A type of performing art in Thailand, traditional puppet theatre is divided into 4 sub-types: Hun Luang, Hun Wang Na, Hun Krabok, and Hun Lakhon Lek.
Hun Krabok (bamboo puppet theatre) originated in the reign of King Rama V by adapting the Chinese puppet theatre from Hainan. San Somdet, penned by HRH Prince Damrong Rajanubhab and HRH Prince Naritsara Nuwattiwong, indicates that bamboo puppet theatre originated in the northern provinces of Sukhothai, Uttaradit, and Nakhon Sawan. The book says that Mr Neng of Sukhothai province saw the Hainan bamboo puppet theatre and was inspired to create a Thai bamboo puppet theatre, which became popular in the northern region. When Prince Damrong visited Sukhothai province in his capacity as an inspector general, Phraya Sukhothai (the provincial governor) arranged for Mr Neng to perform the puppet theatre for the prince. After the prince returned to Bangkok, Mom Ratchawong (royal title) Tho Phayakkhasena, who had seen the puppet show, asked him for a loan so as to set up and stage the first bamboo puppet theatre in Bangkok. The show became popular. At first it was called Hun Lian Yang Mueang Nuea (puppet theatre that imitates the puppet theatre from the North) or Hun Khun Tho (Mr Tho’s puppet theatre). Later it was called Hun Krabok (bamboo puppet) since the puppets use bamboo as the trunk of their body.
Bamboo puppets are half-bodied puppets with the following main parts:
- Head - The head is made to represent the different roles - the hero, the heroine, the demon, the monkey, the clown, and the animals.
- Hands - The right hand of the hero, the demon and the clown is clenched in a fist - for holding a weapon, while their left hand is modeled in a Tang Wong Ram hand gesture. The heroine has both hands in the Tang Wong Ram gesture. Each of both hands is attached to a stick, called Mai Takiap, for manipulating the hand gesture.
- Body or Trunk - The trunk of the puppet is made from bamboo or other materials.
- Shoulders - The shoulders are made from wood or other materials.
- Costume - The costume is a sack covering from the shoulders to half-body length and is intricately embroidered. The hero has epaulets and an embroidered collar; the heroine has an embroidered cloak and collar; and the clown and other characters are usually covered in any colourful cloth.
Bamboo puppet presentation imitates the Lakhon Ram (dance drama) by adapting the human dance movements to suit the puppets. The basic dance movements for the puppet show are: Klom Na, Krathop Changwa, Thaeng Mue, Ti Bot and Ram Phleng. The puppeteers must practice these movements until they are highly skilled. They must also deliver the dialogue. The clowns help progress the story and make it lively and fun to watch.
The music accompaniment is usually provided by the Pi Phat Khrueang Ha. The lead instrument is So U, which is played as an accompaniment to the singing. This style is called Phleng Hun Khlao So or Phleng Hun Krabok and was adapted from the Phleng Kho Than of Ta Sangkhara. The stories most preferred for staging a bamboo puppet theatre are those from the Lakhon Nok such as Phra Aphai Mani, which is the most popular of all, Laksanawong, Sang Thong, Krai Thong, Kaeo Na Ma, and Suwannahong. The custom for presentation requires that, before the show begins, the Master of Ceremony puppet must come out to perform the Wai Khru (paying homage to the teacher) dance to the Phleng Cha Pi, Pin Taling Nok and Phleng Na Phat Rua Sam La tunes.
The bamboo puppet theatre requires a stage and set with a screen to hide from the spectator’s view the puppeteers, who manipulate the puppets and deliver the dialogue, the musicians and the singers. The backdrop might depict any scene that the troupe prefers, with two doors on both sides for the puppets’ entrance and exit. The lower part of the stage has a screen to hide the puppeteers’ hands.
After the first bamboo puppet theatre was introduced to the Bangkok audience in King Rama V’s reign, several puppet troupes mushroomed and became popular, namely Prince Suthat’s troupe, Prince Anuson’s troupe, Chang Wang To’s troupe, Chang Wang Thua’s troupe, Nai Wing’s troupe, and Nai Piak’s troupe. Nai Piak’s troup, in particular, was passed on to his descendant, National Artist Chuen Sakun-kaeo, who transmits the puppet presentation and manipulation technique to those who are interested in the puppeteer’s art today.
There are numerous other puppet troupes in Bangkok and upcountry, such as the Rot Siri-ninsin’s troupe, Khru Wong’s troupe, Yai Sarai’s troupe, Ta Dat’s troupe, and Mae Chaweng’s troupe, the Fine Arts Department’s troupe, Khun Rat’s troupe, Khru Kai’s troupe, Ban Tuktun’s troupe, Ban Dontri’s troupe, and the puppet troupe of Mr Chakkraphan Posayakrit, National Artist in the Fine Arts category in 2000.
A kind of entertainment that used to enjoy wide popularity, puppet theatre is rarely seen today. With the flood of new kinds of entertainment today, the puppet theatre can only attract some limited groups of true enthusiasts.