For centuries, shadow puppet theater not only captivated audiences across Southeast Asia but also held ritual significance for various local communities. Held outdoors at night, the performances unfolded around the simple setup of a stretched white cloth, lit by an oil lamp, on which the shadows of puppets would dance to orchestral music. Spectators would watch from both sides of the cloth; so rather than existing as simple black cutouts, many of these puppets boasted colorful, detailed designs, often crafted by the puppeteers themselves. The British Museum owns over 700 of these objects from Southeast Asia alone, and 85 from Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand are now on view in an ongoing exhibition. Used to dramatize folktales, local traditions, and epic tales, these ogres, clowns, villagers, court figures, and other characters today represent some of the oldest relics of a community activity that has experienced great change in the last few decades.
“Once, shadow theater performances in Southeast Asia were exclusively ritual activities that also provided entertainment,” curator Dr. Alexandra Green told Hyperallergic. “Even today, they can retain ritual significance. Performances summon helpful spirits and dispel harmful ones, purify individuals and communities, ensure successful harvests, and offer blessings to all attending. During performances, puppeteers recite sacred incantations and make offerings.”