THEATER IN MYANMAR: ZAT PWE, MARIONETTES AND ALL-NIGHT PUPPET SHOWS

THEATER IN MYANMAR

There is no nation on the face of the earth so fond of fun and laughter and theatrical entertainment as the Myanmar. Theater, dance and music have traditionally been combined as a unified performing art in Myanmar, where there has traditionally strict adherence to rules about form and content but also a lot of improvisation. Every one of Myanmar's many festivals features dancing and music, often in association with dramatic performances known as pwe. Historically, all royal functions began and ended up with music and dance. Theatrical performances have also been traditionally performed at pagoda festivals, the opening of new capitals, the start of battles, shinbyu (monk novitiation ceremonies) and weddings. A-nyeint are traditional Burmese comedians and performers who travel from town to town.

Traditional ensemble music often accompanies a traditional theatrical performance. Traditional instruments played in an ensemble include a circle of drums, a thirteen-stringed boat-shaped harp, a circle of gongs, a xylophonelike instrument, an oboelike instrument, a bamboo flute, a bass drum, small cymbals, and bamboo clappers. Today these traditional instruments are combined with Western ones, including a guitar. [Source: Countries and Their Cultures everyculture.com ]

History of Theater and the Performing Arts in Myanmar

According to Countries and Their Cultures: The Konbaung court in the 18th century “employed performers specializing in recitation, singing, dancing, and acting. Highly stylized dramatic performances were accompanied by music. There is also a tradition of popular public performances such as the nebhatkhin (a pageant depicting the birth of Buddha) and the more secular myai-waing (an earth-circling performance) conducted by traveling actors and musicians. After 1885, entertainers performed for a new public, and more lively forms of entertainment were developed, including all-female dance troupes. Western-style stage plays were introduced at that same time. There was interest in newer forms of performance in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Such performances ended with the outbreak of World War II. After of independence, there was a revival of interest in traditional dance, drama, and music. [Source: Countries and Their Cultures everyculture.com <>]

Traditional performing arts, music and dance in Burma-Myanmar have been stringly influenced by Thailand. Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: “The golden age of Burmese theater in the late 18th and early 19th centuries produced not only marionette theater but other forms of drama as well. Court actors from the conquered Thai capital of Ayutthaya and their refined art inspired the Burmese to further innovations. The poet Myawadi Mingyi U Sa (1766–1853) dramatised the Ramakien, the Thai version of the Indian epic Ramayana, for the Burmese stage. This led to the Burmese “Ramayana play”, a danced pantomime broadly following the conventions of the khon mask theater of Thailand. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki |-|]

“In the Ramayana play the Thai tradition is adhered to in the plots, in some of the dance movements, and in the characters with their costumes and decorative papier maché masks, which, however, seem slightly more robust in character compared with the Thai masks, whereas the music and dance techniques are quintessentially Burmese. The Ramayana became established in the Burmese literary and visual heritage. The spectacular Ramayana play has, however, become rare in present-day Myanmar. In addition to the Ramayana, the Thais provided another significant series of stories, the originally Javanese Prince Panji cycle, which is known as Inao in Thailand and Burma”. |-|

The 1950s saw a revival of traditional art forms and the emergence of a new form of modern melodrama called pya-zat . These were modern plays that rarely dealt with traditional subjects. While secular performance arts now dominate popular entertainment, the military regime has continued to support more traditional performances and the fine arts schools still teach traditional forms of dance and drama, although the audiences consist largely of tourists, resident expatriates, and members of the ruling elite. <>

Pwe

A pwe is an all night opera, with dramatic elements, songs and dance. Performances often last several days and nights and are often part of festivals featured on the ritual calendar. According to Countries and Their Cultures: “ Popular performances often combine music, dance, and drama in a pwe ("show"). These shows take place at fairs, religious festivals, weddings, funerals, and sporting events. They generally are held at night and can go on all night long. A pwe typically includes performances based on legends and Buddhist epics; comedy skits; singing, dancing, and music; and sometimes a puppet show. [Source: Countries and Their Cultures everyculture.com ]

Performances by traveling "pwe" group often seem more like a battle of wills than a show. The dancers, actors and clowns in the troupe perform slapstick comedy skits and sing narrative songs that often last until dawn when only a few members of the audience remain. Describing an all-night pwe in Mandalay, Kate Wheeler wrote in the New York Times. “In a theater of lashed-together bamboo...a lover sang in obvious romantic agony to a well-dressed princess who remained half hidden behind a tree. Amid wild, loud, Burmese music, he suddenly draws a saber to stab himself and sank slowly to the ground in a limbo-like move. No one clapped, as if the crowd were far too mesmerized”.

