269th meeting – Tuesday, December 13th 2005

The Elusive Isan Nang Talung

A talk and presentation by Dr. Bonnie Brereton


Present: Mike Long, Hugh Long, Celeste Tolibas-Holland, Bodil Blokker, Constance Brereton, Victoria Vorreiter, Aileen Roantree, Barbara Tyrell, Jacques Roman, Renee Vines, Simone Buys, Mark Bleadon, John Hobday, Jeanette Pembroke, Paul Barber-Riley, David Steane, Raichanok, Noriko Yabata, John Cadet, Thomas Baude, Peter Gore-Symes, Marie Burrows, Anna Lisiecka, Thomas Ohlson, Olivier Hargreave, Sangdao Bänziger, Hans Bänziger, Klaus Berkmüller, Laurie Kanouse, Matt Siran, Judy Harcourt, Dale Harcourt, Lorenz Ferrari, Bill and Carol Stratton, Rich Mann, Roy Hudson, Maria A. Salas, Timmi Tillmann, Franklin DuMoulin, Mark and Dianne Barber-Riley, Bennett Lerner, Gary Suwannarat, Louis Gabaude, Luciene Coombes. An audience of 46. 


Professional Experience

Free-lance editor, writer, researcher, Chiang Mai, August 2005-present.

Lecturer, Thai and Southeast Studies Program, Payap University, Chiang Mai, 2003-2005.

Academic Director, Thai and Southeast Studies Program, Payap University, Chiang Mai, 2003-2005.

Fulbright Visiting Scholar, Khon Kaen University Jan-June, 2003.

Project Associate, International Institute, University of Michigan 1998-2003.

Lecturer, Eastern Michigan University, History & Philosophy Dept., Art Dept.; 1993-1998.

Lecturer, Washtenaw Community College, Social Sciences Dept., 1993-1998.

Free-lance editor, 1992-1994.

Fulbright Scholar, Chiang Mai University, Chiang Mai, Thailand; 1989-1990.

Editor, Law Quadrangle Notes, U-M Law School, 1984-1989.

Free-lance writer, 1983-1989 & beyond.

Peace Corps Volunteer, Thailand, 1969-1972 & 1965-1969.


PhD - Buddhist Studies, University of Michigan, 1992

MA - History of Art, University of Michigan, 1978

MA - Southeast Asian Studies, University of Michigan, 1978

BS – Political Science, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 1965

Membership in Professional Organizations:

The Siam Society – Lifetime member

Partial List of publications

▪Thai Tellings of Phra Malai: Texts and Rituals Concerning a Popular Buddhist Saint,

Tempe, Ariz.: Arizona State University, Program for Southeast Asian Studies, 1995.

▪“The Life and Times of Walter Spink,” Ars Orientalis, Supplement I

▪“Marketing the Dharma,” II Journal, Winter, 1999.

▪“Luis Gomez: Consummate Scholar,” LSA Magazine, Spring, 1998.


Nang Pramo Thai

By Bonnie Brereton, PhD

 While the Isan region of Thailand is famous for its moh lam music and performances, few people are aware that it is also home to a distinct and lively form of shadow theatre. Known as nang pramo thai, after the name of an early troupe, this high- spirited form of entertainment incorporates Thai-Lao musical styles, folk tales, characters, and other aspects of local culture into its repertoire. 

I first became aware of nang pramo thai’s existence in 1975 from a former student of mine, who had been working at the Ban Chiang archaeological excavation in Udon province. She had seen and photographed a performance at a nearby village. Many years later we went to that village together in search of the puppeteer, but were told that he had died and that the puppets had been sold to someone who supposedly represented a museum.

It was not until 2003 when I was working at Khon Kaen University that I was able to resume my search. After talking with local researchers and village monks I found four active troupes. Watching a few performances and talking with performers convinced me that nang pramo thai was indeed a topic worth researching from several perspectives: the diffusion and adaptation of cultural forms, comparative analysis of regional variations of an art form within Thailand, and perhaps most important, gathering new data on cultural expression in an area of the Mekong Region. My current project, which is being supported by Khon Kaen University’s Center for Research on Plurality in the Mekong Region, seeks to explore the extent to which nang pramo thai remains a vital form of performance connected with Buddhist merit-making. The present report is a work-in-progress account based on preliminary investigation in the Khon Kaen – Roi-et area based on interviews with four puppeteers and several local Thai researchers. Nang pramo thai currently appears to be extant in these provinces as well as in Mahasarakham, Ubon, Yasothorn, Udorn, Kalasin, and possibly Khorat.

Previous Research

Up to this point there has been little research on the topic. The most substantive includes an article by ethnomusicologists Terry Miller and Jarenchai Chonphairot, published in 1979, a master’s thesis written by Chumdej Dejphimon in 1988, and an anthropological study by Suriya Smutkupt, Pattana Kitiasa and others in Khon Kaen in 1992. Miller and Chonphairot’s article identified 18 troupes, in Roi-et, Mahasarakham, Ubon, Udon, Khon Kaen, and Yasothorn; one goal of the present study is to determine how many of those troupes are still extant.


