Nang Sbek Thom, or large leather figures in Khmer, is an ancient art form that emerged during the Angkor Period of 12th century Cambodia. The traditional performance for Sbek Thom is the Reamker, a buddhist adaptation of the Indian epic poem, the Ramayana. The Reamker incorporates dance, music and storytelling into an elaborate performance of light and shadow, while also showcasing the dynamic movement of the participants involved, enhanced by a fire source located behind a white screen on stage. This performance has evolved to include both male and female dalangs, or narrators, as well as the inclusion of contemporary technology during the event, such as projectors which translate the Khmer text onto the top of the screen into English for visitors from abroad.
The live performance also begins with Sampeah Kru, the blessing ceremony, protecting both the participants and audience members from evil spirits while also giving a moment of thanks for their former teachers of Sbek Thom. Clearly, Sbek Thom encompasses more than merely illuminated shadows. This multi-faceted production adheres to classic Khmer renditions of the Reamker while also accommodating contemporary audiences.
While conducting independent research in Siem Reap, Cambodia in December of 2014, I was able to visit Wat Bo, an 18th century Theravada Buddhist temple. Inside Wat Bo, the temple walls depict mural scenes of the Reamker, reflecting the style and characterization of the large leather figures created for the performance, which are still carved at this historic site by puppet masters today. Comparing the imagery of the murals at Wat Bo with the 10th century temple Banteay Srei, dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, the architectural reliefs portray some of the earliest representations of the Ramayana, indicated by the Death of Valin narrative located at the entrance of the temple. This battle scene is also carved on the walls of Angkor Wat, a 12th century Buddhist temple, situated in its western gallery. The main protagonist is altered from Rama, the Hindu incarnation of lord Vishnu, to Preah Ream for the production of the Reamker.