Describing anyeint pwe, a vaudevillian variety show of singing, dancing and comedy skits, in the 1920s, George Orwell wrote: “The music struck up and the pwe-girl began dancing again. Her face was powdered so thickly that it gleamed in the lamplight like a chalk mask with live eyes behind it ... The music changed its tempo, and the girl began to sing in a brassy voice ... [she] turned round and danced with her buttocks protruding towards the audience. Her silk longyi [sarong] gleamed like metal. With hands and elbows still rotating she wagged her posterior from side to side. Then — astonishing feat, quite visible through the longyi — she began to wriggle her buttocks independently in time with the music.” [George Orwell, Burmese Days, Chapter 8, par. 32]

Modern pwe can very loud, with those living near a performance site learning to endure the ruckus or staying up all night whether they want to or not. Steven Martin wrote in Time magazine, “The pwe lasts all night, with the final curtain descending at dawn, but in Orwell's day there was no mountain of speakers on either side of the stage blasting music and voices over a wide radius of neighborhood. From my hotel in Mandalay, I could hear the cacophony of no less than three of these shows reverberating through the walls. At first I found the amplified strains and alien tongues pleasing to my sense of the exotic, but after two nights of fitful sleep, I began to loathe Mandalay's taste in entertainment. [Source: Steven Martin, Time magazine, 2002]

Zat Pwe, Burmese Dance-Drama

Zat pwe is the classical form of dance-drama in Myanmar. It often includes sung passages as well. The Buddhist Jataka stories or their adaptations form the most popular literary material for these dramas, hence the name “zat”, which indicates a Jataka. Stories are, however, also derived from Burmese history. Traditionally, these kinds of plays, accompanied by a saing orchestra, dominated by percussion instruments, lasted the whole night. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki |-|]

The art of Myanmar zat-pwe is one of the subtlest and most elusive of arts and trying to explain it is like capturing a moon beam to analyze its power over lovers and poets. Zat-pwe is deeply rooted in the traditions of the country and has many conventions which are not easily understood by a casual spectator. Myanmar's monarchical tradition has given the zat-pwe the glorious music and songs as well as court dramas of great poetic beauty. Most of the zats (stories or plots) are drawn from Buddhist scriptures and from there. the zat artists draw their inspiration and help to interpret to the laymen the Buddhist thought the way of life. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information ~]

Since elements of opera, ballet and music are woven into the zat-pwe, the whole thing is a wonderful piece created by the teamwork of artists; but the artists themselves are fiercely individualistic, each expressing himself or herself with such freedom that it makes you marvel at the spontaneous coordination that is finally achieved. ~

One Burmese scholar wrote: “Because of its individual style—that is characteristic of Myanmar—we cannot look at zat-pwe through colored spectacles of foreign manufacture….a mistake I made. when I viewed it with eyes dimmed by half-baked ideas I had gathered after scanning through ancient Greek dramas, Shakespeare and modern English plays for the purpose of passing an examination. In those days I had so much to say about zat conventions and practices; "There is no classification of tragedy and comedy. It lacks realism. No proper attention is given to the plot. The scenes are long and drawn-out. There is no unity of time or space. There's the nha-par-thwar scene, with one mintha and six or eight minthamis singing and dancing; it's hardly decent. because it is like flinging the mintha's Cassanova activities in the public's face. As for lun-khan why should there be ngo-gyins (wailing songs) enough to make us a nation of pessimists? … et cetera. et cetera. Yes. there was a time when I said all these and much more." ~

“Today, I take back all the things I had said and I feel both humble and happy in the realization that I had been blind to the beauties of the zat-pwe which I recently discovered after thirty years of turning my impertinent back upon the traditional Myanmar entertainment. Today. zat-pwe is still misinterpreted and much injustice is being done to it in futile attempts to evict decadent influences that are as natural as weeds in a flower garden. One cannot be too careful not to injure the blooms in pruning away the undesirable under-growths. ~

Ingo Stoevesandt wrote in his blog on The Music of Southeast Asia: All performances feature two lead actors: The "mintha" (prince) and the "minthamee" (princess). Their customs and requisites were traditionally very simple, but this changed during the 19th century, when the center of each play was the weeping song "ngo chin" of the mintha. Religious themes also play a big role in several folk traditions: The "Nebathkin" groups ("little story tellers") were inherited by monks during the Pagan period. Actors move around in vehicles and stop their movement on a gong signal, thus depicting the stories of Buddha’s life. Most of the travelling drum ensembles ("yi") share at least one dancer, a characteristic found in traditional Burmese dance and music. In the old days, a ring of ox carts functioned as the stage, with the actors masks hung on poles, while the actors and musicians perform in the center of the audience. [Source: Ingo Stoevesandt, The Music of Southeast Asia ///]

Nha-Par-Thwar Scene in Zat Pwe

The Nha-par-thwar scene—a famous scene in zat pwe performance—in the old days used to be a duet of dancing and singing by the mintha (hero) and minthami (heroine). Later, probably to meet the demands of the audience, new attractions were introduced such as one mintha with many minthamis in the scene. The dancing and singing of each minthami in nha-par-thwar scene symbolize different facets of feminine charm, with the mintha responding with varying moods to each act by the minthamis. A skilled mintha not only has dance and sing a duet, he also has to display subtle artistry in responding to the infinite variety of provocations by his minthamis. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information ~]

