The soupy night air whines with mosquitoes, but no one swipes away or scratches. Our eyes are fixed on the figures of a farmer and his water buffalo; their limbs — silhouetted against a white cloth screen — gyrating to the beats of a live pinpeat band. And, as the story unfolds, the bodies of the barefoot men manipulating the puppets slowly melt away.
Cambodia is famous for its shadow play. Practiced for over 2,000 years, it’s one of the oldest forms of storytelling, and learning its artistry takes years. I wanted to see behind the scenes, so had signed up for a shadow puppet-making master class with Backstreet Academy. It matches tourists with non-English-speaking artisans (via a translator) for workshops ranging in duration from an hour to a full day. Originating in Kathmandu, Nepal, the workshops — now available in 10 countries and 40 cities across Asia — allow locals to earn income from tourism, despite a language barrier, and travellers to learn a skill and direct their dollars straight to the source.
On the outskirts of Siem Reap, a tuk-tuk deposits me at the workshop of master puppeteer Chetra Chouen. His goatee and teeth are black. He leads me into his workshop, where a fan spins the muggy air, and motions for me to pick a design from a collection of tigers, horses, dancers and dragons. I point to an elephant.
We settle on a pair of sawn-off tree stumps surrounded by chiseling tools and he instructs me to scratch the elephant’s outline onto a patch of hand-cut cowhide with a nail. He buys the leather raw, stretches it in the sun, and dyes it with tannins himself.
Shadow puppets are known as sbek thom, which aptly means ‘large leather hide’. Traditionally, they have no moving parts and feature whole scenes, but nowadays puppets with gangly limbs, sbek touch, are more popular.
“The art was formed before the name,” explains Chetra. “And it’s all about the play of shadow and light in nature — if we see a tree reflecting in the sunlight, we can create the same in leather and put light through it so comes alive again.”
Chetra has been making puppets since he was 15. “When I was a kid there was no television. Instead I saw my elders perform plays and I loved it, but…” he glances down, shyly. “I never wanted to be a performer, I just wanted to create the puppets — I didn’t think I was talented enough.”
I’m not sure my talent is cutting the mustard. I keep choosing the wrong-shaped chisel to carve patterns into the cowhide, or walloping my fingers with the weighty hammer. Chetra encourages me by quietly nudging the correct tool towards me and, slowly, my technique improves. We sit in comfortable silence — the only sound the repetitive chink-chink of hammer on nail. A large puppet can take a week to create, but after 20 minutes my shoulders and back are aching. Chetra takes over and within minutes has reformed my errors into a pretty pachyderm. It is ready to take to the stage and I am left enlightened.