Friday, February 10, 2017

More Than Just Entertainment: Myanmar’s Marionettes

                                             by Jim Goodman

Mandalay puppeteers in action
       Mandalay was the last capital of the Kingdom of Burma, from 1861-1885, when it was also the center of Burmese culture and its fine arts traditions. When the British swept into Mandalay, they abolished the monarchy and annexed the rest of the state. The country’s arts and crafts, bereft of royal patronage, suffered precipitous decline, particularly its puppet theater.  Even after independence in 1948 the tradition remained weak and its future bleak.  But in recent decades, with a change in both patrons and audience, the puppets are back.  And the most appropriate place to witness this is the Mandalay Marionettes and Culture Show, in the city where they once flourished.
       About an hour long, the show includes performances of classical musical instruments, Burmese and ethnic minority dances and, most of all, skits with stringed puppets—marionettes.  It was to preserve this latter tradition that two women, Ma Ma Naing and Naing Yei Mar, founded this theater in 1986, just over a century after the British takeover eliminated its primary patron.  Finding a couple of surviving puppeteers, they brought them out of retirement to train new ones and supervise the making of the marionettes.
the marionette show's orchestra
       The theater contains a small, elevated stage where the show-opening harp soloist, dancers and marionettes perform.  Between the audience and the stage sits the orchestra.  This comprises mostly percussion instruments, with men on drums and gongs, a xylophone and one on a high-pitched oboe.  To an uninitiated ear this can sound cacophonous, though in the opening puppet skit, depicting the creation of the world, this is intentional.  The percussion also serves to accentuate moods in the different puppet scenes. 
       Traditionally, prior to the show, the puppeteers make a food offering to the Goddess of Performance, which they believe enables their marionettes ‘to breathe.’  Then they spend time grooming and talking to their puppets and invite their spirits into their own bodies for the duration of the performance.
playing the Burmese harp
       The puppeteers stand on stage behind a waist-high painted backdrop and a curtain conceals their upper bodies.  Periodically the curtain rises to reveal their deft manipulation of the marionettes.  In one hand the puppeteer grasps a handle holding at least eleven strings connected to various parts of the marionette’s body.  With the other hand he or she pulls on separate strings to make the body parts move and the marionette walk, turn, crouch, bow, sit, dance or fly through the air.  They also, when the skit requires, sing or speak the dialog of the puppets.
       The first skit always depicts a pair of puppets representing nats--Burmese nature spirits—witnessing the creation of the world out of primeval chaos.  Usually the next scene shows the introduction of animals to the world, especially the white horse, believed to be the first animal ever created.  It concludes with the dance of the magician, wearing red robes and waving a wand.
Ayutthaya-style candle dance
manipulating the magician puppet 
       With this we are now in the world of the humans and the rest of the skits narrate stories from history and mythology, especially the Jataka Tales of previous incarnations of the Buddha and the Indian epic Ramayana.  Kings, queens, gods, ogres, ministers, pages, commoners and clowns dance through these scenes, the crowd favorite usually the duet between the prince and princess.  Often just one to three appear on stage at any given time, but some scenes can involve as many as eight puppets at once, with the curtain lifting and showing the same number of puppeteers visible above them.
nat dance at the Creation of the World
       Because the marionettes are preceded by a harp player and interrupted by solo dance performances and one by an ethnic minority group, usually Karen, they are only on stage about two-thirds of the show.  The lilting music of the harp certainly helps create an atmosphere of bygone times, as do the individual classical dances, but as a result spectators only see a small fraction of the traditional puppet repertoire. 
       According to rules laid down by royal courts in the past, the marionette troupe consisted of 28 characters and the Mandalay show has insufficient time to use them all.  The puppeteers are familiar with all of the characters, though, and anyway don’t run the same skits each night, so find regular opportunities for their use.  Sometimes the troupe performs at festivals in the countryside, when performances start, as in the old days, at sunset and continue until sunrise.  The entire set of 28 classic marionettes, plus maybe a few modern additions, see action then.
scene from the Ramayana epic
       The first historical evidence of the puppet tradition is the recording of a performance on a slab in a 15th century temple in Sagaing.  It’s not clear how popular it was back then, or how widespread, but from the foundation of the Konbaung Dynasty in 1752 the puppet tradition entered its golden age.  Following their destruction of the Siamese capital Ayutthaya in 1767, the victorious Burmese abducted members of the Siamese elite and its artisans, actors, musicians and the entire royal dance troupe and removed them to their own country.   
        This sudden influx of Siamese artistic influence sparked the blossoming of Burmese fine arts, impacting its sculpture, painting, poetry and especially its drama.  Besides the royal court, provincial governors also patronized the Siamese artisans and performers, who were so much more accomplished and polished than their own.  But eventually they recruited natives to fill their places, prompting more Burmese modifications to the arts and the substitution of Burmese for Thai as the stage language for dramas.
Rama puppet
Hanuman puppet
       Several years after the fall of Ayutthaya the Konbaung Court set up a Ministry of Theater to control and regulate the growing, ever more popular dramatic profession.  Rules formulated for the two kinds of theater—that played by human actors and that staged by marionettes—differed.  The prudery of the times limited how much could be said or acted in love duets.  The Ministry also tabooed costumes of royal regalia, monks’ robes or depiction of the Buddha, as well as any dialog or song containing criticism of the royal court.
Jataka Tales skit
      The marionettes had much more leeway.  Some of them were royal characters and dressed in specifically royal costumes.  The most appreciated skit in the repertoire is a duet of a prince and princess, both regally garbed and bejeweled, while other marionettes are of monks, the Buddha and the Hindu god Rama.  The marionettes could also speak or sing about corruption and abuses of authority without fear of subsequent retaliation or arrest for their manipulators.  They were, after all, ‘possessed’ by the spirits of their puppets and thus not responsible for offending words.
