Arguably the most compelling cultural attraction in Nakhon, Suchart Subsin’s House is devoted to the art of nang thalung, or shadow puppetry. When Suchart passed away in 2015 at the age of 79, he left behind a museum, theatre, studio and long-time apprentices who are poised to carry both the visual and performing aspects of this traditional art into the future.
Born in Tha Sala district in 1938, Suchart learned nang thalung back when it was just beginning to compete with the Hollywood blockbusters and rock music that have since kicked many traditional Thai performing arts into obscurity. In the 1980s Suchart opened his studio as a tourist attraction, eventually expanding it to include an informative museum and small theatre. He performed for King Bhumibol in 1985, and in 1996 the House received a “best cultural tourist attraction” award. Suchart went on to receive the prestigious title of National Artist of Thailand in 2006.
The torch has now been passed to Kung Nang and a couple of other artists who studied under Suchart for several years. Kung Nang greeted us with a smile before leading us upstairs to the Nang Thalung Museum, where she explained the various shadow puppet displays in English.
The room features dozens of puppets from all regions of Thailand and other countries that have their own shadow puppetry traditions, such as Cambodia and Indonesia. Some of the puppets depict Ramayana characters crafted in Ratchaburi, another last bastion of shadow puppetry. Many others depict the dark “jokers” commonly used in Thai Muslim a-yeung gulad shadow puppet shows. You’ll also find a display of the musical instruments that accompany nang thalung performances.
Kung Nang then led us to an airy workshop set below the space where Suchart lived, to show us how the puppets are carved out of cowhide and then painted in painstaking detail. We learned that a particularly intricate puppet can take over a week to create. The studio has its own display of shadow puppets, including many that are for sale. While thumb-size joker puppets go for only 20 baht, the larger and more detailed pieces can run into the thousands of baht.
We then popped into the shadow puppet theatre for an impromptu performance by Kung Nang, which was quite unexpected considering that we were the only people there at the time. After getting an idea of how an expert performer makes the puppets come to life behind a white screen, Kung Nang explained how the most popular shows include scenes from the epic Ramayana and Southern Thai folk stories.
While Suchart Subsin’s House does not charge an admission fee, you can support the artists by purchasing a puppet or two as souvenirs. With some advance notice, Kung Nang and the gang are happy to put on full-scale nang thalung performances for larger groups.
How to get there
Suchart Subsin’s House of Shadow Puppetry is located on Si Thammasok Soi 3, just east of Si Thammasok Rd and a 10-minute walk northeast of Wat Phra Mahathat.
By David Luekens
Last updated on 1st February, 2016.