The Burmese scholar wrote: “The nha-par-thwar scene in the hands of a consummate artist blossoms forth as a thing of beauty, but when a lesser performer enacts it, it becomes nothing but a vulgar sham—a Cassanova shamelessly flaunting his amours and bringing out the worst side of man's baser instincts. Ngo-gyins (wailing songs) used to worry me a lot: "There are too many of them in zat-pwes enough to drive the whole country mad; we shall become a nation of pessimists . . ." Now I realise all that kind of high and mighty talk is nothing but a pose. a wiser-than-thou attitude acquired through having a smattering of education; for when Daw Ah Mar's book on the three great minthas—Aung-ba-la, Po Sein and Sein-ga-done—came out complete with texts of ngogyins sung by the great three I found myself warbling the half-forgotten tunes of my younger days to the astonishment of my family. Only then did I remember how I had enjoyed them both at zat-pwe and on the discs played on the trusty gramophone, fitted with a fluted horn. ~

“I have discovered that ngo-gyin is not a dolorous wailing song as scholars suggests. Zat-pwe being partly operatic—most of the dialogue is wholly or party sung to music of the orchestra—the ngo-gyin is somewhat, if not wholly, similar to the arias of the western operas. Ngo-gyins are sung both as soliloquies and also in dialogue and they are sung to express lyrical emotion. The histrionic and singing art of ngo-gyin deserves a comprehensive treatment with reference to texts sung by great artists. ~

“One of the many mistakes I made in assessing zat-pwe is that I deplored the lack of realism. which I now realise is a stupid thing; for. who wants realism in the fantastic world of make believe created by dance. song and music? If I was not prepared to be transported into a realm of' suspension of disbelief I should not have gone to a zat-pwe in the first place. I should rather be left to wallow in the slime of realities that life has to offer in abundance. Zat-pwe is thoroughly Myanmar, very much in keeping with the national character. I hope I shall never stop enjoying its beauties that custom cannot stale. I hope I shall never be such a dull piece of goods that the stirring music of nat-chin, the music of the nat-ka-daw dance, which usually opens a zat-pwe, fails to make my heart beat to its tune. I pray that I may never have a soul so dead that the dance of the belus. zawgyis. and nagas fails to fill me with a sense of wonder and insight into human aspirations symbolized by these mythical creatures. ~

History of Burmese Theater

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: “The Burmese drama which evolved around the late 18th century and early 19th century had been preceded by the nat pwe rituals, the comic interludes of the Buddhist nibhatkin tableaux, and the zat pwe Jataka plays. The first secular play, Maniket Pyazat, was written by the court poet Padhetharaza (1684–1752), but it was only under King Bodawpaya (1782–1819) that Burmese drama began to develop at a faster pace. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki |-|]

“The king had a special Ministry of Theater in charge of theatrical arts, and the court plays became a kind of state ritual. Burma’s main dramatists were U Kyin U (1819–53) and U Pon Nya (1807–66). Many of their dramas took their themes from Jataka stories, whose didactic nature and fairy-tale character now gave way to a slightly more realistic world and, particularly in the works of U Pon Nya, to a more psychological portrayal of character. A major reform was the shortening of the dramas from events lasting several nights to performances of only a single evening.|-|

Ingo Stoevesandt wrote in his blog on The Music of Southeast Asia: Based on the traditions of the Pyu and Mon people, the Burmese traditions in music and dance , theater and puppetry have always been based on old Indian, later on Indonesian and rare Chinese influences. The basic influence for all dance and theater traditions was the traditional marionettes and puppet theater, which is called "Yoke Thay" ("small people") and dating back over 800 years. [Source: Ingo Stoevesandt, The Music of Southeast Asia ///]

Besides outstanding traditions like the rope dance ("kimari"), in which performers were allowed to be placed higher than the audience, which was usually forbidden, another interesting fact lies in the "ah nyeint" tradition of the female entertainment groups performing in the kings private chambers. These female actors, musicians and dancers were highly respected in and outside the court, but that doesn’t mean they led an easy life. They were involved in many scandals like that of the "elephant lady" (Sin Koh Malay). Today, these performances are reduced to a kind of comedy show in which the prince figure ("mintha") is acting and dancing with at least four clowns. ///

The first documented theater play in the court was "Maniket" in 1733, a version of the Thai "Thata-danu". This bombastic show featuring elephants and cattle on the stage was just the start for big shows with up to 200 actors and 4 ensembles. The court shows opened up to the public during the British colonial period. At that time there were separate theater houses for women (showing plays like "Enaung" or "Thudanu" dealing with love themes, the latter one deals with an Indonesian hero called "Pandji") and men (showing the Burmese version of the Ramayana and other battle theme plays). Scholars believe the Burmese Ramayana version is based on the Indian Ono Turu version, not the Thai Ramakhien or the Malaysian Hikarat. Masked players are linked to Thai "Khon" drama traditions of Ayuttahya. As women were not allowed in these plays, men played the all female roles. These gender rules were also applied to the puppet theater "Yoke Thay", which first appeared in the 14th century. ///

