What lurks in the Shadows…
One of the most ancient forms of puppetry recorded is that of the shadow puppets. It is also one of the more simpler forms of puppetry.
Hand shadow puppets, in short, is the manipulation of your hands in a way that creates a cast shadow on a wall or screen which resembles something else such as an animal or or something.
It’s fun and creative to try and figure out what positions transform the shadow and then taking it one step further by giving that new image life.
It’s Origins (Or at least what we can best figure out)
There is no absolute definitive proof as to the exact origins of shadow puppetry, however, one of the most probable historical basis of origin stories gives rise to the notion that it was developed by the caveman.
They believe that they made use of the resources they had and, not having paper and pencil, or even a developed verbal language at that time, expressed themselves by creating these images on cave walls from the light of the fire.
Chinese Shadow Puppets
China is one of the many countries claiming creative ownership of the first shadow puppets.
There is an ancient legend of how a Chinese emperor in 120 B.C. had a wife who died; he missed her so much, he was compelled to call on a local magician who possibly had the power to bring his wife back to life. Obviously, the magician couldn’t raise the dead, so, instead, he put on a puppet show where he used a silk screen and shadows to make the emperor believe that his wife had risen.
For a while, the trick worked until the emperor found out that he had been deceived and had the magician's head cut off.
India’s Origin Story
The Chinese story is unsubstantiated and based in legend but India, however, has a more solid story about the creation of a hand and shadow show.
The evidence of this story can be found in the Ramayana, an ancient Indian epic poem of 24,000 lines written in the 4th century B.C., which archaeologists discovered in the Sitabenga Cave in India.
In this epic, a tale is written about the life of Rama, son to the king of Dasciadha, presented in hand and shadow form. The evidence is sketchy at best and a bit controversial, but it, nonetheless, still makes it the oldest documented shadow puppet show known to date, real or not.
Who holds the real claim to its origins is suspect, but no one can argue the fact that hand and shadow puppetry is an ancient form of art that has been around for more than 2,000 years now.
I can spend hours on this post showing diagrams and techniques, but I think it would be easier to send you to the source. I occasionally use shadow puppets as a novelty performance technique to break up a standard, but I am no expert, so here are some links to go to.
These are some of the resources I used (and still use) to do shadow puppets.
For just about everything Shadow Puppets you can go to:
The history, techniques, etc. are all discussed and explained here.
If you are looking for some top positions to create some cool effects with:
This gives a quick visual of different basic and complex characters that you can create.
And if you are a professional puppeteer or team leader, you always want to be able to brush up on techniques and such, so it is always good to have this book in your library so that you have this info on the spot even if the internet is down.
Give shadow puppetry a try if you haven’t. You will be surprised how enjoyable it can be and how easy it is to put on a puppet performance without any puppets.
If you would like me to cover in more detail about how to make scrims for shadow puppets or the correct lighting and such, let me know but pretty much everything you need to know is in the book "Shadow Puppets & Shadow Play" if you get your hands on it.