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A Story in the Shadows

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A story in the shadows
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  Find any ONE ESSAY of not less than 2 pages on any of these text types: Narrative, Descriptive or Expository )  A story in the shadows  –  The mastery of Thai puppetry Text & Photography by Brent Lewin “Life was very simple growing up in a small village,” explains an elderly Suchart Subsin reclining in a chair at his home in Nakhon Si Themmart, a charming town off the Gulf of Thailand and 600 kilometres south of Bangkok. “When I was 14, I made a decision that I wanted to be a famous shadow puppeteer,” says Suchart, grinning. “I wanted to be a superstar!” Suchart, now 73 years old, has certainly fulfilled his dream and is an acknowledged self-taught master of the shadow puppet craft, or nang talung  , in Thailand. Over the years, he has received several awards for his mastery and preservation of the art and he has performed for the King of Thailand in addition to audiences as far away as Germany, Holland, India and Japan. Nang talung   performances are typically based on stories from the Ramakien, the Thai version of the Indian Ramayana. The epic story is one of the major texts in the Hindu religion and portrays the duties in relationships. With a long history of being the leading form of entertainment during Thailand‟s Ayutthaya dynasty, these storied of gods were used as vehicles to transmit important Thai values in a changing world. Though considered a drying art form in present day Thailand, Suchart has adapted to the timed and infuses these traditional stories with modern day storylines, humour and props such as airplanes and mobile phones. What makes Suchart unique is that he is not only a master performer but he also makes the intricately designed puppets himself. The fascinating process of making a typical nang talung   puppet, 70 centimetres in height with movable parts, can take anywhere between two days to a month depending in the detail. Puppets are most commonly made from cow skin through Suchart had made puppets from both tiger and bear skin in the past. A macabre display of buffalo skulls hang throughout his home and in the beautiful adjacent museum he had set up for visitors. Suchart explains, “Once the skin is stripped from the animal, the fat must be cleaned off and the skin is soaked in vinegar for three days. The skin is then  smoothed out, stretched and left to dry outside, the only other thing left to do is to decide which characters to make.”  Characters fall into categories of gods and royalty, hermits, demons and comedians. A detailed design is drawn and attached to the leather where the design is then etched put with great detail. Once this long process is complete, the leather characters are then painted and mounted in bamboo rods, which are used to create the puppet‟s movements. Suchart has since scaled back on making puppets. His immediate and extended family are now in charge of their production. Recognising that the folk art of nang talung   is slowly disappearing in modern day Thailand, Suchart has made it his personal mission to keep this dying art alive. He seems to set apart the performance from the puppet itself. Suchart explains that, “the shadows cast is the „performance‟  but the puppet is the work of art. Even if n ang talung performances are one day not around, the one thing that will survive is the puppets that I have created.”  To keep the tradition alive, Suchart still regularly performs at his home and around the country in addition to teaching others about the craft at local arts colleges in the South. “Past kings including our present king have always been interested in nang talung,”   reflects Suchart.” It concerns me that this art might one day lose its popularity in Thailand because the storied told and lessons learned in these tales are important to our religion, culture and politics. Every time I put on a show I‟m just proud that I have the opportunity to pass these stories along to a younger generation.”  Source: Reader‟s Digest, July 2011 . Page 92-99.

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