Famous Burmese Theater Dramatists

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: “Three plays by U Kyin U, Maho, Dewagombam, and Papahein, all presenting a kind of Burmese “classical-romantic” style, have been preserved. Their language is especially valued for its poetic and emotional qualities. As mentioned, U Pon Nya developed drama in a more realistic direction. Although the Hindu-Buddhist karma still controls the events, and Buddhist moral precepts still dictate the basic conflict of the plot, U Pon Nya depicts a world that appears to be real, and his characters are psychologically credible. There are still the Prince and Princess, stock characters of Burmese theater, but in U Pon Nya’s dramas they are accompanied by a range of “ordinary” people, sometimes comic, lesser characters, such as peasants and pedlars. Despite the conventions derived from the Jataka stories, his dramas mirror his times in a colorful and even detailed manner. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki |-|]

U Pon Nya’s major plays are Paduma (synopsis), Wizaya, Kothala, The Water Seller (synopsis), and Wethandaya, the last-mentioned being based on the Vessantra Jataka, describing Buddha’s penultimate incarnation. These plays have a distinct formula. As in the marionette plays, the first major scene, presenting the conflict, usually takes place in the throne hall of the palace, where the king is shown in conference with his ministers. The Prince and Princess, the hero and heroine, must often wander in the forest and meet various dangers. The villain of the play, an unethical person, must finally answer for his or her deeds, but the virtuous ruler is lenient, and in many of the plays the villain retires to the woods as an ascetic, leaving the worldly temptations behind him. |-|

“The plays are usually performed with dance movements or at least with dance-like gestures employing the classical dance technique described above. A classical percussion-dominated orchestra accompanies the plays. However, as in other Southeast cultures, Burmese plays were rarely orchestrated throughout. The musical structure is based on well-known stock melodies, which the audience associates with basic dramatic situations, for example, triumphal marches, battles, lover’s reunions etc. The actor-dancers speak their lines and also sing in the emotionally laden climaxes. The scripts also permit improvisation, particularly in the comic scenes. |-|

“U Pon Nya worked in close contact with the court. He was a personal friend of the king and he wrote six plays especially for the court, where the original manuscripts were kept. Before long, officials in the provinces began to imitate the court, commissioning plays popular in the capital. In this way, the court plays became popular among the ordinary people. Touring troupes created their own versions of the plays, which could be staged in the yards of private mansions or in village squares. The troupes performed to the accompaniment of small orchestras. There were no props; a branch could symbolize a forest and a clothes chest could serve as a throne while the costumes imitated court costumes as far as possible. Although full-length productions of U Kyin U’s and U Pon Nya’s plays are rare today, they are regarded as classics of Burmese drama. |-|

Burmese Theater in the 20th Century

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: The Burmese “court was almost completely destroyed toward the end of the 19th century. The fate of the court tradition was sealed when the enormous wooden palace complex of Mandalay with its court theater burned down in the final stages of World War II. By this time Burmese court theater and dance had given rise to a thriving folk tradition, which still partly reflected the ideals of the court. Western culture, introduced by the British, had a strong effect on Burma. In the early years of King Thibaw’s reign, Western theater groups had performed for the king himself, and Burma was possibly one of the first countries in Southeast Asia to have a Western-type theater with a proscenium stage, backdrops and a curtain. This type of stage was imitated even by the marionette theater, of course, in mini size. A general trend of secularisation now permitted the surviving court forms to be performed to ordinary audiences and live actors to perform even in plays based on the Jataka stories. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki |-|]

In the 1910s and 1920s Burmese theater was marked by a cult of star actors, the main figures being Po Sein and Sein Kadon. Po Sein’s semi-fictitious biography is one of the few books on Burmese theater that have been published in English. The star cult developed extravagant forms as the star actors invented means to publicise their personalities. Po Sein performed with a “bodyguard” of two British ex-soldiers, while Sein Kadon sometimes danced in a costume with blinking electric lights. Despite these aspects of sensationalism, their artistic merits were undeniable, and Po Sein bequeathed to posterity not only his repertoire but also a dance style named after him.|-|

“When Burma became independent in 1948, the new government began to revive theater and dance. State schools were established in Yangon and Mandalay in 1953. The renowned performer Oba Thaung created the basic movement series for the use of these schools, comprising 22 basic movement units (gabyar-lut), still used in dance training in Myanmar. As elsewhere, the theater was also used to propagate nationalism and the new political ideology, and East European puppet theater specialists were invited to reshape the marionette theater. |-|

Ingo Stoevesandt wrote in his blog on The Music of Southeast Asia: When the court music opened up to the public starting from 1885, the mintha and minthamee profited from the skills of these court actors and performers. The British occupation of Mandalay brought "imported" ideas like a real stage, a curtain, electric lights and the entrance fee (normally plays were free before). The mintha became gets more and more important. Sexual taboos were broken. For example, the mintha touches the minthamee during play, which was unthinkable before, and after a while even men appear performing the role of the minthamee. [Source: Ingo Stoevesandt, The Music of Southeast Asia ///]

