Myanmar marionette theatre ...

          No pagoda festival in Myanmar is compete without a marionette show. Festivals come after paddy is harvested and when farmers can look forward to a short spell of leisure. What is more, they have hard cash to spend.
         The stubble plains where people had, some time before, worked hard at harvesting are now a scene of revelry. Caravans of bullock carts loaded with pilgrims, and some of them carrying wares to sell, camp under the huge tamarind trees.
         On the river side, barges are moored and people gather round to see what products they have to sell. The most interesting of them all is the barge carrying the marionette troupe.
         Soon the festival ground is filled with people. You walk along the line of stalls where you can buy products from far and near-glazed earthen-ware, handwoven cottons, bamboo and cane baskets, mats, woodwork, boxes made of toddy palm leaves which come in all sizes, from the smallest toy things to huge packing cases, their outsides are woven in attractive designs.
         The festival has all the trimmings of a trade fair; ferris wheels, merry-go-rounds, and of course, marionette shows. The stage for the show is built of bamboo. Tradition decrees that it is not built with its back to the village. It slopes slightly towards the audience who sit on the ground; they bring their own mats. It is an open air show.

Marionette stage
         The stage is bare except for a green branch stuck in the middle against the white backdrop about two and half feet high and a kawda-pwe, which is an arrangement of two bunches of bananas and green coconut on a tray decorated with flowers wrapped in green banana leaves.
         Kadaw-pwe literally means an offering of respect; it is an important item in any Myanmar celebration both in family circles and in public.

Ritual dance
         The show opens with the ritual dance performed by a female marionette to pay respects to the guardian spirits of the area. It is a formality to 'pay respects to those to whom respect is due'; through this dance the troupe requests the powers that be to waive away all the dangers that may be lurking on the festival grounds. The ritual dance is exciting and boisterous; the marionette in red and pink costume dances to the booming of the orchestra. The opening bars of the song call for a crescendo and connoisseurs judge the vocal virtuosity of the troupe by the way the ritual song is sung.
          The orchestra men also show their artistry and prowess that match the song and dance of the votaries the manipulator of which has to take the challenge and give an exhibition of his dexterity. In this way the ritual dances serve as a 'trailer' for the audience.


Primeval forest scene
          After the ritual dance comes the dance the animals and mythical being in the primeval forest. It is also supposed to be the beginning of the world. The orchestra prelude the scene with boisterous music which symbolizes chaos before the earth came into being.
          The first to appear is the horse; according to the Buddhist concept of the universe, the first planet to appear on the firmament is Asavani, the galaxy of stars shaped like a horse's head. The coming of the horse therefore tells the audience that the earth and the sky have come into being out of the chaos.
          After the horse comes the elephant, stepping with grace and dignity. Soon the stage is full of animals, tigers on the prowl, birds in the air, the monkey up to his antics.
           Mythical beings like the dragon, ogre and zawgyi (demigod or magician) also come in the dance. They lend an air of fantasy, glamour and the mysterious beauty of the wilds.

The play; scenery and props
           Scenic background, until recently was not used because marionettes show better against the white background. The props used are not many; tree branch to convey the idea of a forest, the throne for the king's audience hall and the couch for the boudoir.
           The play invariably opens with the king holding court. Sometimes this scene is hardly part of the story. The court scene however tells the audience that after the primeval forest scene, human society with law and order has come into being. The king and the ministers, in the course of their conversation, reveal where the action of the play is to take place and who are to be the main characters. In this way the scene 'lays the foundation of the plot' as the saying goes.
           One thing about the Myanmar marionette show is that its strength lies in the lyrical beauty and the epic grandeur of the dialogue which is rendered in song, arias, recitatives and commentaries in rhymed prose supported by the orchestra.
            Usually it takes two to present a marionette on the stage, one to recite or sing and the other to manipulate the strings in co-ordination. Sometimes an artiste might be able to do both but such ones are rare.

Importance of the court scene
           There is a saying that no play is complete without the royal court scene with the king and ministers, but it is a fact that the scene is boring to the audience. It is, however, considered auspicious to open the play with this scene. In the colonial days, it was a reminder of Myanmar's sovereignty which had been lost. The glorious music of the orchestra and the song in praise of the king and his realm awakened nostalgic memories in the old who passed them on the young.

The duet dance
            After the court scene comes the much awaited hna-par-thwar, the duet dance with is a love scene. The scene does not do much to help the story move forward; it only represents the two leading characters of the play in the state of lyrical happiness.
           The scene calls for the artiste's mastery of singing, elocution and histrionics and the co-ordination of marionettes to the texts of the songs and recitatives, and the music of the orchestra.


