The Ancient Beginnings of the Art of Shadow Puppetry

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The Ancient Beginnings of the Art of Shadow Puppetry

The Ancient Beginnings of the Art of Shadow Puppetry

In his Republic, Plato mentions a cave in India with an inscription from the second century BCE. The inscription refers to a shadow play performance where puppets of humans and animals were manipulated by a puppeteer in that cave. The fire behind the puppets casts shadows of them and, according to Plato, they are seen as a form of reality by the fettered audience. This story illustrates Plato's discussion on the illusory nature of all perceptions. However, it also illustrates an early example of the use of shadows and the significance of caves as sacred sites for the performance of religious ceremonies, as well as an early example of a performance of a shadow play.

Plato's Allegory of the Cave by Jan Saenredam, 1604.

Plato's Allegory of the Cave by Jan Saenredam, 1604. (Public Domain)

The art of shadow puppetry, or shadow play, is an ancient form of storytelling which utilizes flat figures (shadow puppets) to create cut-out figures which are then held between a source of light and a translucent screen. It has a long history in China, India, Nepal, and Southeast Asia, as well as in Turkey and Greece, surviving everything from war and famine to cultural revolutions. Shadow puppetry is so embraced by many different cultures that each culture seems to have their own history and legend of the first shadow play performance— therefore claiming it, or at least different versions of it, as their own.

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