The Westernization continued in the 20th century, showing its impact in costumes, stage themes, and the more and more common sense for "pwe" shows (thanks to their central figure Po Sein) which mix up every kind of playing tradition in no specific order. In the 1930ies, the Minthamee flirt directly with the audience and wear European costumes. As a reaction to this, traditionalists founded a school for the "Mahagita" songs in 1931. During WWII, most of the well known artists and performers as well as teachers had to flee the country. It took as long as 1953 to found a committee for the categorization and preserving of the traditional arts. It was at this time, when the famous dramatic plays "pya zat" evolved. ///

Despite efforts to preserve the old traditions, from the 1980s on the Ramayana was the only traditional art that survived, besides the irregular "Nat Pwe" ("spirit shows") in the street, which look like a performance but are a form of worship of local ghosts and spirits. The fact that these shows still strictly use the traditional ensembles may be explained through the fear of the people to do something wrong and get punished by the spirits. In the actual "Zat Pwe" festivals, the mintha and minthamee appear as modern pop stars, performing a modern opera with songs ranging from hip-hop to punk rock to techno.

Efforts to Keep Burmese Theater Alive

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: “Myanmar has huge National Theaters in Yangon and Mandalay, but they are rarely used for actual theatrical performances. Official groups of Burmese performers have performed in other Asian countries, in Europe and in the United States. During the present junta’s regime, however, official tours have been rare because of the negative attitude towards the junta’s policy in the Western world. Universities and art schools are closed on and off, and they have been moved to the outskirts of towns in order to keep the students isolated from any political activities, a situation that is anything but fruitful for cultural life. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki |-|]

“At the moment traditional theater and dance in Myanmar mainly survive in the few tourist shows staged for the diminishing numbers of tourists arriving in the country despite its awkward political situation, and as part of the entertainment at temple festivals and other public festivities. Pwe performances lasting all night are staged in various parts of the country, often in connection with religious festivals. |-|

“Large temporary halls and stages of bamboo are erected for these “variety shows”. At dusk, local pop idols come on the stage to sing their hits and sometimes versions of Western pop music. After midnight the classical dancers begin their performance, which lasts until morning. In the late 20th century television was still rather rare in Myanmar, and movies were seldom shown in the rural areas. The world of cinema (often enacted by live actors), pop culture, folk entertainment, and remnants of old court culture all coexist in these pwe performances. The most common ritual performances are still the nat pwe, which are continuously staged throughout the country.

Ingo Stoevesandt wrote in his blog on The Music of Southeast Asia: Young people are mostly interested in modern popular music and western idols. The military government holds regular singing, dancing and acting "competitions" with traditional instruments but these competitions only provide medals as prizes (no prize money or help in earning a living from this tradition) and thus do not provide any help in the preservation of these traditions other than keeping them in peoples mind once a year. It would be a sign of true interest if the government could provide a more reliable support for the older generation who still know about and perform the traditional arts. [Source: Ingo Stoevesandt, The Music of Southeast Asia ///]

Marionette Theater in Myanmar

In Burma-Myanmar puppet plays have been performed since at least the 1400s. 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 theater 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. [Source: Aaron Shepard, Australia’s School Magazine, May 2007 >>]

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 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. >>

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: “The marionettes, manipulated from above with strings, are about 50 centimeters high. The head, hands, and feet can all be moved, and in older times, in the most complex marionettes, even the fingers could be bent, the eyes closed, and the mouth opened. The most technically advanced puppet was usually the nat priestess. It is known that in the mid-nineteenth century such a marionette could require tens of strings to manipulate its complicated movements. Even today two puppeteers are needed to manipulate one puppet during its most demanding movement sequences. Marionettes of jugglers perform with balls threaded into strings and dancing-girl marionettes can move their breasts and even buttocks. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki |-|]

Traditionally, marionette plays were performed to the accompaniment of an orchestra on a wide stage containing a fixed set of a throne hall, with an elaborate throne and ritual parasols on the left and a forest scene on the right. The wings of the easily constructed bamboo stage were covered by a pair of curtains painted with scenes from the Jataka stories. The puppeteers worked behind the curtain, manipulating the puppets from above the stage. |-|

Burmese Marionette Performance

The marionette show usually opens with a 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.” By doing 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 drum 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 by matching the music the puppets movements. In this way the ritual dances serve as a 'trailer' or “overture” for the audience. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information ~]

After the ritual dance comes the dance of the animals and mythical beings in the primeval forest. It is also supposed to be the beginning of the world. The orchestra preludes 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 celestial bodies to appear were Asavani, a 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, high-stepping with grace and dignity. Soon the stage is full of animals: tigers on the prowl, birds in the air and 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 mysterious beauty to the wilds. ~

