, cut, and paint

Suchart Subsin started making Thai shadow puppets in the 1950s when he was a kid, and by the age of 14 he was supporting his poor family as a professional puppet maker and performer. By the mid-1980s, he was so well known that he was invited to perform for the King of Thailand, who praised him for keeping an important part of traditional Thai culture alive. Those words inspired Suchart to turn his home, in the southern city of Nakhon Si Thammarat, into a museum where people could learn about shadow puppets and watch them being made.

Since his death, Suchart’s family has kept the workshop going. The day we went sightseeing in Nakhon Si Thammarat, it was our first stop. It’s a small, unassuming place, a cluster of traditional wooden houses down a side street. The buildings display Suchart’s collection of old shadow puppets from Thailand and other countries, as well as his collection of puppetry paraphernalia, such as oil lamps, old instruments, and flat, portfolio-like woven baskets used for transporting the puppets.

Woman making a leather shadow puppet
After all of the decorative holes have been punched, the puppet is cut out with a sharp knife

The highlight of our visit was talking with Suchart’s daughter-in-law, who makes puppets herself. She showed us the process:

  • starting with a translucent sheet of cow or buffalo hide that resembles plastic,
  • spray-painting a paper stencil of the puppet on the hide,
  • tapping an awl with a hammer (over a piece of very hard wood) to make decorative holes that enhance the silhouette,
  • cutting out the finished puppet with a sharp knife (over a very soft piece of wood), and
  • painting the puppet, sometimes in bright colors, which are visible through the white screen.

She can make a small puppet in one day. But a large, intricate puppet, like some of the ones hanging on the wall, can take a month to create. After admiring the detailed and brightly colored puppets, we bought a couple of smaller ones for our collection of Southeast Asian crafts.

(You can see Suchart Subsin performing part of a shadow puppet play in 2009. As with many traditional arts, the pace is slow and requires some patience.)

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