DAY 15

Sovanna Phum: the Shadow Puppet Theater

By Marianna Edmunds | Mar 23, 2011

Back in Phnom Penh on the search again for young Cambodian artists leading the way in creating a new cultural identity for Cambodia by reviving the old and fusing it with the new. First thing in the morning, Lauren and I took off in a tuk-tuk (a motor bike, called a ‘moto’ with an open cab of two wooden bench-like seats facing each other, and which can hold up to four passengers. It is covered by a colorful umbrella – this is by far the best way to get around the city.) to visit the theatre of Shadow Puppetry, Sovanna Phum.

We pulled up to a corrugated metal fence, disembarked and were ushered inside by one of the puppeteers. There we saw a humble stage with two huge drums and a small cabin off to the right which housed puppet souvenirs, musical instruments and puppet paraphernalia for sale, all designed and handmade by the puppet artists of this theater.

Within a few minutes a small stocky man in his late 40s, wearing workout clothes and a huge smile filled with energy and pleasure, bounded into the compound on an old Peugeot bicycle. It was Mann Kosal, founder and director of Sovanna Phum, returning from his daily morning 10-mile bike ride around Phnom Penh. Sovanna Phum, which means "Golden Era," is an independent art association created in 1994 to allow artists to perform their art and earn a living by doing so. Its aim: to “revive, preserve, and promote the treasures of Khmer culture for local and international audiences."

Many students of Sovanna Phum are graduates of the Royal University of Fine Arts of Phnom Penh. However, there is no dedicated program at the Royal University in Shadow Puppetry; instead, it is best known for its program in classical Khmer dance, known as Bassac theater.

Kosal is from Takeo Province, outside Phnom Penh and was a student of traditional Bassac theater from 1991 to 1997. Shadow puppetry is based on original folk tales which takes it beyond traditional dance. There are five basic characters, a male, female, half giant, monkey, and a dragon-like creature.

Kosal writes all the stories for the Sovanna Phum theatre, drawing from his own rich life experience. Born in 1961, he was a teenager when the Khmer Rouge overtook Cambodia. He survived by working on the building of dams, caring for the elephants, and keeping a low profile. He says he lost all his friends, adding “I don’t believe I’m still alive." During the Khmer Rouge’s cultural extermination, Kosal says the art of shadow puppetry did not die, ”it just went to sleep.”

Kosal’s tells his students to get inside these characters and "follow their feelings." When we asked him who his teacher was, he took us inside the art cabin and pointed to an old dug-up metal puppet found at Siem Reap, near the temples of Angkor Wat. In other words, no one taught him; he taught himself by studying the technique and design of this antique relic, copying it, making puppets himself, and then teaching the technique to his students. Today he is proud that Sovanna Phum is independent of any formal aid, and survives (barely) on performances. His students not only act, dance, sing, and work the puppets, they create them, build the instruments, and compose and play all of the accompanying music.

We were charmed and impressed by Kosal, his dynamism, his commitment to a fragile art, and his entrepreneurial spirit. He will turn 50 this year and continues to be steadfast in his focus and dedication to preserving, promoting, and passing on the ancient tradition of shadow puppetry into the hands of the next generation. Yet another place we were reluctant to leave. Three nights later we returned to watch the weekly performance.


Comments (0)
If you wish to comment, please login.