The Sbek Thom is a Khmer shadow theatre emphasising two-meter high, non-articulated puppets made of leather openwork. Determining from before the Angkorian period, the Sbek Thom, simultaneously with the Royal Ballet and mask theatre, is recognised sacred.
The Sbek Thom or Khmer Shadow Theatre is derived from ancestral forms of Indian and Malay shadow theatre.
Tradition of Sbek Thom
Sbek Thom, or traditional Cambodian Large Shadow Puppet Theater is a sacred art form dating back over 2000 years. This style of theatre tells religious stories, especially the legends of the Ream Ke. ( See Reamker epic poem )
Sbek Thom is performed employing leather non-articulated puppets that can
be up to 2 meters tall. The making of the puppets is a time-honoured tradition. The exact process depends on the figure that the puppet will represent. Each character needs its specific religious ceremony.
Before the performance starts, artists gather to pray and meditate. They burn incense and chant prayers, preparing themselves for the show. They are about to tell a sacred story and must have a quiet mind that will allow them to perform their characters authentically.
Sbek Thom Performance
The performance is accompanied by an orchestra and two narrators. Inspired from the Reamker, the Khmer version of the Ramayana, the performances stage scenes of this epic, which may last several nights and require up to 160 puppets for a single presentation.
The performance itself is a fluid emotion of storytelling and movement. Dancers guide the puppets behind a white sheet to the sounds of a Cambodian orchestra.
Devoted to the divinities, performances could only take place on special occasions three or four times a year, such as the Khmer New Year, the King’s birthday or the veneration of important people. After the decline of Angkor in the fifteenth century, the shadow theatre evolved beyond a ritualistic activity to become an art form, while maintaining its ceremonial dimension.
Sbek Thom Revitalized
Many of them were crushed under the repressive Khmer Rouge regime, which almost annihilated this sacred art. Since 1979, Sbek Thom has been gradually revitalized thanks to the few surviving artists.
So far, three shadow theatres have managed to rise from their ashes, ensuring the transmission of the knowledge and skills, including those correlating to puppet making.