The shadow theater of Southern Thailand, known as the Nang, recites tales of the gods and contemporary people through stories of love, current events, and tradition. The shadow puppets used in the Nang represent the norms and mores of Thai society. Themes commonly seen in Nang performances include family conflict, fantastic adventures of a wandering hero, star-crossed lovers and romantic tales, hermits teaching magic to their apprentices, and abandoned children seeking lost loved ones. The Nang attempts to relay to the audience the importance of Thai values and ideologies in a changing world, however, the mystical and historical events remain fundamental in all performances. The association with karma (all actions have equal reactions) and the underlying message of rewards and punishments act as allegories for Buddhist morality and philosophy. The Nang remains one of Thailand's most essential traditions, particularly on the eastern coast, and is usually performed during the country's dry season (February to August).
The Museum of Anthropology's Thai shadow puppets were collected by a former MU anthropology student while conducting fieldwork in Thailand in the 1980s. This small collection of two dozen figures dates to that time period and provides examples of the forms and characters used in modern Nang performances.
Types of Nang
There are two types of the Nang, the Nang Talung and the Nang Yai. The Nang Talung is played with leather puppets, each representing a separate character, about 50 centimeters high. They usually possess a movable, jointed arm controlled by a string. The Nang Yai are large, decorated scenes and characters measuring around two meters high and a meter wide. Unlike the Nang Talung, they do not have jointed arms, but the themes and styles remain the same. Both types are used to present stories to the community and are widely recognized throughout Thailand.
The Nang's theater troupe usually consists of five to ten puppeteers and musicians. The teachers and presenters of the Nang Talung are called Nai Nang. Currently there are over 300 Nai Nang in the southern regions of Thailand. They perform using the puppets on a backlighted white screen, and hide themselves in small wood and bamboo shelters. The performances run from dusk to dawn and incorporate narration, songs, prose, and the performer's improvised dialogue. The rhythm and fluidity of each performance is essential in maintaining audience interest, thus the Nai Nang must vary their techniques and story lines to incorporate characters such as gods and goddesses, kings and queens, magical figures, and comedians. It is the Nai Nang's responsibility to act as an intermediary between the community and the gods, thus the Nang and its producers are highly respected and greatly entwined into Thailand's cultural fibers.
For an example of a Nang Talung performance, see "Nang Talung" at the Asia/Pacific Cultural Centre for UNESCO (scroll down to Thailand).
For an example of a Nang Yai performance, see "Nang Yai: Shadow Play (The Nanj)" at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Northern Illinois University.
Each Nang figure represents a particular character, according to a common style. Figures of men and women are always created with the same characteristics in terms of stance and facial features. The faces of male figures are seen in profile, whereas the female figures face the audience. However, female faces are merely outlines of the features because the white light shining through during performances is considered a portrayal of femininity. Although based on Buddhist philosophy and ideology, the Nang also incorporate many Hindhu characters and iconography.
References and Related Links
Broman, Sven. Shadows of Life: Nang Talung. Thai Popular Shadow Theatre. (Bangkok: White Orchid Press, 1996)
Hemmet, Christine. Nang Talung: The Shadow Theatre of Thailand.
(Amsterdam: KIT Press, 1996)
Dhaninivat Kromamün Bidyalabh Bridhy¯akorn, Prince. The Nang.
(Bangkok: The Fine Arts Department, 1962)
The Nang: Thai Shadow Puppets exhibit prepared by Helen Davis,
|Types of Nang: Nang Talung|
|Nang Characters: Gods and Royalty|
|Nang Montho||Sida, Rama's wife||Hanuman||Vishnu?|
|Types of Nang: Nang Yai|
|Nang Characters: The Hermit|
|Rusi the Hermit||Rusi the Hermit|
|Nang Characters: The Comedians|
|Nang Characters: Demons|
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