All-night performance
           The marionette show goes on all through the night. This often makes a non-Myanmar ask in surprise: "How is possible? Why all night?" The Myanmars in turn are surprised by the questions. As long as they remember, the shows go on all night; never mind how or why.
            Every now and then some well-meaning people make attempts to shorten the duration of the show but with little success. Some say that if the show finishes in the middle of the night, it is not easy to get transport home. In rural areas, people come from other villages over long distances and they come prepared to stay the whole night. Others say that the Myanmars love fun, music and entertainment in such a prodigious manner that they are content with nothing less than whole night entertainment.
           Leisure and easy-going ways many have something to do with this. Today even though leisure is much curtailed, all-night shows go on and they are enjoyed not only in small towns and rural areas but in cities too.

The magic of the marionettes
           It is often a wonder to many that people can sit through the night and watch the antics of the marionettes. In small towns and villages they still do, although there is much less of this kind in cities. The enchantment of the marionettes is still dominant.
           The Myanmars go to a pwe or theatre and relax; they look forward to entertainment. As they settle down in their seats in an open-air marionette show they have with them peanuts, crisps and all sorts of delicacies to chew as they talk; never mind if they miss some of the dialogues. It is just the king and his ministers talking 'shop'.
           The dance of animals, a delight to children enthralls the adults as well, even more so, because they can understand the song and the music that accompanies each character.
            As the nhe(oboe) pipes eerily like the winds howling through the dark caverns and the boom of the big drum crashes into the air, the ogre in dark green costume steps out, graceful and lithe, and yet awesome like an animal on the prowl; he is handsome if in a grotesque way ruthless and powerful, half-god, half-animal. His dance steps, like master strokes of an artist's brush bring out all the qualities of his personality.
            Zawgyi, the magician or the demigod, resplendent in red flaming dress is full of vigor, he leaps and flies, he is a symbol of power, the one who with his magic wand can do wonders. The zawgyi marionette is considered the most complicated and difficult to manipulate. The one who handles the minthami, the prima donna, also does the zawgyi too. It is not easy to say which is more difficult to manipulate, prima donna has to know the steps of other marionettes too. Sometimes the story says that the heroine is to be disguised as a zawgyi; she is helped by a good spirit who thinks that she takes that disguise for safety. So there it is the prima donna must convey the idea of being a zawgyi. Since change of costume is not "done" in the marionette theatre, the prima donna remains herself. She cannot fly or leap like a real zawgyi. As the orchestra plays the music of the zawgyi dance, she manages to create the illusion of her disguise by doing a few steps and gestures that are characteristic.

Customs and traditions

            Marionette theatre has strict rules laid down by tradition. Dolls, especially the leading characters must be made of yamani wood (clog wood) and each must be made to be a replica of a human down to the smallest detail. Even animals must be made that way.
            There is never change of roles; each retains once and for all the character he or she is to play, be it king, spirit, ogre or zawgyi. Each puppet is treated with the respect it is due.
            Marionettes are kept in two separate chests called the Right Chest and the Left Chest. King, prince, princess, ministers, hermit and all the 'senior' ones are kept in the Right Chest; the 'lesser' ones like animals, clowns are put away in the Left Chest.
            There are specific rules of entrances and exits. Those show are supposed to have supernormal powers like the zawgyi and the spirits enter the stage 'flying' over the white backdrop and exit the same way. The elephant enters front the right, the tiger from the left so on and so forth.

Spiritual kinship
            The marionettes fashioned to represent humans or spirits are very close to their manipulators. Hours before the show starts the artiste sits with his marionette on his lap, prancing it and even talking to it.
            There is a idiom among the performing artistes 'to be possessed by lamaing spirit', who is the patron of performing artistes. 'They believe that they can give the best performance only when they are possessed by lamaing.
             With the marionetteers, it is even more important, because the puppet they manipulate too must be possessed; the two must be one in spirit, the artiste must give something, nay, perhaps all of himself to the marionette. That is why manipulators keep close to their puppets even in non-performing hours.
             Each marionette is a complete embodiment of the role he enacts, king or ogre or zawgyi, in every inch of its whole visible appearance. To the manipulator it is a real thing and he himself is the creator who can give life to the marionette.


The aura of mystery: strong cultural roots
              There is an aura of mystery in the Myanmar marionette theatre; taboos, conventions and superstitions. May be it is because this art springs from strong cultural roots.
              It was in 1776, during the reign of Singu Min, that an officer in charge of performing arts, U Thaw, was commissioned by the king to create a new art form.
              By that time, Myanmar drama with its accompaniment of music, song and dance had already been enriched by Thai artistes who were part of the trophies of the Myanmar campaigns to Thailand.
              Masques were performed to enact the story of Ramayana in the king's court, but comers had only folk music and dances, hardly any drama. Perhaps the marionette theatre first brought the finer form of dramatic art to the common people.

