Translated From:

Discoveries about the Performance of Nang Talung

(Southern Thai Shadow Puppet Theater)

by Thawon Anusiri, Prince of Songkla University-Pattani


Nang Talung, or shadow puppet theater, is an indigenous form of entertainment from southern Thailand that spread to other regions and used to be quite popular. However, nowadays it is not very popular because people who watch it can hardly understand it. It is probably only the southern Thais who still enjoy watching Nang Talung because it is their own regional art form. Nang Talung has much influence on the lives of the rural people. If there is an important ceremony or festival, there is usually a Nang Talung performance. If there is no money to stage a real Nang Talung performance, then a cassette recording will be played and listened to.

Nang Talung is an art which, if it is viewed at the most casually, one might get the feeling that it is a form of entertainment that gives very ordinary pleasure. However, if it is examined critically (especially by someone who understands it), it will be seen as very compelling. This is because a lone performer (i.e., the puppeteer) speaks the part of each puppet, and each puppet has a role completely different from the others. Each puppet has unique personality traits that the puppeteer himself must have the special ability to give to each individual character that is appropriate to its role. Therefore, to give meaning to a performance is not easy for someone who does not possess the unusual talents required in this particular case.

In watching Nang Talung, aside from having fun, the viewer receives different points of view that are usually inserted in the puppeteer's narrating. In addition, the artistic presentation and the teaching of moral values serve as social criticism. These satirical insertions are perfectly fitted into the story. Such satirical notions appear in some of the humorous scenes or in scenes of argumentation, or these notions are simply conveyed directly.

The art of performing Nang Talung is changing a lot from the original tradition because of the influence of social changes. Thus, the new Nang Talung is very different from the Nang Talung of the bygone days.

These discoveries about the Nang Talung are part of Ajan Wannao Yuden's upper level course at Prince of Songkla University. I also have first-hand accounts from personal experience. I, myself, used to be a member of a Nang Talung troop when I was a child, and I have also researched some texts about the history of Nang Talung. These first-hand accounts are probably not very detailed, but I hope that after the reader has read this paper, they will know more about what Nang Talung is like.

Thank you

The Author

The Story of Nang Talung

According to the accounts of some people, in the old days the Thai entertainment that was popular was Nang. This was later called "Nang Yai" (literally, "big puppet") because there was "Nang Lek" (literally, "small puppet") which was later called "Nang Talung." It is still not certain whether Nang Yai or Nang Talung appeared first.

Some people say that Nang Talung originated in the Fifth Reign (King Rama V, reign 1868-early 1900's) and arose in the village of Ban Don Maprao in Patalung province. So the Southerners called it "Nang Don" after the precinct in which it originated. It is presumed that it is now called Nang Talung because when it was performed in Bangkok, the people of Bangkok saw that it was from Patalung province and proceeded to call it "Nang Patalung." Later, the name was shortened to "Nang Thalung," and finally it was shortened again to "Nang Talung." Even today, the people of Bangkok still call it this, but the Southerners abbreviate it as "Nang Lung" or, simply, "Nang," like the people of the old days, because in the past there were no movies. As soon as movies arrived, the Southerners called them "Nang Yipun" ("Japanese Nang"). Such that if one were to say they were going to watch a Nang Talung, they would say, "Pay lae nang kan" (literally, "Let's go watch the Nang together"). With just this much, they would be understood.

They say that Nang Don took the Javanese form and transformed it so that it became Nang Talung, and it spread to other places. It is still not certain if the Thai took the method of performance from the Javanese of if the Javanese took it from the Thai, because the characteristics of the Javanese shadow puppet theater are similar to the Thai in every respect. The puppets of the Javanese tend to be a little cartoon-like and are not as artistic as the Thai puppets. The musical instruments of the Javanese shadow puppet theater tend to be Indian. On the other hand, the Nang Talung stage of the Javanese is raised to the same height as the Thai. For the screen, a piece of white fabric is used of the same dimensions as that of the Thai screen.

Aside from this, the popular Javanese style of performing the Nang Talung is similar to that of the Thai. Some people presume that Nang Talung originated in Patalung province, and they say that it is likely that it originated at Khao Ya Hong or Phaya Hong, Charat prefecture in Patalung. There are some who mispronouce it as "Yaho," which causes people to mistake it for "Yaho" in Malaysia. Therefore, there are people who believe that Nang Talung comes from Malaysia or Java.

