Shadow play, or shadow puppetry, is an ancient form of storytelling and entertainment, which uses flat articulated cut-out figures, ‘shadow puppets’, which are held between a source of light and a translucent screen.
The cut-out shapes of the puppets sometimes include translucent color or other types of detailing. Various effects can be achieved by moving both the puppets and the light source. A talented puppeteer can make the figures appear to walk, dance, fight, nod and laugh.
Shadow play is popular in various cultures, among both children and adults in many countries around the world. More than 20 countries are known to have shadow show troupes. Shadow play is an old tradition and it has a long history in Southeast Asia, especially in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Cambodia. It has been an ancient art and a living folk tradition in China, India and Nepal. It is also known in Egypt, Turkey, Greece, Germany, France and the United States.
Shadow play developed from shows with narrative scenes painted on a large cloth, with the story further related through song. As the shows were mostly performed at night the screen was illuminated with an oil lamp. Shadow puppet theatre likely originated in Central Asia-China or in India in the 1st millennium BCE. By at least around 200 BCE the figures on cloth seem to have been replaced with puppetry in Indian ‘tholu bomalatta’ shows. These are performed behind a thin screen with flat, jointed puppets made of colourfully painted transparent leather. The puppets are held close to the screen and lit from behind, while hands and arms are manipulated with attached canes and lower legs swinging freely from the knee. Goethe helped build a shadow play theatre in Tiefurt in 1781.