Stringing Up Royalty

I have spent quite some time recently looking at puppetry as a world theatre form and I have some great things to share – very varied, from the ancient and traditional, to the contemporary and technological. I have always been fascinated by puppets, right from being very young and even now I have puppets in my house, collected from across the globe. There is something quite primal about the way they can be brought to life.

I am going to start with a puppet tradition that goes back at least 700 years. In Myanmar/Burma puppet plays have been performed since at least the 1400s. In the 1700s, the royal court began to formally sponsor and regulate the puppet theatre, causing it to quickly grow in prestige.

Htwe Oo Myanmar puppeteers perform a group dance of handmaiden puppets

Htwe Oo Myanmar puppeteers perform a group dance of handmaiden puppets

The Burmese court was concerned with preserving the dignity of its members and marionettes were often used to preserve the esteem of a person who had erred. For instance, the emperor could reprimand his children or his wife in this way by asking the puppeteers to put on a parable correcting errant children or careless wives about their reckless ways. While the reprimand would be obvious to anyone who was “in the know” it would largely pass unheeded by the people looking on, something that had a great deal of value in a court that could, and did contain hundreds of people.

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The Burmese marionettes also served as a conduit between the ruler and his subjects. Many times, people would ask the puppeteers to mention in a veiled fashion a current event or warning to the ruler. In this way, information could be transferred on without any disrespect. A marionette could say things that a human could never get away with.

In many ways, the Burmese marionette troupes replaced the actors of the time. It was considered a beheading offense to put your head above royalty, a fact which made standing on a stage difficult to say the least. Similarly, the laws of Burma were such that an actor could not wear full costumes if they were playing figures like royalty or holy men. While both of these facts would hamper the movement and stylings of a human actor, marionettes were not bound by such things and thrived in the vacuum.

In the 1800s, puppet theatre was considered the most highly developed of the entertainment arts, and was also the most popular. Though no longer as popular today, the tradition is still maintained by a small number of performing troupes.

A Burmese puppet troupe includes puppet handlers, vocalists, and musicians. Plays are based on Buddhist fables, historical legends, and folktales, among other stories. The shows are performed for adults and children together, and typically last all night.

The Burmese puppetry figures of “nat-ga-daw,” or the spiritual medium, at Khin Maung Htwe’s home theatre

The Burmese puppetry figures of “nat-ga-daw,” or the spiritual medium, at Khin Maung Htwe’s home theatre

The puppets themselves are marionettes, ranging in height from about one to three feet. Nearly all are stock figures, changing their names but keeping their characteristics for each play. Some of these puppet types have been standard for centuries—especially those developed from Buddhist fables, which probably formed the puppeteers’ first repertoire.

As Myanmar emerges from years of political and social isolation, it is not surprising that traditional puppet troupes are emerging as a potential tourist draw (as they are in other countries across the world). However, it is clear this is also being done by a drive to hold on to centuries of cultural tradition. Two companies that are particularly gaining a reputation are the Mandalay Puppet Theatre and Htwe Oo Myanmar. The website of the former is packed full of information from how to make your puppet (provided you are a master craftsperson) to how to manipulate them, to a description of all the puppet characters.

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A transcript of this video can be found here.

On Saturday, The Irrawaddy published an article by Kyaw Phyotha about U Khin Maung Htwe who founded Htwe Oo Myanmar

Bringing Myanmar Puppetry Back to Life

YANGON — Sitting in his makeshift theater at his home near downtown Yangon, U Khin Maung Htwe is dreaming big.

“I want to have a museum or center focused on Myanmar puppetry,” he said, caressing a stringed wooden white horse, one of the figures from a set of 28 Myanmar marionettes.

As well as running a theater, U Khin Maung Htwe is director of the Yangon-based marionette troupe Htwe Oo Myanmar. “Here in Myanmar, there’s no place to go for anyone, both locals and foreigners, who want to learn about the arts,” he laments.

Khin Maung Htwe poses with puppet U Min Kyaw, one of the famous pantheon of 37 spirits, who is fond of drinking and merrymaking

Khin Maung Htwe poses with puppet U Min Kyaw, one of the famous pantheon of 37 spirits, who is fond of drinking and merrymaking

When he established the troupe in 2006, the one-time sailor’s ambition was more humble: He wanted to showcase Myanmar’s traditional performing arts to tourists in a fitting environment.

“I did it because I wanted to see people enjoy our puppetry in the way it is supposed to be enjoyed,” he said, explaining that hotels and expensive restaurants offer so-called traditional puppet shows to attract foreigners. “They treat puppetry like a side-dish to tourism.”

After struggling for seven years to get his idea off the ground—including making 10 overseas trips, from Thailand to Austria—Htwe Oo Myanmar has gained popularity internationally. Visiting Europe, he says, opened his eyes to the importance of opening a center to preserve the art form.

“After visiting puppet museums [in Europe], I have a burning desire to have a center for teaching, preserving and showcasing our puppetry here,” he said. “It would be very convenient for us to pass the arts on to younger generations.”

Myanmar puppetry, known as Yoke Thay, has a long history dating back more than 500 years. In a similar fashion to other folk plays around the world, Yoke Thay functioned as both royal entertainment and mass media, spreading stories of current events.

But Myanmar’s tradition of puppetry is also unique.

“Our tradition is unlike any other puppetry from neighboring countries. Ours has its own unique styles in every respect, including the way to manipulate the puppets and their design,” said U Chit San Win, the author of “Yanae Myanma Yoke Thay Thabin” (“Myanmar Puppet Theater Today”). “In our Yoke Thay you can enjoy all the Myanmar arts, like dancing, music, sculpture, sequin embroidery and painting.”

The puppetry performance of ba-lu, or ogres

The puppetry performance of ba-lu, or ogres

U Chit San Win says Yoke Thay is not on the verge of extinction due to a number of puppetry courses taught at universities. But in general, he says, the traditional arts are unfashionable.

“Young people find it very boring and difficult to understand because even today the Myanmar puppet performance is still very traditional and using old Myanmar [language],” he said. “This means Yoke Thay has seen a serious decline in local patronage and it survives on tourism.”

This could explain why Htwe Oo Myanmar has battled for years to recognition at home, even as it has found interest abroad. When Cyclone Nargis hit the Ayeyarwady Delta in 2008, causing tourist numbers to fall, the troupe was forced to move to U Khin Maung Htwe’s living room, now hastily converted into a stage when tourists arrive.

He said while neighboring countries such as Thailand and Vietnam are attracting international visitors with their puppetry, the Myanmar government does little to promote its traditional performing arts, “because they are paranoid about being labeled a ‘puppet government,’” U Khin Maung Htwe said.

Puppet 4

More than two years after Myanmar’s military junta handed over power to a nominally civilian government, many still wonder if the current administration isn’t just a puppet of former military strongman Snr-Gen Than Shwe.

“Instead of what they are doing now, the government should have more concrete plans for our Yoke Thay,” U Khin Maung Htwe suggested. He sees a puppet museum or center becoming a focal point for puppet masters in the country to collaborate with each other to preserve and promote the arts.

“It would help us generate ideas about how to breathe new life into our dying arts, too,” he added.

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