Keeping ancient traditions alive in Myanmar puppetry

“One unique thing to remember about Myanmar puppets, is that they all have genitals,” said Khin Maung Htwe, director of Htwe Oo Myanmar Traditional Puppet Theatre, at the start of his show, cueing a stifled giggle from an audience member.

“This is because the puppeteer believes that each and every puppet has a soul, and pays respect to it. If they do not do that, then the puppet will not do well in that performance.”

Myanmar puppetry, also known as yoke tha – loosely translated as “small performance” – does have other unique elements when compared with marionettes around the world. The array of 27 characters and the stories they tell are one element, as is the fact Myanmar puppets move in a circular fashion, as opposed to perpendicular in puppetry in most other countries.

Evidence shows that the art goes as far back as the 15th century, when it was used to entertain royalty and laypeople alike. Its popularity did not diminish for many centuries, and even into the late 19th and early 20th centuries, famed performers such as the renowned clown Shwe Lot Gyi and the great “Prince” Maung Tha Bway, entertained huge crowds in performances that lasted throughout the night. Maung Tha Bway was often invited into the Mandalay Palace to perform for King Thibaw and his queen, Supayalat, both who rarely left the palace walls.

Out in the streets, little-understood by the British, puppet plays were often used as a form of satire to make fun of the British during their colonial rule until the country’s independence.

“Before the 1950s, there were more than 100 puppet theatres in Myanmar, but now there are only five,” said Khin Maung Htwe. “It was our own form of media, a chance to talk about social issues and make jokes.”

He believes one of the reasons for the demise is because the country was ruled by a government afraid of allowing something that would make fun of them, something that hasn’t necessarily changed today.

“The present government are afraid of puppetry because they don’t want to be seen as a puppet government,” he said with a laugh, referring to the fact that some people believe that the current government is run behind the scenes by former dictator Senior General Than Shwe. “We used it to make fun of the British, so now the government is afraid we will use it to make fun of them.”

The practice, viewed by some as outdated, must also compete with more up-to-date forms of entertainment such as television and cinema. As Myanmar lurches towards modernity, the challenges faced to keep the art form alive will only increase.

Formerly a sailor, Khin Maung Htwe began his troupe in 2006 in a theatre in downtown Yangon. When Cyclone Nargis hit in 2008, tearing off the theatre’s roof and destroying his stock of puppets, he was forced to start again from his humble front room. As Myanmar’s growing tourism industry increases his audience numbers, Khin Maung Htwe has recently moved to a 25-seat theatre on Sule Pagoda Road in Yangon’s downtown.

While performances traditionally last throughout the entire night, Khin Maung Htwe’s 45-minute show is little more than a short introduction to some of the main characters, including the drunken buffoon who dies of alcoholism and becomes a nat [spirit], and the crowd-favourite bachelor and spinster performance that ends most shows.

In his book The Burman, Sir James Scott – under his pseudonym Shway Yoe – wrote that “it would be wrong to say there is no other amusement in the country, but it is indisputable that every other amusement ends up with dramatic performance.” Particular esteem, he wrote, is held for the puppetry form where “the elocutionary powers of the performer, the verve and passion of the songs, the accuracy and melody of the recitative,” must be as good, if not better, than in usual stage performances. He adds that the manual skills involved in manipulating the muppets is also an important point of pride.

But there are very few who can manipulate the puppets with such skill remaining. Khin Maung Htwe said there are just four or five puppeteering families left in Myanmar.

One of those is Nan Tin, 47, who has been performing since she was a child and is the great granddaughter of the legendary actor Po Sein, who is credited with innovating and modernising Myanmar performance arts.

“I love puppetry. It is something I have always done and something I can never see myself stopping.” She added that, although she has not been able to pass on her passion for the art to her son, she does teach puppet classes and hopes to train the next generation of puppeteers.

In order to inspire new waves of puppeteers, and ensure people remain interested in it, Khin Maung Htwe admits that he needs to change his approach. While he has limited success within with a Burmese audience, his troupe has had much success in international exhibitions and he is planning to write a new show for future events.

One he has written, which he will perform for international audiences first, is the story of his own life, complete with figurines in sailor uniforms and the traditional longyi. If it is successful abroad, he may begin showing it in Myanmar, he said.

“People are no longer interested in puppetry, so we need to be able to mix the ancient traditions with modernity in order to keep the tradition alive.”

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