Sbek Thom is Khmer shadow theatre featuring two-metre high, non-articulated puppets made of chiselled leather. Dating from before the Angkorian period, Sbek Thom, along with the Royal Ballet and mask theatre, is considered sacred. Dedicated to the divinities, performances could only take place on specific occasions three or four times a year, such as the Khmer New Year, the King’s birthday or the veneration of famous people. After the fall of Angkor in the fifteenth century, shadow theatre evolved beyond a ritualistic activity to become an artistic form, while retaining its ceremonial dimension. Since 2008, it has been inscribed by UNESCO on the list of Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
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At the Bayon School, we believe it essential to carry on with this tradition and including it in our programme of extra-curricular activities is an integral part of this process. After developing our lessons of sport, arts & crafts and Apsara dance, the introduction of lessons of Khmer puppetry allows us to link history, creativity & teamwork.
Before all else, we would like to introduce Tob Leang, our new puppet teacher at the Bayon School. Tob Leang studied the history and creation of puppets for three years at the Bambu Stage, a social entreprise based in Siem Reap, which aims to highlight young talent through crafts and traditional Khmer culture. He joins the Bayon team today in the hope of passing on his knowledge to the pupils at our primary school.
Our project is ambitious as we want to put on our first Khmer shadow theatre presentation at the Bayon School at the end of the first semester. There are of course numerous steps to integrate beforehand:
• First learning step: hold and learn to use the tools required to make the puppets as chiselling the leather is a complex technique to master. All our pupils will learn to select the tool, which is best adapted to obtain the desired shape of the puppet.
• Once this step has been mastered, it is time to make the actual puppets. Using a small chisel and a hammer, the children learn step-by-step how to trace straight lines, before moving on to making their first samples. Taking into account the dexterity required by the pupils, the team at Bayon have decided to start the puppet-making lessons in Grade 2 (7-8 years old)
• Once the little puppets have been made, there remains one essential step, and not the easiest! Memorising g the scenario and learning how to bring the puppets to life to ensure a successful presentation.
Tob Leang spent a long time working on this scenario before arriving at Bayon; it requires a great deal of attention and concentration from the children, as you can see from the photos!
At the time of writing this article, the children have made tremendous progress and most of the puppets have already been made. For news on the presentation at the end of the semester, you will have to wait until the next newsletter at the end of March!A very big thank you to Fondation Insolite Bâtisseur – Philippe Romero, which finance this project and enable them to set up this new complementary class.