Shadow play which is also known as 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 or scrim. 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; currently there are more than 20 countries 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 is also considered as an ancient art in other parts of Asia such as in China, India and Nepal. It is also known in the West from Turkey, Greece to France. It is a popular form of entertainment for both children and adults in many countries around the world.
Shadow play probably developed from "par" shows with narrative scenes painted on a large cloth and the story further related through song. As the shows were mostly performed at night the par was illuminated with an oil lamp. Similar storytelling with pictures may date back to the Harappa civilization (4500 BCE - 1300 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 colorfully 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. 
Recent studies relate shadow puppet making with other pictorial traditions in India, such as temple mural painting, loose-leaf folio paintings, and the narrative paintings used by storytellers to enhance the connection with the audience. This also shows that rather than a minor and folk tradition, shadow puppetry in India actually followed the precepts of painting and performance treaties similarly to the classical arts patronised by the royal courts. 
There are great similarities between Indonesian shadow puppetry called Wayang kulit and Indian shadow play, but it is unclear whether it was imported from India or originated in Indonesia. It has been theorized to have been around since 1500 BCE, but the oldest known record probably concerning shadow theater is from the 9th century. Around 860 CE an Old Javanese charter issued by Maharaja Sri Lokapala mentions three sorts of performers: atapukan, aringgit, and abanol. Ringgit is described in an 11th century Javanese poem as a leather shadow figure.
Wayang kulit is particularly popular in Java and Bali. The term derived from the word wayang literally means shadow or imagination in Javanese, also connotes "spirit". The word kulit means skin, as the material from which the puppet is made is thin perforated leather sheets made from buffalo skin.
The performances of shadow puppet theater in Bali originally lasted as long as six hours or until dawn. The complete wayang kulit troupes include dalang (puppet master), nayaga (gamelan players), and sinden (female choral singer). Some of the nayaga also performed as male choral singer. The dalang (puppet master) played the wayang behind the cotton screen illuminated by oil lamp or modern halogen lamp, creating visual effects similar to animation. The flat puppet has moveable joints that are animated by hand, using rods connected to the puppet. The handle of the rod is made of carved buffalo horn. On November 7, 2003, UNESCO designated wayang kulit from Indonesia as one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
The shadow play is also popular in Cambodia. It is performed during sacred temple ceremonies, at private functions, and for the public in the villages. The popular themes being played including Ramayana and Mahabharata epics, also other Hindu myth and legends. The performance is accompanied with Pinpeat orchestra in Cambodia.
Cambodian shadow puppet are made of cow hide, and their size are usually quite large depicting a whole scene, the character including its background. Unlike its Javanese counterpart, Cambodian shadow puppets are usually not articulated which rendered the figure's hands unmovable, and also left uncolored which retains its original leather color. Main shadow puppet production center is Roluos near Siem Reap. The Cambodian shadow puppet is one of the cultural performances being staged for tourist next to Cambodian traditional dances.
Shadow theatre in Thailand is called Nang yai; in the south there is a tradition called Nang Talung. Nang Yai puppets are normally made of cowhide and rattan. Performances are normally accompanied by a combination of songs and chants. Performances in Thailand were temporarily suspended in 1960 due to a fire at the national theatre. Nang drama has influenced modern Thai cinema, including filmmakers like Cherd Songsri and Payut Ngaokrachang.
In Malaysia, shadow puppet plays are also known as wayang kulit. In both Javanese and Malay, Wayang means shadow or imagination, while Kulit means skin and refers to the leather that puppets are made from. Stories presented are usually mythical & morality tales. There is an educational moral to the plays which usually portray a battle between Malay shadow plays are sometimes considered one of the earliest examples of animation. The wayang kulit in northern states of Malaysia such as Kelantan is influenced and similar to Thai shadow puppets, while the wayang kulit in southern Malay peninsula, especially in Johor is brought from Javanese Indonesian wayang kulit with slightly different on the story and performance.
The puppets are made primarily of leather and manipulated with sticks or buffalo horn handles. Shadows are cast using an oil lamp or, in modern times, a halogen light, onto a cotton cloth background. They are often associated with gamelan music.
