10391 - 20170129 - Shadow puppet theatre from Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand to open at the British Museum - London - 08.09.2016-29.01.2017


Javanese mythical serpent.
This exhibition draws on the British Museum’s unique Southeast Asian shadow puppet collection. Shadow theatre performances involve the manipulation of two-dimensional, hide puppets between a light source and a white cloth screen by a puppeteer who simultaneously conducts the orchestra. Puppeteers can have 200 or more puppets in their collections. Some of these puppets are generic, while others represent specific characters, and a few are considered to be sacred, such as the clowns and the holy man figure used in the rituals associated with the start of a performance in Thailand and Malaysia. Shows are usually commissioned and performed at life events, such as weddings or funerals, in celebration of the harvest, and in fulfilment of vows, but they have also been commercialised as entertainment in some areas.

This exhibition will include Javanese puppets of the Raffles collection from circa 1800 (the earliest systematic collection of puppets in the world), puppets from Kelantan, Malaysia made by the puppeteers Pak Hamzah and Pak Awang Lah in the mid-twentieth century, Balinese puppets gifted to Queen Elizabeth II, and a set of modern Thai shadow puppets from the 1960s and 70s that display contemporary fashions and aspects of global pop culture. These puppets provide examples of local inspiration. Using comparative displays, the exhibition explores the relationships between these traditions, and also examines the stories, characters, and performance styles found in the region. Shadow theatre’s popularity and spiritual associations in Southeast Asia have resulted in the reuse of shadow puppet imagery in other media, such as sacred manuscripts and protective charms.

The exhibition further demonstrates that shadow puppet theatre is a living art form that still has relevance in contemporary times. Aspects of 20th century life, such as flare trousers, plastic, electricity, and sound amplification, play a part in shadow theatre, indicating its ability to adapt to social change. Mass media has made some puppeteers into local celebrities, and the internet is sometimes used to broadcast performances. The British Museum’s collection is expanding to record these changes. Earlier this year, wayang hip hop puppets representing the sons of the main Javanese clown figures were purchased and are on display in this exhibition for the first time.

Traditional stories performed in shadow theatre include the Ramayana and Mahabharata epics that originated in India but were reinterpreted in Southeast Asia. There is also a specifically Southeast Asian narrative cycle based on the adventures of the legendary Prince Panji. Puppeteers have developed new stories that expand earlier narratives and examine the ups and downs of modern life. New puppets, including bandits, military figures, bureaucrats, airplanes, and mobile phones, are now also features in shadow theatre.