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Alexandra Green. Form and Function in Southeast Asian Shadow Puppets

Puppet traditions are important in Southeast Asia: there are water puppets in Vietnam, marionettes in Myanmar, and rod puppets in Indonesia, and shadow puppet theatre occurs in both continental and island areas of the region. Shadow puppet theatre has numerous variations: Cambodia’s nang sbek includes sbek toch, sbek por and sbek thom; Thailand has nang talung, nang yai and nang pramo thai; of Malaysia’s four main types, the most common is wayang siam; and Java and Bali display regional forms of wayang kulit. The British Museum has more than 700 Indonesian, Malaysian and Thai shadow puppets, ranging in date from the late 1700s to 2016. The early examples, all from Indonesia, were collected by Sir Stamford Raffles (1781–1826), who was Lieutenant-Governor of Java between 1811 and 1816. Other than the purchase of a single Thai nang yai puppet in 1929, the next group of material to arrive at the museum occurred in the mid-20th century, when curatorial staff purchased several hundred Thai nang talung, Balinese wayang kulit and Malaysian wayang siam puppets while on fieldwork and collecting trips. In conjunction with a shadow puppet theatre exhibition this year, the museum has also acquired some 21st century puppets.  

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