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Passports: New Arrivals from the World of Puppetry
Notes by Bradford Clark, Curator
Preah Ream and Krong Reap in Battle
Artisans of the Sovanna Phum workshop
Cambodian; Nang Sbek Thom shadow puppet
Gift of Nancy Lohman Staub
Our figure was created in the workshop of Sovanna Phum, a Phnom Penh cultural center dedicated to the preservation of the traditional Cambodian arts. They perform Nang Sbek Thom and in 2005 collaborated on a production with Vermont’s Sandglass Theater.
The Nang Sbek Thom of Cambodia
Until the end of Cambodia’s Ankor era in the 15th century, the sacred Nang Sbek Thom was presented only three or four times a year during auspicious ceremonial occasions. Performances took several days and could involve 160 separate figures. The large shadow figures of the Nang Sbek Thom, which lack articulated limbs, are manipulated by dancer/manipulators who are visible to the audience in silhouette.
The Nang Sbek Thom tells stories from the Reamker, the Cambodian version of the Hindu Ramayana epic that is told in various forms throughout Southeast Asia. The Reamker is the tale of Preah Ream (Rama, in the Ramayana) and his wife Seda (Sita), who is kidnapped by a demon king Krong Reap (Ravanna). With the help of the monkey general Hanuman, Ram defeats Krong Reap and rescues Seda. While the Indian Ramayana is a Hindu epic, the Cambodian Reamker holds Buddhist meaning as well.
Recognized by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, Nang Sbek Thom was almost completely obliterated under the Pol Pot regime. In recent years, remarkable efforts have been made to preserve the skills necessary to its survival, with cultural tourism playing a part.