There is a saying that no play is complete without the royal court scene with the king and ministers, but this scene is generally considered boring to the audience. It is however also considered auspicious to open the play with this scene and therefore it is done. 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 to the young. ~

After the court scene comes the much awaited hna-par-thwar—the duet dance which 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, recitations, and the music of the orchestra. ~

Marionette Theater Festival

No pagoda festival in Myanmar is complete 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. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information ~]

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, hand woven cottons, bamboo and cane baskets, mats, woodwork, and 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 be 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. ~

The marionette show goes on all through the night. This often makes a non-Myanmar ask in surprise: "How is it 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 Burmese 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 may 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. ~

Steven Taylor wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, “If you ever find yourself in rural Myanmar and get invited to an all-night event featuring music and dance, you'll find there are strings attached. Myanmar string puppetry is a traditional art form that substitutes human actors with wooden marionettes. Ma Ma Naing, managing director and puppeteer of the Mandalay Marionettes Theater told The Daily Yomiuri it is an important aspect of Myanmarese village life. "At festivals, we perform for the whole night, like in the olden days. We start at 9 p.m. until the next morning, 6 a.m. "Because there are many people from other villages who come to that village to see the puppet show, if we finish at midnight, they cannot go back to their village as it's very dark, so they are very angry," she said. [Source: Stephen Taylor, Daily Yomiuri, February 6, 2009 )(]

"The puppets make the audience feel like they are [watching] humans on stage. It touches the audience and if it is very cruel, the audience throws things at the puppets. Stones, something like that, so it can give a very deep feeling to the audience," Naing said. Music is another important feature of Myanmar puppetry and, according to Naing, something of a specialized skill. "It's very important. Musicians, puppeteers and singers, the three parts work together in a synchronized manner," she said. )(

While the themes of Myanmar puppet theater are based on Buddhism, the climactic moment in the performance, a duet between the Prince and Princess, is not as earnest as one might expect. "The Prince and Princess will see improvisation between the puppeteers and musicians. They make many jokes and say something about the festival organizer if, [for example], it is not very good curry. If they are not satisfied with their meal, they'll mention it during that part, with jokes. In the olden days, they were like a newspaper. They spread the news about current events and state affairs," she explained. The group, formed by Naing Mar in the 1980s is based in Mandalay, where the group performs for tourists who, unlike the villagers, have to pay. That version of the show is compressed into just an hour. )(

History of Yokhte Pwe, Burmese Marionette Theater

While Myanmar puppetry some say dates back as far as the 11th century, it enjoyed great popularity in the courts of the country's royalty during the 19th century, as human dancers were banned at the time. Not that this stopped puppeteers from imbuing their marionettes with feelings.

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: “Burmese literary sources mention that marionette theater was known in the country as early as the 15th century. However, it is generally believed that Burma’s highly valued marionette theater tradition (yokhte pwe) was formulated at the beginning of the so-called golden age of Burmese theater in the late 19th century. Its original purpose was to propagate and popularise the Buddhist Jataka stories, and during King Bodawpaya’s reign (1782–1819) the Minister of Theater, U Thaw, succeeded in assembling several companies of puppeteers. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki |-|]

“The origin of the idea is not known, but it is possible that the Thai court, at the time prisoners of the Burmese, also had puppets, which inspired the latter to create their own form of puppet theater. Another possibility is that the Burmese were familiar with the marionette theater of Sri Lanka, with which the Burmese had close religious and cultural contacts. It has been suggested that the reason for the popularity of marionette plays was the ban forbidding live actors from portraying the sacred personages of the Jataka stories. |-|

“The court supported several companies of puppeteers and the puppet-masters were highly respected, often more than ordinary actors. The plays were originally created for the court but the touring troupes of the rural areas developed their own versions of the plays, leading to an amalgamation of court and popular forms. |-|

“In older times, the performances lasted all night, and a single Jataka play could extend over several days. Before the actual performance, offerings were made to the Buddha and the nat spirits. In older times, the plays followed a definite pattern, the first part presenting the creation of the universe, according to the Burmese-Buddhist world-view, where the old universe goes up in flames and the following one is deluged. This is followed by a third inhabited by the nat. A marionette of a nat priestess then performs a skilful dance dedicated to the nat. Various mythical animals and beasts appear in their prescribed order, followed by demonic figures enacting their feasts. |-|

The colonial period destroyed much of the traditional theater, and consequently marionette theater became rare. With luck one may still see marionette theater performed at temple festivals. Since the 1980s marionette puppet theater has been somewhat revived to serve the tourist industry. Since the colonial period the wide stage with its palace and forest sets has been replaced with a mini-size Western-type stage with a curtain and painted backdrops, showing a palace, a forest, a village etc. Full plays are now very rare. Shows for tourists usually consist of dance numbers of the popular characters, such as the Sorcerer, the Prince and the Princess and some comic characters. |-|