Aside from this, there are still several presumptions about the Nang Talung which, in conclusion, cannot be summarized with any certainty.

Components of the Performance of Nang Talung

In the performance of Nang Talung there are usually several component parts.

The Nang Talung Troop

A single troop is called a rong (literally, "one structure"). It is composed of the puppeteer and members of his troop. The number of people varies from troop to troop. The most important and indispensable are the one or two people who pass the puppets to the puppeteer. There is also one person who plays the tap (small drum), one person who plays the glong (drums), one person who plays the pi (oboe), one person who plays the mong (gong), and one person who plays the ching (cymbals), and one person who plays the krap (wood blocks). Some troops also have a mo sayasat (a person adept at casting spells).

In addition to playing music, the members of the troop also have the task of transporting the musical instruments when they travel to perform. Each person is responsible for their own instrument.

The Puppets

Every Nang Talung troop has a different number of puppets. There are usually about 100-300 puppets that must be used. These include hermits, Phra Isuan (Indra), narrator, local prince, giants/ogres, humans, clowns, thieves, trees, vehicles, weapons, etc., and also assorted animals from literary works, such as the lion, the tiger, Garuda, and the swan.

Nang Talung puppets are between 1-2 feet tall and are usually made from cow hide or buffalo hide. Patterns are cut into the leather and are painted very beautiful colors.

Music of Nang Talung

The musical instruments of Nang Talung that are important and can not be omitted are as follows.

1. One glong (drum) which is covered with leather at both ends and is about 8-10 inches wide, 10-12 inches long, with the end being smaller than the middle.

2. Two tap (small drum) which are covered with very fine leather, such as langur (kind of monkey) skin. The two tap are a little different in size in order to produce different pitches.

3. One pair of mong (gong), one with a high pitch and one with a lower pitch. Each mong is hung inside a wooden frame. The two mong are made from bronze or brass.

4. One pair of ching (cymbals).

5. One pi (oboe). Some troops also have a so-u (low pitched two stringed fiddle), so-duong (middle pitched two stringed fiddle), or klui (Thai bamboo recorder).

Nowadays, a Nang Talung troop is composed of many members and more music than in the past because each troop is trying to modernize the Nang Talung and make their group unique among the troops. So they integrate Western instruments such as: a drum set, melodica, or guitar.

The fact is that integrating Western instruments into the performance unfortunately causes the original identity of Nang Talung to be swallowed up.

In addition there are some other components.

Characteristics of the Stage

In this picture of the stage of Nang Talung, one can see that the entire front of the stage is composed of a screen. This is a typical element of Nang Talung nowadays. On both sides of the screen are black speakers which are used to project the sound. It can be seen that modern Nang Talung is Westernized.

The Nang Talung stage is built so that the floor is at the height of an adult's head. It is no less than ten sok (the distance from the fingertips to the elbow, about half a yard) in width and has the same length. The roof is constructed like a lean-to. The construction of the stage is the duty of the sponsor of the event, who has to build it so that it is secure and has auspicious characteristics. For instance, it is prohibited to build the stage so that it is facing the West; so that it is connected to tree stumps, trees, or the dikes of rice paddies; in a place where water collects; within the boundaries of a cemetery; or between two large trees.

The Screen of the Nang Talung

The Nang Talung screen is made from thin, white cloth that is eight to nine feet long. It is higher than the head of a person. On all four sides of the screen there is a red cloth border attached that is about four inches wide.

The Lantern of the Nang Talung

In the olden days, there was no electricity. They used an oil lamp, for example oil from the fat of a cow, buffalo, or coconut. Later they used a box lantern or storm lantern. Nowadays, they use electricity because they can also use it for sound amplifiers. If a Nang Talung nowadays doesn't have electricity or generators, no one will perform with them. Some troops need to have generators.

Traditional Order in Performing Nang Talung

When the Nang Talung troop is on the stage and ready to perform, there is usually a common manner of performing, as in the following stages.

