The ancient art of shadow puppetry, or sbaek in Khmer, has been performed in Cambodia for thousands of years. Marissa Carruthers goes behind the scenes with a troupe of artists at Wat Bo in Siem Reap. Photo by Anders Jiras.

Giant shadows dart across a screen as a battle between the white and black monkeys begins. Intricately carved puppets, standing at more than one metre tall, gracefully glide from one side to the other, brought to life by the blazing fire of coconut husks burning fiercely behind the performers.

During the next hour, a troupe of highly trained artists will take on more than 80 roles, swapping puppets with speed to depict a silhouetted scene from the age-old tale of Reamker – the Cambodian version of the Indian epic, Ramayana.

Following in the steps of their ancestors, the Wat Bo troupe of shadow puppeteers are keeping a tradition that dates back to pre-Angkorian times alive. And it is mainly thanks to one man that sbaek shows continue to be performed in Cambodia today.

After surviving the Khmer Rouge reign of 1975-79, the Venerable Pin Sem made it his mission to revive Cambodia’s once vibrant art scene. As an artist who had practised drawing, sculpture and music before the turmoil, the monk felt it was his duty to reconnect his country to its rich artistic heritage and set about the task while living in a refugee camp on the Thai border.

Recalling the shadow puppet shows that entranced him as a youngster living in Siem Reap, Pin, a member of the Board of Buddhist Chiefs in Cambodia, invited 25 monks to join him in carefully crafting a set of carvings in 1988.  Sharing what he knew with his peers, the troupe started putting on shows and in 1993 relocated to Wat Bo in Siem Reap, where Pin and the troupe are still based today.

Two years later, trained performer Vann Sopheavuth joined as group leader and since then has led the troupe in its quest to keep the traditional theatre form alive. “It is very important for Cambodian culture that shadow puppetry continues. It has been part of our heritage for thousands of years and is very special,” he says.

Sbaek is a performance that is unique to Cambodia, with bas-reliefs from the 7th-century temple complex of Sambor Prei Kuk in Kampong Thom featuring female puppeteers using figurines in a ceremony. The art form is believed to have originated in Siem Reap, where performances mainly took place in paddy fields or pagodas as part of rituals, ceremonies or birthdays for monks or other important members of the community.

The classical show is a sacred form of theatre with each performance seen to be an act of worship. This belief is so entrenched that special measures have to be taken when carefully hand-carving three of the tale’s characters from large pieces of cow hide – a meticulous process that takes up to 20 days. While cutting these characters, artists must wear white, abstain from alcohol and lead a sin-free life. The cow hide must also come from an animal that has died of natural causes rather than being killed.

“We have to show respect for the tale and the three important characters,” Vann says, citing the Reamker’s Hermit, the Master and Preah Ream as those who commands such behaviour. “This is a story with a very moral message and we must be pure when delivering it.”

Sharing the legacy of sbaek with Cambodia’s young is also a task that the troupe takes seriously. “Children need to learn about the history of shadow puppetry,” says Sa Ang Tip, who joined the troupe in 2003 after becoming enthralled while watching rehearsals during his first few days as a monk at Wat Bo.

The monk devoted the next three months to learning the art, which sees performers hold the hide carvings on two sticks as they stealthily duck and dive behind the large screen to recreate the epic tale. “It’s part of who we are and we want everyone to know about this rich Cambodian culture,” he says.

Telling the complete tale is saved for formal ceremonies, with it taking four hours a day over one week to perform. The condensed version, reserved for schools, tourists and international shows, focuses on one scene and usually lasts about an hour.

Since the troupe joined forces with the NGO Cambodian Living Arts in 2000, shadow puppetry has been shared with thousands of youngsters across the country, as well as with the world. The performers have travelled across the globe to deliver spell-binding performances to countries such as Malaysia and the United States. “It really is a privilege and an honour to be part of keeping Cambodia’s culture alive,” Sa Ang adds with a smile.

Performances can be seen at Wat Bo, Samdech Tep Vong Street, Siem Reap, from 8pm between Friday and Sunday. Tickets cost $15 and must be booked in advance through Cambodian Living Arts by visiting cambodianlivingarts.org