Shadow theatre is a relatively new performance genre in the northeast. Miller and Chonphairot were able to trace its origins only as far back as the 1920s. The earliest known troupe was led by a man who reportedly came to the northeast from Ayutthaya. Although shadow theatre in Thailand is most famous in its southern context, it is also known to have been popular in the central region— in parts of Ratchburi, Petchburi, Nakhon Pathom, Bangkok, Uthai Thani, Ayutthaya, Thonburi, Nakhon Sawan, and U-thong. The central Thai connection is an important one, and stylistically, the Isan figures bear a much closer resemblance to those of the central region than to those of the south. Isan puppets, like those of central Thailand, are roughly two feet tall, are made of heavy, semi-translucent leather, and have classic features, resembling those seen in central Thai temple mural painting. The southern puppets, by contrast, particularly those made in the past 40 years, are about one foot tall, made of thin, almost transparent leather, and have doll-like, almost Disneyesque features.

Miller and Chonphairot maintain that both the texts and the music used in nang pramo thai have central, rather than southern Thai influence. Perhaps the most distinctive difference is that Isan performers use the khaen as a hallmark instrument, while southerners use the oboe or pi chawa. There are still other differences in the instruments and the musical rhythms, melodies, and aesthetics produced in each region. Southern nang talung ensembles, much like those performing for manora, a local form of dance drama, typically include the following: oboe, two-string fiddle, hand symbols, small gongs, double gong strung up in a resonator box, and traditional drums; frequently, snare drums and other western instruments are used as well. Isan shadow theatre uses two, somewhat related musical styles, depending on the troupe, and will be described below; neither of these styles resembles southern music in any way.

Regarding texts, nang pramo thai troupes seem to fall into two groups, those that perform the Ramakian, and those that perform local Lao stories, particularly Sin Sai. Southern nang talung performers, by contrast, have not performed the Ramakian for at least several decades, but instead compose their own tales, based a blend of locally favorite character types and current political and social issues. For all of these reasons, central rather than southern Thailand seems the most likely source of Isan shadow theatre. 

The Puppets

The number of nang pramo thai figures varies from one troupe to another; troupes generally have 80-100 figures. The puppets do not represent specific characters, but instead are character types, such as heroes, heroines, giants, etc, and theoretically can be used in different stories. However, each troupe performs only one story.  For example, Khana Poh Bantheungsilpa performs scenes from the Ramakian, as does Khana Phet Nong Rua. Chumdej found that Khana Choh Thanomsilpa performed only the Sin Sai story, and Khana Prakat Samakkhi had been performing a single scene from the Ramakian since it was established in 1957.

Stylistically, nang pramo thai puppets, like those of other regions, resemble the figures seen in mural paintings throughout the country. That is, most of the puppets are drawn with the face depicted in profile, the shoulders and upper body shown frontally, and the lower body in profile. The exception is female figures, which are shown in full face.

Regarding the moveable elements of the puppets, all characters apart from jokers have one moveable arm, which moves to indicate the character is speaking. In jokers, both arms are usually moveable, as is the jaw.

Southern jokers, beloved among their fans, include the famous Ai Teng, easily identifiable by his sarong-draped potbelly, phallic-shaped forefinger, the kris (local dagger of Malay origin) he holds in his other hand, and the southern dialect that he speaks. He and other jokers are identifiable as southerners by their facial features, which suggest a mixture of south Indian or Sri Lankan genes.

Isan jokers also resemble local people: apart from speaking Lao, they have the small noses typical of Lao people. Moreover, nang pramo thai puppets include two special categories of character distinctive to the northeast: Thai boxers and dancing females; both have two moveable arms as well as moveable legs, which the puppeteers use to great advantage to keep an audience awake and entertained during a performance. These dancing female figures wear short skirts made of cloth, much like modern lively moh lam sing dancers, whose movements they imitate when they dance.

       While many southern nai nang are also skilled in making puppets, Chumdej’s research found that the puppets in most Roi-et troupes were not made by the performers or troupe leader, but were purchased from the leaders’ teacher or were ordered from Bangkok. Apart from this difference, Isan puppets are thicker and heavier than those in the south. Chumdej connects this feature with the fact that nang pramo thai’s fight scenes are rougher than those of nang talung, and, in fact, Miller and Chonphairot found many puppets owned by nang pramo thai leaders were tattered from over-enthusiastic use.

The Performance

The performance usually takes place at night, beginning around 9 p.m.  From an outsider’s perspective, it takes a long time to get going, with more than an hour of musical overtures. Traditionally performances would last until dawn; now they last about six hours. The performing area for nang pramo thai is a large white cloth screen stretched between two poles several feet above ground level. Two sides are enclosed with cloth or temporary walls made of thatch or another temporary material, while the back remains open.  The performers stand behind the screen while working the puppets, while the musicians sit behind them, except for the khaen player who always stands while playing. As is common throughout Southeast Asia, the puppets that are to be used in the play are stuck into a banana trunk placed horizontally along the bottom of the screen, on the performers’ side. Other puppets are spiked into additional banana logs on either side, parallel to the interior walls of the performance area.