There are several myths and legends about the origins of shadow puppetry in China. The most famous one has it that Chinese shadow puppetry originated when the favorite concubine of Emperor Wu of Han (156 BCE – 87 BCE) died and magician Shao-weng promised to raise her spirit. The emperor could see a shadow that looked like her move behind the curtains that the magician had placed around some lit torches. It is often told that the magician used a shadow puppet, but the original text in Book of Han gives no reason to believe in a relation to shadow puppetry. Although there are many earlier records of all kinds of puppetry in China, clear mention of Chinese shadow play does not occur until the Northern Song dynasty (960–1127). A 1235 book mentions that the puppets were initially cut out of paper, but later made of colored leather or parchment. The stories were mostly based on history and half fact half fiction, but comedies were also performed.
Shadow theatre became quite popular as early as the Song Dynasty when holidays were marked by the presentation of many shadow plays. During the Ming Dynasty there were 40 to 50 shadow show troupes in the city of Beijing alone. In the 13th century, the shadow show became a regular recreation in the barracks of the Mongolian troops. It was spread by the conquering Mongols to distant countries like Persia, Arabia, and Turkey. Later, it was introduced to other Southeastern Asian countries. The earliest shadow theatre screens were made of mulberry paper. The storytellers generally used the art to tell events between various war kingdoms or stories of Buddhist sources. Today, puppets made of leather and moved on sticks are used to tell dramatic versions of traditional fairy tales and myths. In Gansu province, it is accompanied by Daoqing music, while in Jilin, accompanying Huanglong music forms some of the basis of modern opera.
The origins of Taiwan's shadow puppetry can be traced to the Chaochow school of shadow puppet theatre. Commonly known as leather monkey shows or leather shows, the shadow plays were popular in Tainan, Kaohsiung, and Pingtung as early as the Qing dynasty (1644-1911 A.D.). Older puppeteers estimate that there were at least a hundred shadow puppet troupes in southern Taiwan in the closing years of the Qing. Traditionally, the eight to 12-inch puppet figures, and the stage scenery and props such as furniture, natural scenery, pagodas, halls, and plants are all cut from leather. As shadow puppetry is based on light penetrating through a translucent sheet of cloth, the "shadows" are actually silhouettes seen by the audience in profile or face on. Taiwan's shadow plays are accompanied by Chaochow melodies which are often called "priest's melodies" owing to their similarity with the music used by Taoist priests at funerals. A large repertoire of some 300 scripts of the southern school of drama used in shadow puppetry and dating back to the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries has been preserved in Taiwan and is considered to be a priceless cultural asset.
A number of terms are used to describe the different forms.
- (皮影戏, pí yĭng xì) is a shadow theatre using leather puppets. The figures are usually moved behind a thin screen and is not entirely a show of shadows as it is more of a silhouette shadow. This gives the figures some color, and is not 100% black and white.
- (纸影戏, zhĭ yĭng xì) is paper shadow theatre.
- (中国影戏, zhōng guó yĭng xì) is Chinese shadow theatre.
A more bawdy comedy tradition of shadow play was widespread throughout the Ottoman Empire, possibly since the late 14th century. It was centered around the contrasting interaction between the figures Karagöz and Hacivat: an unprincipled peasant and his fussy, educated companion. Together with other characters they represented all the major ethnic and social groups in Ottoman culture. It was usually performed by a single puppet master, who voiced up to dozens of characters, and could be assisted by an apprentice handing him the puppets. The show could be introduced by a singer, accompanied by a tambourine player. Its origins are obscure, though probably deriving from an Asian source.
Karagöz theatre puppets have jointed limbs and are made from camel or buffalo hide. The hide is made transparent and colored, resulting in colorful projections. Puppets are typically 35–40 centimeters in height.
During the 19th century these characters were adapted to the Greek language and culture, Karagöz and Hacivat becoming Karagiozis and Hadjiavatis with each of the characters assuming stereotypically Greek personalities. This tradition thrived throughout Greece after independence as popular entertainment for a largely adult audience, particularly before competition arose from television. The stories did, however, retain the period setting in the late years of the Ottoman Empire. Karagiozis theatre has undergone some revival in recent years, with the intended audience tending to be largely juvenile.
Karagöz theatre was also adapted in Egypt and North Africa.
