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Dance on Strings

Puppetry is an ancient art form or theatre performance which involves manipulation of puppets. Oldest written records of puppetry can be found in the works of Herodotus and Xenophon, dating from the 5th century BC in Ancient Greece. The Greek word translated as “puppet” is “nevrospastos”, which literally means “drawn by strings” or “string-pulling”. Aristotle (384–322 BC) discusses puppets in his work On the Motion of Animals.

Puppetry has been used in almost all human societies both as entertainment – in performance – and ceremonially in rituals and celebrations such as carnivals.Traditional Burmese puppet theatre (Yoke thé) dates from the 15th century but it reached the peak of its popularity in the early 19th century. In the 1700s, the royal court began to formally sponsor and regulate the puppet theater, causing it to quickly grow in prestige. 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.

In most South East Asian nations, including Myanmar, the tradition of puppetry is thought to have come from China. In Vietnam, a unique art form of water puppetry was developed. The wooden puppets are built and the shows are performed in a waist- high water pool. A large rod under the water is used by the puppeteers to support and control the puppets. The appearance is created of the puppets moving over water. The origin of this form of puppetry dates back seven hundred years when the rice fields would flood and the villagers would entertain each other, eventually resulting in puppet show competitions between villages. Thailand also has Hun Krabok, a rod puppet theatre which is the most popular form of puppetry.

Puppetry takes many forms but they all share the process of animating inanimate performing objects. In Korean, the word for puppet is “Kkoktugakshi. “Gagsi” means a “bride” or a “young woman”, which was the most common form the dolls took. Yoke thé in Burmese means ‘miniatures’. The term is used for marionette puppetry. A marionette is a small figure made by skilled craftsman who is controlled from above using wires or strings. These strings are controlled by men showing puppet shows so as to make them move in whichever way they want. The actions of these puppets emulate those of human beings and this provides them a distinct characteristic. It is one of the oldest forms of craft in Myanmar which is being revived today by the marionette enthusiasts.

Marionettes are operated with the puppeteer hidden or revealed to an audience by using a vertical or horizontal control bar in different forms of theatres. The attachment of the strings varies according to its character or purpose. A marionette’s puppeteer is called a marionettist.

Burmese Yoke thé performances originated from royal patronage and were gradually adapted for the general people. Yoke thé performances are almost always performed in operas. Burmese marionettes originated around 1780 during the reign of Singu Min, and their introduction is credited to the Minister of Royal Entertainment, U Thaw. Marionettes grew in popularity in the courts of the Konbaung dynasty which was the last dynasty that ruled Burma from 1752 to 1885. It created the second-largest empire in Burmese history and also laid the foundations of the modern state of Burma.

Puppetry involves storytelling. Little has changed since the creation of the art by U Thaw, and the characters he developed. A Burmese marionette troupe must have 27 characters, including a king, animals such as horse, elephant, tiger, monkey and parrot, ministers, prince and princess and buffoons. A hsaing waing, a traditional Burmese orchestra usually provides the music. It accentuates the dramatic moments of the performance. By beating the suspended knobbed gong (maung), clashing the cymbals, and beating a fast drum rhythm, a musical interpretation is given of the repeated destruction and recreation of the earth by the elements fire, wind and water.

Burmese marionettes are very intricate and dexterous as they employ 18 (for male characters) or 19 (for female) wires. Each “Burmese marionettes are very intricate and dexterous as they employ 18 (for male characters) or 19 (for female) wires” puppet is controlled only by one puppeteer. The styling of the puppets followed the contemporary trends. They were decorated following the contemporary fashion trends so that they appeared real and people watching them could easily identify them. The puppets were usually made of wood and the type of wood would depend on the kind of character. The wood has to be resistant, easy to carve and light. Kings and ministers were made out of Millingtonia Hortensis wood (Aye Ka Yit), human figures, Nats and animals like horses were carved out of clog wood (Ya Ma Nay), hermit and Anthocephalus Cadamba (Ma U) or Albiziz Stipulata (Pan Mair Sar) for other figures.

The Hermit (Yathay) is the patron of the puppetry who is treated with greatest respect by puppeteers. He is a holy man endowed with powers to bring comfort and good fortune. He wears a simple brown robe and a flat-topped hat. He often stands near the shrine of the Buddha in the home. The four ministers (Wun) are the narrators of the plot who also discuss current affairs. They are not dancing puppets.

Most puppets have eleven strings. Five of these strings attach the head, the shoulders and the rump to the H-shaped wooden cross piece. The upper arms, thighs and hands are operated with the six remaining strings which hang loose.

Growing interest in tourism has given a boost to the flagging puppet theatre in Myanmar. Despite facing fierce competition from other sources of entertainment like the movies and the television, puppet theatre is going strong. Even local people are taking interest in this traditional art form. The younger generation is experimenting with the traditional styles and performing ‘dinner shows’ for the tourists. The well known Mandalay Marionettes Theatre has been performing outside Myanmar successfully and regularly. Their performances in Burma have also increased, particularly during the pagoda festivals.