The art of Myanmar marionette is wholly indigenous, self-styled form, replete with Myanmar traditions. It has been with us for so far so long that the Myanmar marionette is often called “Grandfather of Myanmar music” or “Father of Myanmar theatre”. Much of our belles-lettres originated on the marionette stage, and so did a lot of basic classical or classics and songs for that matter.
Puppetry is usually a dramatic show with wooden figures the bodily parts of which are manipulated by strings to imitate human-like poses, movements, and gestures. One vernacular name for Myanmar puppetry is “Yoke-son Thabin” (variegated figures show), but simply a puppetry or marionette show will do. True to the above name, figures of human, animal, spirit, or mythical beings are presented in the show.
Stringed puppets are made of wood, clad in bright satin or velvet; the hands, legs, and back of a puppet are full of joints and hinged at the joints for easy manipulation. The limbs and face are painted, while the strings connected with the face, legs, and hands all end up on a wooden blade. Obviously working the strings of a puppet calls for a tremendous amount of practice, and is the most difficult part among the four types of puppet, namely, the shadow puppet, the glove puppet, the rod puppet, and the stringed puppet.
Origins of Myanmar Marionette
The Myanmar marionette show is said to be extant in the Bagan period. According to well-known writer Dagon Natshin, the marionette show is conjectured to have been popular in the time of King Anawrahta. A devout Buddhist, King Anawrahta tried to promote the word of the Buddha through every means, one being that of the marionette show. The traditional stock-in-trade of Myanmar puppet show perhaps dating back to Anawrahta’s time is the birth stories of the Buddha. Even so, no hard evidence by way of stone inscription, mural, sculpture, or ink inscription on stucco has been found yet as to the puppet show’s flourishing in the Bagan period.
Concrete evidence of the Myanmar puppet is found on the Htupayon Pagoda stone-inscription set up in 806 Myanmar Era (AD 1444) at Sagaing. This stone inscription erected by King Narapati describes a fifty-member list of musicians, dancers, and puppeteers. Puppeteers were then called figure-men or puppet-men. Some years later, Venerable Ashin Maharatthasara of the Innwa period made references to puppetry now and then in his writings. The puppets might be about two feet high but some shows used life-sized figures.
The Myanmar marionette is thought to have flourished most in the Konbaung period, Myanmar’s last dynasty. King Bagyidawpaya (Sagaing Min) appointed U Thaw Minister of Royal Entertainment, who was also given the title of Jotabandu. U Thaw learned in various arts and crafts proceeded to prescribe rules and regulations concerning the puppetry show to the benefit of all including the public.
Some Puppetry Rules and Traditions
Rules and traditions of the Myanmar marionette bordered on the extreme in the past. If the stage was to be set up out in the harvested paddy field, it must stand aside from the paddy dyke. The stage was three cubits high, and the front boasted seven posts, the distance between any two adjacent ones being five cubits. The stage was to be thatch-roofed in a neat and tidy manner while Kyathaung bamboo (Bambusa poly morpha) must not be in building the stage. The back of the stage must never face the village. In the past, women were not allowed to work for the puppet show. Even the background vocals to represent a female figure must be uttered by a male artiste.
Unlike the live stage, the audio effect is very important for the Myanmar puppet show. The artists should be possessed of a musical voice, fluency of speech, and great articulating skills. To be so, they need to be versed in Myanmar literature, the arts, and current happenings. Songs and verses reign supreme on the live stage or the marionette one. Some puppetry performers can even verify off the cuff.
A musical troupe is also part of the puppetry ensemble. Voice, dance (of the puppets), and musical notes all work to create perfect harmony. Then the puppet show can be said to be moving forward with a “three-in-one mind”.
Figure in Myanmar Marionette
According to Deedok U Ba Choe, one of our fallen leaders and a noted authority on Myanmar marionette, a puppetry ensemble carries a company of 27 figures. They are:
Nat votaries 2
Elephant 2 (one white and one black)
Prince Regent 2 (one white-faced and one red-faced)
Old man 1
Old woman 1
In making the wooden puppets, particular kinds of wood are used for so and so figures. For example, Yamane (Gmelina arborea) is used for making figures of human, horse, nat, or princess; Eikarit (Millingtonia hortensis) for king or princes; etc. Figures are a little more than one cubit high, up to 27 inches. A figure is to be made in its entirety, complete with all the parts.
The degree of care is exercised in painting different figures. Animal figures are just touched upon. Great care is taken to paint a King or Minister figure to make it look dignified. Prince, princess, and lady figures are beautifully painted. The Buffoon figure is so painted as to invite instant smiles from the viewers; the figure itself wears a smile.
Welcome Revival of Myanmar Marionette
Other countries may use stringed puppets but the Myanmar puppet, sometimes with more than 60 strings, is very different from them. It has already won great respect and admiration of connoisseurs from abroad.
Indeed, the Myanmar marionette was once “the Higher Theatre” while the live zat was “the Lower Theatre”. They were so-called because the puppet show always takes place on a stage while the live theatre once in the past, did so on a ground circle. However, the Myanmar marionette is the most difficult and ‘sophisticated art-form among the three kinds of theatre, namely — the live theatre, the anyeint (non-dramatic performance mainly led by female dancers), and the marionette show. Some years back, it was on the brink of extinction. Now that it has won back general recognition and official support, those who love Myanmar culture should be feeling happy and proud.