1. Perform the opening ceremony

2. Perform the overture song

3. Introduce the black monkey, white monkey, or the monkey with the black head (nowadays, this is not very popular)

4. Introduce the hermit puppet

5. Introduce the Phra Isuan puppet (Indra)

6. Introduce the narrator puppet

7. Introduce the announcer puppet

8. Introduce the ruling prince puppet

9. Proceed with the story according to the text until dawn

1. Performing the Opening Ceremony

When the members of the Nang Talung troop reach the stage, they will take each piece of equipment up on to the stage in the front. As far as the performers themselves are concerned, they enter the stage from behind. When everyone is on the stage and ready, it is the puppeteer who is the person who decides when to begin by beating the drum: "ao rit aw chai lae kan janrai" (literally: "want an auspicious time, victory, and protection against inauspicious events"). After that, the rest of the troop plays introductory music that is called "tang kreuang" (literally: "to set up things to use"). Then they perform a ceremony for taking out the puppets and sticking them in the banana tree trunk. (This tree section is a long section of the smooth and fibrous banana tree that is laid down lengthwise in front of the puppeteer in which the puppets are stuck when not in motion.) Any puppets that are sacred, such as the hermit, the angels, or Phra Isuan (Indra), will be positioned higher than other puppets. Then the ceremony for opening the performance is performed in which the sponsor of the festival must prepare some items. There are some differences in the items that are prepared that depend on the troop, occasion, or the type of festival. These items could include betel, the leaves used for betel chewing, money, candles, mats, pillows, and lustral water. The amount of each depends on the nature of the festival.  For some troops, they add flowers, rice, and string. Nowadays, this ceremony for opening the performance usually is not very popular at all. Some people do not use this ceremony because in some occasions and festivals, they have to perform for several nights in a row. They might perform the ceremony the first night, but not on the succeeding nights.

2. Playing of the Overture

When the opening ceremony is concluded, the musicians play the overture. There are two types: one featuring the tap and one featuring the pi. The song featuring the tap has the feeling of the tap as the foundation. The style of striking the tap varies from person to person. As for the song featuring the pi, the pi is the foundation. For the most part, the songs featuring the pi are classical Thai songs, such as "Patcha," "Lao Krasae," and "Khmen Sai Yok," etc.

The truth is that in past, the Nang Talung did not have the pi. Later it became more popular, so they incorporated it into the performance.  The pi is included in order to make the music more melodious. Nowadays, every troop has both the pi and the so.

3. Introducing the Black-Headed Monkey

In the past, it was popular to introduce the black-headed monkey.   Before introducing the hermit, the black-headed monkey had to be introduced.   Nowadays, it is not popular.  It is done exclusively for the  kae bon ceremony. (It is a ceremony held to thank the spirits/gods for the granting of a request or prayer.) It is said that the style of  introducing the black-headed monkey came from the Nang Yai.

4. Introducing the Hermit

The introducing of the hermit is indispensable for all Nang Talung troops and performances. The features of introducing the hermit are summarized as follows.

3.gif (109854 bytes) The first hermit to be introduced is all black.  It is not used in performing the story. It is the most sacred hermit.

The playing of the music is continuous.

1. The cane taps, "wap wap, wam wam", three times.  Then the hermit reappears on the screen.

2. He floats across the screen from the right to the left one time and then again in reverse.

3. He takes three steps toward the center of the screen. For about two or three minutes he alternately walks forward and backwards. He walks back and forth, alternating between an ordinary pace, a slow pace, and a quick pace.

4. He floats from the right to the left, from the left to the right, alternating three times; then the puppeteer sticks the puppet into the banana trunk in the center of the screen. The music plays for another minute and then stops.

5. A Pali verse invocation ("Namo..., etc.") is then recited three times in repetition.

6. The recitation is as follows: "Sak-ke ca-ru-pe si-ri-si-ka-ra-ta-te ca-not li-ka-ke wi-ma-ne-ti-pe ke-dot rom-ma dai-na-tu te-wa ch-la-ka-la-wi-sa-me," and so on.

: Some troops will stop with just this much, while others will go on at much greater length. The author cannot remember the text of the extended version.

5. Introducing Phra Isuan (Indra)

After the hermit is introduced, Phra Isuan enters with the bull, Usupharat. Both are connected in the Nang Talung performance.The introduction of Phra Isuan is considered to be the high point in introducing the puppets. The puppeteer show off his skills to the utmost in introducing Phra Isuan. Each puppeteer has a unique style for doing this.