Yokhte Pwe, Burmese Marionette Theater Characters

A marionette of a Magician or a Sorcerer, one of the stock characters of Burmese theater, performs conjuring tricks with a wand in his hand. The Prince (mintha) and Princess (minthamee), the standard hero and heroine of Burmese theater, then appear to perform their delicate dance. This is followed by the king and the ministers, whose discussion serves as an introduction to the actual play. The plots of the plays are derived either from the Jataka stories or from the Ramayana epic. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki |-|]

Familiar figures include: 1) the king of the gods, Thagyarmin, the Burmese name for the deity called Sakka by Indian Buddhists and Indra by Hindus; 2) the demon Yaksha, known for its great strength and habit of eating people, similar to an ogre in Western fairy mythology; 3) The sorcerer, or magician, (zawgyi, in Burmese), a survivor from pre-Buddhist Burma and practitioner of alchemy to attain immortal life, along with lesser attainments such as the power of flight; and 4) the hermit, a seeker who lives in solitude and strives for spiritual advancement. [Source: Aaron Shepard, Australia’s School Magazine, May 2007 >>]

Though he is more characteristic of the Hindu tradition—which many Buddhist fables draw on—the hermit is dressed as a Buddhist monk. The sorcerer is similar to a Chinese Taoist “Immortal.” The “dance of the zawgyi” is one of the most popular portions of the puppeteers’ pre-play warm-up. India’s heavenly gods—called devas—have been replaced by the Burmese native gods called nats. For Rangoon Buddhists, such gods are powerful being still of lower rank than one who becomes a Buddha or Bodhisattva. >>

The number of puppets was set at 28 by 1776 treaty under the Nyaungyan dynasty. Later, according to an 1821 edict, eight additional puppets were added. These eight remain optional and are only used occasionally according to the companies and the plays of certain repertoires. The number 28 is linked to an important Buddhist work, the Abhidhama Pitaka, which approaches Buddhism in a psychological and metaphysical way. This book mentions the 28 attributes of the human body which are symbolically carved on the puppets. Staging a show with an odd number of puppets is avoided. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information ~]

The 28 puppets named in the 1776 treaty are: 1) Natkadaw: medium; 2) Aphyo-daw: maid of honour; 3) Myin: horse; 4) Myauk: monkey; 5) Taw-belu: ogre or jungle demon; 6) Nan-belu: ogre or city demon; 7) Kyar: tiger; 8) Sin-net: black elephant; 9) Naga: dragon serpent; 10) Garuda: mythical bird; 11) Zawgyi: magician-alchemist; 12) Nan Yin Wun: prime minister; 13) Pyi De Yay Wun: minister of the Interior; 14) Atwin Wun: general secretary; 15) Myo Wun: Governor; 16) Thu Nge Daw: page; 17) Bayin: King; 18) Mintha: Prince; 19) Minthamee: Princess; 20) Lu Shin daw - Than Cho: jester; 21) Lu Shin daw - Than Pyet: second jester; 22) Mintha-gyi: white-faced Prince Regent (good); 23) Mintha-gyi: red-faced Prince Regent (evil); 24) Thagyar Min: King of celestial spirits (Nat); 25) Nat Pyet: evil spirit (Nat); 26) Brama or Sama-deva: good spirit (Nat); 27) Ponna: astrologer (evil); and 28) Ya-thay: hermit or monk. ~

Since the 1821 edict did not make a list of the additional puppets. it is impossible to assert that the following were not anterior to the edict: 29) Kyee-to-yway or Wun-bo: parrot; 30) Mi-gyaung: crocodile; 31) Sin-phyo: white elephant; 32) A-po-oh: old man; 33) A-may-oh: old woman; 34) Mi-baya: Queen; 35) Sone or Meinma-gyan: witch or evil woman; and 36) Mote-soe or Lu-gyan: hunter or evil man. This list is far from being exhaustive and according to the companies and the era other puppets can be encountered such as the pig, dog, ogress, lion, owl, actor and actress. ~

Making Burmese Marionettes

Some puppets-masters made their puppets themselves but they were generally manufactured by specialists. Yamanay wood was preferred to all others for its solidity and lightness. This species grows in Myanmar's highest and coolest regions and reaches several dozen meters in height. It was so much believed to have beneficial powers that it was even used in the making of sacramental thrones. Craftsmen for whom it was a specialty to make puppets carefully selected the tree which they thought fit for their purpose and let it dry. It was indeed considered a good omen that all puppets should be carved out of the same tree. The latter was then cut into pieces, each of which was marked on its upper part so that the characters would not be made upside down, and again they were dried. The dried pieces were then plunged into water: the immersed parts being used for the making of male characters whereas the parts in the open air were used for the making of female characters. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information ~]

The head measured one length, the body si, which made a total of seven lengths equivalent to between 60 centimeters and one meter (the latter being rare. due to the weight of the puppet). The arms measured half the body's length without the head. which itself measured three times the nose in length and five times the eyes in width. The ministers are among the tallest puppets and the page among the smallest. The forehead's, shoulders' and hips' width—together with the delicacy of the nose, hands and waist of female figures—required very accurate measures. These criteria were also adapted to the traditional dances that women were supposed to execute. ~

