This exhibition explores the British Museum’s unique Southeast Asian shadow puppet collection. Shadow theatre performances have a long history and involves manipulating of puppets between a light source and a white cloth screen by a puppeteer to tell stories.
Traditionally many of stories performed in shadow theatre include the Ramayana and Mahabharata epics that originated in India but were reinterpreted in Southeast Asia. There is a specific Southeast Asian narrative cycle based on the adventures of the legendary Prince Panji.
One of the highlights of the exhibition is a number of Javanese puppets of the Raffles collection from circa 1800 (the earliest systematic collection of puppets in the world). Some of the Shadow theatre performances can be quite complex and some Puppeteers can have 200 or more puppets in their collections. Shows are usually commissioned and performed at life events, such as weddings or funerals, in celebration of the harvest, and in fulfilment of vows, but they have also been commercialised as entertainment in some areas.
Many of the puppets represent a particular generic character, but some will represent actual characters. A few of the puppets represent characters considered sacred, such as the clowns and the holy man figure used in the rituals associated with the start of a performance in Thailand and Malaysia.
Other puppets in the exhibition include puppets from Kelantan, Malaysia made by the puppeteers Pak Hamzah and Pak Awang Lah in the mid-twentieth century, Balinese puppets gifted to Queen Elizabeth II, and a set of modern Thai shadow puppets from the 1960s and 70s that display contemporary fashions and aspects of global pop culture.
Looking at the more modern puppets provides some evidence of how this particular art form has managed to survive in the modern world of television and the internet. Puppeteers have developed new stories that chart the ups and downs of modern life. New puppets, including bandits, military figures, bureaucrats, airplanes, and mobile phones, are now featured in shadow theatre
This mixture of traditional and modern is creating a whole new audience for Puppeteers who often become local celebrities, and they sometimes broadcast their show on the internet. The British Museum purchased, wayang hip hop puppets representing the sons of the main Javanese clown figures earlier this year and is on display in this exhibition for the first time.
This is the type of exhibition that illustrates how the British Museum uses elements of its collection to tell the story of often obscure but fascinating subjects. Whilst the focus is on Southeast Asia Shadow theatre, a walk around the exhibition and watching some of the performances suggests that the art form has a more universal appeal.
This free exhibition runs from the 8th September 2016 to 29th January 2017.
Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended
If you would like more information visit the British Museum website here
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