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The shadow-puppet master: Preserving the ancient arts

A southern teen has been working hard in becoming a nang talung shadow-puppet master amid concerns that the popularity of the traditional performing art may decline.

By Bangkok Post

Tuesday 1 January 2019, 12:51PM

One night in Khanom district of Nakhon Sri Thammarat province, 15-year-old Thanawit Kerddam brought out his best in performing a southern folk tale before numerous viewers. He provided the voices to more than 10 nang talung shadow puppets, sang along with fast-paced southern music, and occasionally slipped in jokes and current events. Although the audience from Bangkok did not understand the southern dialect, they felt the characters' emotions as the shadow puppets danced behind the white-cloth screen.

Amid concerns that the popularity of nang talung may decline, Thanawit, or Oat, a native of Surat Thani province, tries to prove that the young generation can keep this traditional performing art alive.

The boy performs for the Tambon Khanom Community's nang talung youth group, which was founded in 2016 with financial aid from the Power Development Fund of the Energy Regulatory Commission. The Power Development Fund provides financial assistance to communities located near power plants through proposals of project ideas to support their livelihood.

“I have been practising nang talung since my early childhood,” said Thanawit, a mathayom three student at Muang Surat Thani School. “I not only have fun but also want to preserve Thai culture.”

It all started when Thanawit received as a gift several nang talung puppets, including the mainstay characters Theng and Nui – the comedians that appear in every shadow-play story – from an elderly man when he was about three or four years old.

“Since then, I have been playing with the puppets by myself. At the age of 10, I began to learn how to master nang talung, including singing and voicing, from video clips on YouTube. My favourite character is the funny Srikaew, who is in every tale. I also like to include dhamma in my voiceover,” he said.

He would practise two to three hours a day when he has free time, before beginning to study with a mentor about five years ago.

“Whenever I master nang talung, I feel happy. When I grow up, I want to be a nang talung puppet master and also a ship technician because my hometown is Koh Samui and I like sailing,” he noted.

His parents helped foster his love of nang talung through their own deep appreciation. They have continually supported his pursuit of becoming a shadow puppet master.

Thanawit’s skills were so impressive that he eventually joined the well-known Suvit Sitthaweesin Troupe in Nakhon Sri Thammarat province.

So far, the boy has performed at several funerals and temple fairs and is paid B1,000 per show per night.

“I am delighted to have earned my own income,” the boy proudly said.

“The most difficult part of each show is to master the puppets’ movements because postures are delicate. I also need to tie in current news as well as jokes in my improvised voiceover. This time, I mentioned the rubber price problem. But I am most interested in cultural topics.”

It’s a traditional practice for puppet masters to sprinkle current news items in their performances as a form of humorous commentary.

A few of his friends also practise nang talung. He believes the shadow play can entertain and de-stress audiences. He is not upset when certain friends tease him for being old-fashioned for loving the traditional art.

Tasom Soisuwan, a nang talung instructor and scriptwriter who teaches Thanawit, said he saw the boy’s potential at a young age.

“I started writing scripts for him and encouraged him to perform nang talung in front of his classroom. His teachers and classmates liked his shows, so he had the courage to continue.”

After the boy participated in krob khru, a rite of passage for artists, with famous nang talung master Suvit Sitthaweesin, Tasom’s training became more demanding. For example, he told the boy to read and memorise scripts first and master the puppets along with the music. The boy was also taught to practise speaking nang talung according to several masters’ taped voices.

“I am confident that Thanawit is able to be a good nang talung master, but one of the problems is the lack of a backup band. So our group needs more financial support.

“In the past, we had no puppets of our own and had to borrow some from the Suvit Troupe. Fortunately, after receiving money from the Power Development Fund, we bought the set, audio equipment and over 100 puppets for our troupe. We hope for this continual support," the instructor noted.

Currently, Tambon Khanom Community's nang talung youth group is paid B3,500 per four-hour show while more famous troupes, such as Khai Nui, are usually paid B60,000. The instructor teaches Thanawit without collecting tuition fees and also provides free scripts to the teen.

Nang talung combines all forms of art, including leather carving and painting (for puppet making), literature (for writing scripts), music and performing arts, as well as rituals that have psychological effects on performers. Nang talung is a very disciplined type of performing art because one person performs multiple tasks, from singing to mastering the puppets movements and voices. In addition, a puppet master must have a sense of humour and perform tricks to attract audiences’ interest.

According to Tasom, the charm of nang talung includes rhymes, emotions and fun. Performers can also mix modern melodies and newly composed lyrics about good conscience. Although the art form itself is old, its execution is timeless.

“I believe nang talung will last for a very long time in the South of Thailand. Even my grandson who is a kindergarten pupil loves it and hangs around with Phi [big brother] Oat [Thanawit] while practising for many hours,” Tasom said.

Meanwhile, Thanawit said that nang talung is precious and needs to be conserved by new generations. It is still popular in the South and a number of viewers are young people. He would feel sorry if nang talung no longer attracted crowds.

To him, all kinds of local performing arts, such as nang talung, manora (traditional dance) and pleng bok (folk singing) should be preserved.

“I will do my best to fulfil my dream to become a famous nang talung master. I also want to perform abroad and teach younger people,” the boy remarked.

– Pichaya Svasti

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