A compromise
              Tradition says that the marionette theatre came into being as a compromise between man's need for entertainment and the Myanmar sees of propriety.
               It was but three or four decades ago that it was considered highly improper for a man and a woman who were not a married couple to make a twosome in public. Demonstration of affection in public, so much as holding hands even between married couples, was one of the things that 'was not done'.
               All the same, people need love and romance, not only in songs, poems and stories but also in audiovisual action. There is also the need for, public information and instruction especially on the teachings of the Buddha.
                This ran into problems: one, performers are reluctant to play the role of holy persons, like the Bodhisatta (the One who is to be the Buddha), who is often an important character in plays; two, Myanmar sense of propriety would not allow man and woman to act as married couple or lovers on the stage; this would be even more frowned upon when the performers we're not married to each other.

U Thaw's plan
               U Thaw, therefore, planned a marionette troupe which called for strict discipline as laid down by the teachings of the Buddha and at the same time which allowed as much aesthetic freedom as possible for the performers. Every marionette must have a special meaning and every scene was meant not only to entertain but also in instruct.
                U Thaw decided to have 28 marionettes for the troupe. According to the Buddhist analysis, the physical body of a living being is a component of 28 material phenomena. Perhaps U Thaw wanted to establish the fact that his creation of the marionette troupe was firmly based on the Buddha's teachings.
                 The 28 marionettes were;
Ritual dancers 2
Horse 1
Elephants (one white & one black) 2
Tiger 1
Monkey 1
Parakeet 1
Dragon 1
Ogres 2
Zawgyi 1
Ministers 4
King 1
Prince 1
Princess 1
Elder Prince 2
Braham 1
Hermit 1
Celestials 2
Old woman 1
Clowns 2


Forerunners of regular theatre
               Marionette characters are considered the forerunner of the regular theatre. Myanmar drama is deeply in the tradition of the marionette theatre. The same set of characters appear on the regular stage with human performers.
                It has become a tradition that living men and women should dance as though pulled by string just as the marionetteer's highest achievement is to make his puppet dance like a living human being. One of the well known dance steps for living dancers is 'puppet's quick run'.
                Carl Hagemann is quoted in Puppets and Auto mata. "The puppets play better than real actors; they make a much better theatre than men. Their performances are more powerful artistically because of the absence of curbing humanity they are presented symbolically with the highest intensity of expression, all reality has vanished."

No mechanics but art

                 In most marionette plays in all parts of the world, and especially in Myanmar, very little attempt is made to persuade the audience that the puppets are anything but what they ares. In the Myanmar marionette stage, the white backdrop is about waist high and the manipulators are visible to the audience.
                 Perhaps the god-like attitude the manipulators assume towards the creatures helps them succeed in making the audience forget their presence altogether. A mysterious power casts a p\spell over children and grown-ups alike so that they are bewitched into seeing living creatures of flesh and blood. The spectator sees only what he wants to see and as his imagination makes it its contribution, he sees much more.
                 The manipulators pour themselves, emotions and all, into the puppets and they are like one possessed by lamaing as believed by the performing artistes. It is their ART.

Artistes who do not give up
                 Today Myanmar marionette theatre admittedly has lost much of its artistry and popularity; decadence has set in and many are already tolling the knell. As an organized form of entertainment, it has lost its popularity in urban areas.
                  But the spirit dies hard. Once in a while we hear over the radio a veteran marionetteer giving an exposition of his art. There are today many artistes scattered all over the country, each holding fast to his art and puppet.
                  You go into their humble homes and talk to them, and they bring out of a huge balsa wood box, an old rag-bag and lo and behold! there comes out a prince or a princess or a zawgyi or an ogre.
                  Life-like puppets bedecked in silks, satins and sequins contrast pathetically with their impoverished but ever-smiling masters.
                 May be marionette stage in Myanmar is not what is used to be, but its art still lives in the hearts of the people and the artistes.

(Note: "At the end of the last century Myanmar marionetteers gave a special performance at the Folies Bergere, in Paris, which was received with great enthusiasm. A magnificent complete puppet theatre from Myanmar is in the possession of the Ethnographishe-Museum in Munich." _ Puppet and Automata by Max von Boehn, Dover Publications, Inc. New York)

From Colorful Myanmar by Khin Myo Chit.

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