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The return of the puppets

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Will the culture of marionettes blossom again in Myanmar?

When 68-year-old U Thein Tun took his grand-daughter to a puppet show at the National Theatre, he realised that what was a staple of his own childhood was a bit of an oddity for them.

“When I was young, there were a lot of puppet shows,” he says. In theatre, at festivals, but also on the streets, he remembers. This is no longer the case, he moans.

Puppetry in Myanmar has a long history. It first peaked during the Bagan era (1044 – 1289) and boomed again under the Konbaung (1752-1885) era. It was a means of distraction, but also an escape from rigid social norms. At that time people were shy to even stay close to each other and prudishness imposed people to put distances. Not the puppets. They hugged and kiss each other, in front of royals and villagers alike.

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Playing with the shadows during the Yangon international puppet festival, Mach 2018. Phoe Wa/The Myanmar Times
Playing with the shadows during the Yangon international puppet festival, Mach 2018. Phoe Wa/The Myanmar Times

Puppets were a way to pass on tradition as they recounted tales and fables. They also had a social role. Artists usually used the puppets to air the masses’ grievances for the king to hear them. During colonial rule, nationalists used them to spread messages and pass on information.

But today, screens are the puppet’s nemesis. Facebook and its theater of vanities is more enticing than marionettes distributing likes to the powerful. This is not the only sector affected. Magicians pull their tricks back in their sleeves and clowns have taken out their red noses.

The Myanmar Theatrical Association has decided to act. In October 2017 it created a sub-group named the Myanmar Marionettes Theatre Rehabilitation and Development Committee, a grouping of the professional puppeteers from Bagan, Mandalay, Yangon, Hintada and other major cities.

They refuse to see centuries of culture go to waste. Marionette, they say, is a combination of all form of Myanmar art. From handmade embroidery, painting and wood carving.

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Dancers accompanying puppets, Yangon, March 2018. Phoe Wa/The Myanmar Times
Dancers accompanying puppets, Yangon, March 2018. Phoe Wa/The Myanmar Times

Puppets of the world, unite

Last week, the Myanmar Theatrical Association hosted its first international festival. Hundreds of people (mostly locals) came to applaud puppet shows from nine different countries (France, Australia, India and America.)

Dorothy Hla Phay, a teacher, brought her students to the show. Though younger than grand-pa U Thein Tun, she fondly remembers the Moe Kaung Pagoda festival where the puppets took the centre stage.

All were delighted. “Each countries’ puppet show has its own taste,” says Dorothy. Her favorites remain the Burmese ones.

In fact, Myanmar puppetry attracts beyond borders. US puppeteer, Penelope Torribio, came to the festival to see a performance of Ramayana, a play which is at the centre of Burmese puppetry. She studied it for four years and adapted it to her own style. “It is fundamental in Southeast Asia and India but they (American students) don’t know it. So I teach them the story and the importance of that story to puppet.”

The Ramayana is one of the Buddhist tales. It teaches us to never break promises even for good reasons. Trust, according to the tale, is the most precious thing. This is becoming a rare commodity in America, Penelope says. In Myanmar also. A recent survey showed that interpersonal trust was in decline too – only 17 percent of respondents thought most people could be trusted.

Steve Wagenseller, an American scholar studying Asian theatrical tradition says those Myanmar puppets are among the most complex. A French marionette, for instance, has only six to eight strings. But Myanmar puppet has about 19. The variety of their movements is wider and thus looks more natural.

A young Burmese girl called Angeline said that she once tried and found it incredibly difficult. She noted that the sound-effects of the other shows made other puppets more alive. To which, U Khin Maung Tint, the deputy chair of the committee in charge of the organisation proudly retorted: “They are doing movement like playing violin. That’s great. But we are actually dancing”.

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Musicians accompanying puppets, Yangon, March 2018. Phoe Wa/The Myanmar Times
Musicians accompanying puppets, Yangon, March 2018. Phoe Wa/The Myanmar Times

A national treasure

But behind U Khin Maung Tint’s pride there is a deeper fear. With the disappearance of the show, puppeteers are becoming irrelevant. What is the point of having the most complex and elaborate puppet if no one knows how to action them, he wonders.

Currently, there are no more than 30 puppeteers left in Yangon, he says. Marionettes are merely a hobby for him. He has another job on the side that pays the rent.

For now the industry relies on tourist’s money for the purchase of tickets or dolls. The Burmese are disinterested or hostile. An old superstition has it that one should not have dolls in the house – that brings bad luck and attracts bad spirits

For U Khin Maung Tint the revolution comes from within. He see more and more people at festival and sniffs an opportunity.

He and his committee are lobbing schools to perform at their social events but also organise workshops. Dorothy Hla Phay thinks her school would be keen.

Steve Wagenseller says that tourism should not be neglected either. When tourists come, they want something authentic and traditional he says. “In Myanmar, you have something special…you must keep it. If you don’t preserve your art and culture, it’ll be like any other country. (…) And puppetry is one way to do it.

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