In the introduction of Phra Isuan there is music that is played continuously to provide a rhythm. In general, any song can be used, depending on the ability of the pi player who must improvise within the constraints of the rhythm of the song. When the introduction is finished, Phra Isuan will descend from the heavens and will be stuck in the banana trunk in the middle of the screen. The music will stop and a magical invocation will be recited, paying respect to divinities in various levels of heaven, similar to the hermit mantras.

An example of a Phra Isuan mantra is as follows.

"Om, Na-kha. Kha ja wai phra-bat jao thang sam ong, Phra Isuan phu-song, phra-ya kho Usupharat ri-thi-ron."

(Literally: "Om, Naga. I, your servant, pay respect at the feet of the three gods; (and now to) Phra Isuan, possessor of the Bull King, Usupharat the Powerful.")

The first mantra is finished. The puppeteer manipulates the Phra Isuan puppet and then continues on with the second mantra.

"Beuang khwa kha ja wai phra-narai phra-sikorn, song khrut-ra-hoen-jorn, phra-chin-rin reuang narong."

(Literally: "On the right I, your servant, pay respect to Lord Vishnu, the god of four hands, possessor of the Garuda, victorious in battle.")

The puppeteer manipulates the puppet again and then progresses to the third and fourth mantras while continuing to interweave the manipulation of the puppet.

Nowadays, the introduction of Phra Isuan, for the most part, is still popular. However, some troops do not introduce him at all. These troops introduce the hermit first and then introduce the narrator.

6. Introducing the Narrator

The introduction of the narrator is abbreviated in Southern Thai as "ok Phrai Na Bot." The narrator puppet is a male figure holding a lotus blossom. He is like a representative of the puppeteer who comes out to pay respect to the audience and to make an offering.

The puppeteer picks up the puppet (and holds it in his lap) and recites another mantra to lift his spirits so that he will be quick and alert in his performance. The puppeteer then sticks the puppet into the banana trunk, but he still has not introduced the character. The puppeteer then begins to tell the story on the screen in a three to five word poetic form in the style of paying respect to the Buddha. When he finishes this paying respects, the troop begins to play music one more time. Then the puppeteer begins to introduce the narrator puppet. The puppeteer walks the puppet into the middle of the screen, lifts the puppet's hands to pay respects three times, walks the puppet off the left side of the screen and then enters him from the right. The puppeteer lifts the puppet's hands in a wai another three times and then he ducks off the left side again. After that, he enters from the right again. Then the puppeteer sticks the puppet into the banana trunk in the center of the screen. The puppeteer places the puppet's hands in a wai at his forehead and bends him over a little like he is squatting down paying respects. Then the music stops.

The puppeteer begins to speak in a low voice, using the low mong (gong) and the ching and tap to provide a rhythm. He recites verses of respect continually. Beginning with paying respect to the three gems (i.e., the Buddha, the Darma, and the Sangha), he pays respect to various other entities. He pays respect to other puppeteers he respects, he pays respect to the king, his parents, his teachers, and to his ordination minister and accompanying monks (ordination assistants). He also pays respect to  poets, such as the exalted Sunthornphu (who absolutely cannot be left out). He pays respect to the teachers of the Nang Talung going all the way back to olden times. He also pays respect to the sponsors and to all the many who have provided conveniences and comfort.

After the puppeteer has finished paying respect to each of these entities, he will begin a new section of the performance. The rhythm stops in order for the music to play interchangeably in order to provide a break. Then the musicians play walking music. The puppets are used to pay respect three times and then are placed into the banana trunk.

7. Introducing the Puppet who announces the story

After the puppeteer brings out the narrator, he introduces the puppet who announces the story.

For the most part, any Nang Talung troop that is famous or performs well will be praised and admired by the audiences. It can be seen from this picture that the audience comes to attend the performance in large numbers even thought they will have to be exposed to the dew of the night and endure the cold of the late night, they nevertheless endure it until dawn. If a particular troop performs so that it appeals to the audience, they will use clown puppets to announce to the audience which stories will be performed that night.

If it is a performance that continues into a second or third night, then they will give a summary of what has already been performed and what will be performed later. This summarizing of the story employs the local dialect and is told in the clowns' humorous manner.

Continued translation in progress