Via Italy the shadow theatre spread throughout Europe at the end of the 17th century. It is known that several Italian showmen performed in Germany, France and England during this period. In 1675 German polymath and philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz imagined a kind of world exhibition that would show all kinds of new inventions and spectacles. In a handwritten document he supposed it should included shadow theatre.
In 1775 Ambrogio (also known as Ambroise and Ambrose) staged ambitious shows in Paris and London. This and other shows were called Ombres chinoises (French for "Chinese Shadows")" and reflected the chinoiserie fashion of the days.
French missionaries had taken the shadow show from China to France in 1767 and put on performances in Paris and Marseilles, causing quite a stir. In time, the Ombres chinoises (French for "Chinese Shadows") with local modification and embellishment, became the Ombres françaises and struck root in the country.
French showman François Dominique Séraphin first presented his shadow spectacle in a hôtel particulier in Versailles in 1771. He would go on to perform at the Palace of Versailles in front of royalty. In 1784 Séraphin moved to Paris, performing his shows at his permanent theatre in the newly opened Palais-Royal from 8 September 1784. The performances would adapt to the political changes and survived the French Revolution. Séraphin developed the use of clockwork mechanisms to automate the show. His nephew took over the show after Séraphin's death in 1800 and it was continued by his heirs until the theatre closed in 1870.
The art was a popular entertainment in Paris during the 19th century, especially in the famous Paris nightclub district of Montmartre. The cabaret Le Chat noir ("The Black Cat") produced 45 Théatre d'ombres shows between 1885 and 1896 under the management of Rodolphe Salis. Behind a screen on the second floor of the establishment, the artist Henri Rivière worked with up to 20 assistants in a large, oxy-hydrogen back-lit performance area and used a double optical lantern to project backgrounds. Figures were originally cardboard cut-outs, but were replaced with zinc figures since 1887. Various artists took part in the creation, including Steinlen, Adolphe Willette and Albert Robida. Caran d'Ache designed circa 50 cut-outs for the very popular 1888 show L'Epopée. Musée d'Orsay has circa 40 original zinc figures in its collection. Other cabarets would produce their own versions and the Ombres evolved into numerous theatrical productions and had a major influence on phantasmagoria.
In Italy, the Museum of Precinema collezione Minici Zotti in Padua houses a collection of 70 French shadow puppets, similar to those used in the cabaret Le Chat Noir, together with an original theatre and painted backdrops, as well as two magic lanterns for projecting scenes. So far, the shadow plays identified are La Marche a l'étoile (introduced by Henri Rivière), Le Sphinx (introduced by Amédée Vignola), L'Âge d'or and Le Carneval de Venise, and it is supposed that the shadow puppets were created for a tour in France or abroad at the end of the 19th century.
Nowadays, several theatre companies in France are developing the practice of shadow puppets: Le Théâtre des Ombres, Le Théâtre du Petit Miroir, Le Théâtre Les Chaises, and La Loupiote.
Richard Bradshaw is a famous Australian shadow puppeteer. His character Super Kangaroo is just one in his varied repertoire. The skill of Bradshaw has been featured in television programs made by Jim Henson.
The Shadow Theatre of Anaphoria (relocated to Australia from California) combines a mixture of reconstructed and original puppets with multiple sources of lights. The company is under the direction of Kraig Grady.
Shadow puppetry today
In the 1910s the German animator Lotte Reiniger pioneered silhouette animation as a format, whereby shadow-play-like puppets are filmed frame-by-frame. This technique has been kept alive by subsequent animators and is still practised today, though cel animation and computer animation has also been used to imitate the look of shadow play and silhouette animation. Traditional Chinese shadow puppetry was brought to audiences in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s through the efforts of Pauline Benton. Contemporary artists such as Annie Katsura Rollins have perpetuated the medium, sometimes combining the form with Western theatre.
- The children's television show Bear in the Big Blue House
- The 1983 film The Year of Living Dangerously, opens with a scene from an Indonesian Wayang shadow play
- The 2004 video game Sudeki opens with a shadow puppet play setting the stage for the game.
- The Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, Georgia has an extensive variety of Chinese shadow puppets in their Asian collection.
- The 2010 film The Karate Kid
- The Disney Channel Show "What a Life" features shadow puppetry from Sunny Seki.
Wayang kulit as seen by the audience
Short video showing shadow play in Kota Bahru, Malaysia, including behind the scenes
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