The large, free-standing screen differs from those in southern Thailand and Malaysia, where a small performance booth is constructed, raised up on stilts, somewhat like a traditional Southeast Asian house. A white cloth screen is stretched in front and the audience watches below, from the outside. In both cases the audience is free to move around to watch the actual puppets from the perspective of the performers.

The Performers

One of the most unique aspects of nang pramo thai is that it is performed not by a single puppeteer or nai nang, as in the south, but by a troupe of approximately four to seven puppeteers or even more (Isan people are typically not exclusive), often including one or two women. Each troupe has a male leader (known as the hua naa khana, or troupe leader), who works the puppets and provides the voices for the most prominent characters, with other members of the troupe playing other roles. This multiplicity of personnel makes the performing area very lively as the performers mill about and take their place at the screen or at the microphone, often dancing slightly as they move their puppets in time with the music.

The four troupes I have watched so far have demonstrated a remarkable amount of diversity in the amount of time devoted to singing, jokers, other conversations; the extent to which poetry is used; the craftsmanship of the puppets; the stories told; the role of female performers; and the musical instruments used. In most cases, the southern nai nang is a professional performer who does not earn money in any other way; often he makes his own puppets and usually has several students studying under him. In the past the nai nang traditionally was considered a powerful person, one who has special spiritual knowledge and power since he was able to cast the shadows and make the figures come alive on the screen. He also knew the incantations that are customarily said at the beginning of performances and the wai khru; also his ability to perform long hours without stopping was considered a sign of his unusual power.

Most Isan puppeteers and musicians generally earn their living primarily from rice farming and working as laborers. Performing is merely a way to supplement their income and have some fun, activities that Isan people typically are drawn to. Only one troupe leader, Nai Sangwan Pheungpew, of Khana Phet Nong Rua, in Khon Kaen, is a professional puppeteer of both nang pramo thai and hung kra bok (three-dimensional puppets); this vocation grew out of necessity after his family lost their land and he was no longer able to engage in rice farming. In the past, certain troupes sometimes held performances in exchange for rice when their stockpiles had run low.

Performance Characteristics

An important feature of nang pramo thai that differentiates it from that of southern nang talung is the puppeteer’s voice. The nai nang’s voice has a distant, ethereal quality to it and closely resembles the singing of manora, another southern dance-drama genre. By contrast, Isan performers use the local moh lam style of singing. In this connection both male and female singers with strong voices are valued.

The most commonly performed nang pramo thai stories are the Ramakian and Sin Sai, the Lao version of a tale told widely in various different forms throughout Southeast Asian. The latter tale involves Sin Sai, the hero, who was born holding a bow and arrows in his hand; his brother, Sang Thong, who was born in a golden snail shell; and his half-brother, Sinho, who was an elephant with golden tusks. The story tells how the brothers rescued their aunt after she was kidnapped by a demon. Only favorite segments of these well-known stories are performed, and never the entire epic.

In the south the Rama story has not been performed for several decades. Instead, locally written stories are performed, based on prototypical characters – kings, queens, lords, demons, and especially jokers – often concerning current political, economic, and social issues.

One is most likely to find a nang pramo thai performance in connection with Buddhist merit-making ceremonies, such as ordinations, Bun Pha Wet festival, and kae bon celebrations.

Nang pramo thai’s place in Lao-Thai society

In their 1979 article, Miller and Chonphairot suggested that nang pramo thai was, and would probably remain, in terms of numbers, a lesser, albeit enjoyable performance form when compared to moh lam.  “Its future”, they wrote, “seems assured, if somewhat obscure.” Looking back, it is difficult to assess the extent to which their predictions have come true. While nang pramo thai continues to prove entertaining to those who have the opportunity to see a performance, the number of troupes still performing appears to be declining.

In the south, where nang talung represents the heart of rural regional culture, over a hundred nai nang, most of them with apprentices, can easily be found.  Nang talung is a long-standing tradition that has been constantly evolving, incorporating many aspects of modernity, such as Western musical instruments, technological changes, new musical styles, modern dress, etc. For these reasons, some local academics have been involved in “preserving” it in what they consider to be its pure form, and resist changes that the performers want to introduce.

Tensions like this seem less apt to intrude into the realm on nang pramo thai, where academic involvement thus far has been relatively limited. While Ajaan Chumdej Dejphimon at Mahasarakham University’s Faculty of Arts regularly teaches nang pramo thai performance as part of the curriculum, local fans seem unconcerned. In the end nang pramo thai’s relative obscurity may help preserve its distinct Lao characteristics.

 Throughout the course of her talk, Bonnie showed puppets that she had brought along to demonstrate examples the different styles and features that she was talking about, and towards the end of her talk showed video footage she had made of a number of nang pramo thai performances.

 After an extensive and informative question and answer session, the meeting adjourned to the Alliance Cafeteria where, over drinks and snacks, members of the audience engaged Bonnie in less formal conversation.