       The general populace couldn’t do that and this was one aspect of the puppet theater that helped its burgeoning popularity.  On the other hand, sometimes government ministers arranged for a royal marionette performance precisely because the puppet characters would be able to work lines of dialog somewhere in the skits to bring a certain scandal to the attention of the king.
the comic character U Sheay Yoe and villagers
       Except for the rainy season, puppet troupes did a lot of traveling, staging shows in places far from the capital.  For their hosts, they were the prime source of information on the capital, its politics and intrigues, scandals and shenanigans.  At the same time, their members became aware of local situations, complaints and grievances, which they might very well work into their own skits, to be highlighted next performance back at the Court.  No popular press existed at that time to air such topics, so the marionettes filled the gap.
       Politics was never a dominant concern of the puppet tradition, however.  Its main function was entertainment, but of a sort leaning towards edification as well.  Most skits had religious themes, emphasizing a specific moral precept.  In fact, sometimes a patron would request a performance to include a certain Jataka Tale skit that imparted a moral lesson he wanted conveyed to someone he had invited to watch the show. 
page boy puppet
       The audience for marionette performances in the old days was not the polite, quiet and attentive crowd that watches today.  Since the shows ran for several hours late at night, those attending might take a nap, eat, smoke and converse during the performance, applaud skits they liked and boo those they didn’t.  They could even get carried away and attack a puppet representing a character whose actions aroused their disapproval.
       While the rural masses enjoyed the marionette show for its stories and spectacle, the Burmese elite appreciated it for its combination of different aspects of traditional art.  Aspiring puppeteers spent many years learning these, beginning with making the puppets themselves.  The typical marionette consisted of 18 separate carved wooden parts:  one for the head, one for the neck, two for the torso, six for the arms and eight for the legs, with wires joining the pieces together. Strings connected most, but not all, of these pieces to the puppeteer’s handle, but separate strings might also operate the jaw and eyes. 
       The makers also implanted genuine human hair to the heads for their coiffures, mustaches and beards and strove to make lifelike faces.  With a few exceptions (Rama and other Ramayana characters) the marionettes had white faces, black brows and eyes and red lips.  While the arms of the puppets were abnormally long, the rest of the body they modeled on human bodies, including the sexual organs, though these were concealed by the garments.  When completed, the puppets averaged 65 cm in height.       
duet of puppet and human
       Puppet-makers dressed their marionettes in a variety of costumes.  A few characters wore ordinary traditional outfits of shirts and lungyis or sarongs and the males had turbans with a loose end tucked up behind the head or dangling over the right temple.   The male puppeteers wear these during the show.
       Most characters were royalty, ministers or other members of the elite and wore much fancier garments.  The coats, sashes, vests and dresses, of brocaded silk or cotton, were bright colors, liberally festooned with sequins and little glass jewels.  The puppets also wore elaborate crowns or headdresses and altogether their ensembles replicated those worn at the royal court.  And because commoners rarely, if ever, saw such clothing in those days, the costumes displayed in a marionette show were one of its greatest attractions.
       In the puppet theater’s 19th century heyday, puppeteers, singers and musicians won high public esteem and the profession attracted a steady supply of talent.  It was even more popular than the dance dramas with human actors.  Audiences also rated human dancers according to how closely they could mimic the movements of the marionettes.  One of the skits in the Mandalay show features a duet of a marionette and a human dancer, while the puppeteer above her pretends to manipulate her with invisible strings.
group scene of puppets and puppeteers
       A very conservative tradition in its days of glory, unlike live drama quite resistant to innovation, the puppet theater had to make changes in the colonial period.  Having lost the prime source of financing for this relatively expensive art form, in terms of training and performance preparation, it now competed for paying customers with the shows staged by live performers. 
       The singers left for its rival theater and so the puppeteers themselves had to take on the singing and speaking parts.  They allowed women to be puppeteers for the first time.  They introduced new skits with lots more action and replaced the plain white backdrops with painted scenery.  Finally, when financing became even more difficult, they dropped the orchestra in favor of gramophone recordings.
       In spite of these adaptations interest continued to wane.  By the time the British left only a few dozen troupes remained in the whole country.  The military government in the 1960s, as part of promoting all things Burmese, tried to revive it, but also wanted to use it for propaganda messages.  Experienced puppeteers began dying and the whole tradition was on the way to extinction with their passing.
Jataka Tales scene
       So it was in the nick of time that Ma Ma Naing and Naing Yei Mar conceived their passion for its revival.  Several old masters were still around and proved ready to impart their skills and knowledge.  After the inauguration of the Mandalay Marionettes Culture Show in 1986 other places in prominent tourist destinations, like Bagan and Yangon, began opening puppet theaters.  High-end restaurants included puppet performances as part of the dinner show. 
       It’s a different audience this time around; not local villagers or a royal court, but foreigners.  They don’t know the stories or recognize the characters.  For most it’s just exotic entertainment, though appreciated at least for its skill and spectacle.  With the growth in this foreign audience, especially with the tourist boom in recent decades, more puppet theaters have opened in Myanmar.  More young people are finding jobs making puppets, playing classical instruments and becoming puppeteers. 
       Whether the puppet theater will again achieve in the countryside the popularity it enjoyed in the Konbaung Dynasty remains to be seen.  Yet the tradition has definitely made its comeback and its future looks positive.  For now it has a new and perhaps permanent patron—the tourist.

a royal duet
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