Real human hair was attached using little holes in the head of the puppet. Arranged in a row forming a circle, the hair went from the top of the forehead to the nape of the neck. Nowadays, horse hair is used more than human hair. The eyes of the Prince and Princess are usually made of onyx and white jade. The neck is comprised of a a piece that brought the head and shoulders together and allowed lighter animation. The finished puppet is clothed and animated by strings which were tied to the neck, shoulders, elbows, wrists, thighs, knees and waist (with the exception of Nat Pyet, who had a round belly). ~

Although the most ancient puppets that exist today date back to the 18th century, excavations in small villages have revealed scaled-down limbs that appear to have belonged to dolls or puppets, though they were not made out of wood but out of clay. ~

Painting and Tattoos Burmese Marionette

For centuries, the same technique has been used for the painting of puppets as no chemical paint has yet been found that is able to match the porcelain color achieved with traditional pigments since ancient times. The puppets are painted with a mixture made of talcum powder or lime that has been brought to a powdery consistency on a spherical stone (also used to grind the Thanakha, a tree whose bark utilized by women and children for make-up and protection against the sun and mosquitoes) and water. The result is a kind of dough. Tamarind seeds are also heated for about five hours before they are crushed and brought to a greasy cream. These two doughs are then mixed and used for the painting of good characters' faces. Ten layers or so are necessary to obtain a lasting painting. This operation must be executed within a day and in the sunlight so that the different layers of painting dry rapidly. In the old days, a little cushion was placed on the puppets' heads during transportation so that they would not be damaged and once a year they were entirely cleansed and painted anew. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information ~]

A little vermilion color was obtained thanks to some mercury oxide. Hinthapada was mixed with basic white paint to paint evil faces. Black, which was used to paint the eyes and eyebrow, was made with a mixture of soot, tamarind and fish's bile ( ngagyin, Cirrhina morigala). Nowadays, the use of ink is more widespread. However, vermilion is still used for painting the hands, nostrils, feet and lips. It is also used in making the circular motifs which are eventually filled with greasepaint on the cheeks of pages, imitating women's and children's thanakha. The face's expression was realised with much care since it was supposed to convey joy, grief or anger. ~

Traditionally, tattoos embellished or protected their bearer against the blows of misfortune. Because they believed in the existence of spirits and dark forces, the Burmese were covered with them and symbolically reproduced them onto their puppets. Nicolo di Conti, a Venetian merchant who came to Burma in 1435 said: "All inhabitants, men and women, decorate their flesh using an iron point that paints them in an indelible manner. Thus are they painted for the rest of their days". These tattoos could be located on the face, the chest, the pelvis, the feet, the hands and the limbs. ~

Clothes and Strings on Burmese Marionette

Sequins and glass pearls was used both in the making of royal and puppet clothes. During the 17th century these sequins were imported from India. In the years that followed they began to be manufactured in Burma. Some villages lived entirely on their manufacturing and a few years ago. families that lived on this sole activity could still be found in the neighborhood of Mandalay. To produce these sequins one had to roll copper or brass strings around a stem and then cut them to obtain small metal rings. Nowadays they are made out of plastic. As for glass pearls they were and still are made of a superimposition of glass, resin and polished metal which was then colored in order to make it take the aspect of a cabochon. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information ~]

These "jewels" were first embroidered onto silk or velvet material, then cut, assembled and sewed to be used as shoulder-straps, wristbands and various ornamental features worn by noble characters (Princes, Princesses, Kings and Nats). Very few puppets were soberly dressed and all but the hermit wore decorations. ~

Most puppets hung by ten to twenty strings (kyo), with the exception of the Naga (hung by two strings) and some special ones that were hung by more than twenty. These strings were usually white and were invisible whenever the scenery was darker. The strings sometimes were grey or black. These strings were solidified, protected against moths and dipped for several days in the juice of the "te" fruit, a local tree (Diospyros Burnianica) whose acid allows the strings to be disentangled easier. The five main strings, called "life strings," were tied to the shoulders, the spine and the temples. ~

The Prince's heels and toes were usually also tied to strings, which was not the case with the Princess, for whom it would not have been acceptable to dance with open toes in front of the audience. Only the alchemist's, the page's and the ogre's knees were tied to strings. Strings could also be hidden inside the body to discreetly animate parts such as the eyes or mouth. The latter then opens and closes thanks to strings going through the head, as was the case of some jesters who could move their tongue and eyelids. These puppets seem to be of a more recent manufacture. ~

Marionette Stage, Setting and Scenery

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 kadaw-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. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information ~]

Scenic background. until recently was not used because marionettes show better against the white background. The props used are not many: a tree branch, for example, to convey the idea of a forest; a throne for the king's audience hall, and the couch for the boudoir. Usually it takes two people to present a marionette on the stage: one to recite or sing and the other to manipulate the strings of the uppet. Sometimes an artist might be able to do both but such cases are rare. ~

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 that 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. Among the good points of a Myanmar marionette show is 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. ~

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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