The Enduring Power of Southeast Asia’s Traditional Shadow Puppets

For centuries, shadow puppet theater not only captivated audiences across Southeast Asia but also held ritual significance for various local communities. Held outdoors at night, the performances unfolded around the simple setup of a stretched white cloth, lit by an oil lamp, on which the shadows of puppets would dance to orchestral music. Spectators would watch from both sides of the cloth; so rather than existing as simple black cutouts, many of these puppets boasted colorful, detailed designs, often crafted by the puppeteers themselves. The British Museum owns over 700 of these objects from Southeast Asia alone, and 85 from Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand are now on view in an ongoing exhibition. Used to dramatize folktales, local traditions, and epic tales, these ogres, clowns, villagers, court figures, and other characters today represent some of the oldest relics of a community activity that has experienced great change in the last few decades.

About the author(s)

Kathy Rowland is the Managing Editor of, a registered charity that she co-founded with Jenny Daneels in 2016. The site is dedicated to supporting and promoting arts criticism with a regional perspective in Southeast Asia. Kathy has worked in the arts for over 25 years, working in the areas of critical writing and arts advocacy, with a special interest in media platforms for the arts. She is the Project Lead for ArtsEquator’s Southeast Asian Arts and Culture Censorship Documentation Project, launched in 2021. She has written extensively on censorship of arts and culture in Malaysia. She was a member of the International Programme Advisory Committee of the 8th World Summit on Arts and Culture, 2019.

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