A Guide to Tourism Destinations and Beyond      Vol.4   No.4     July September 2005

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 The making of  marionettes
Text & Photo: Ma Thanegi

Puppets in Myanmar all along history had been marionettes, handled through strings. There is no tradition of hand, stick, or shadow puppets.

Marionettes became very powerful in the 18th century during the reign of King Bagyidaw (r. 1819- '837). Although he was an out-doors man happiest when riding with his friends, during his time great literature flourished as did the performing arts. He gave strong support to the marionette stage, allowing the 'wooden dolls' to speak up on any issue whether political or social and it did not matter that behind the screen there was a man talking on behalf of the puppets.The Myanmar court had no tradition of a court jester in the mode known in the West, and the king knew there should be a medium through which complaints could be made without incurring royal anger. He had to take into account the reaction of many princes, his half-brothers, as well as of his beloved queen Mai Nu, common born but greatly
favoured and raised to the powerful rank of chief queen. This freedom allowed the puppets to speak to the king or court what others dared not say. Thus, a great many wrongs were righted, and many lives saved through the speech of the puppets. It was also the privilege of the Minister of Theatre that he can invite the king or prince to a puppet show in an emergency by which the royals knew something important would be imparted. Even then, the message could not be too frankly spoken and was inserted in a play. However, as royal ears were used to the nuances of polite speech, the messages did get through, and it was not uncommon for a prince to dash off mid- performance to save a life, or a prisoner decreed to be set free before the show was over.

The puppets, since they are too small to be seen easily, were allowed to use a stage denied to humans, as by social and religious ethics women could not be standing higher than men in the audience. Puppeteers however must all be men of good character and thus the marionette stage earned the title "High Theatre" while the humans danced as "Lower Theatre." In addition, human performers were not allowed to wear full regalia of a king or robes of a monk in their plays while puppets were allowed to be fully dressed as their characters and their costumes permitted to be sewn with gold thread or embroidery.

It was not only at court that the puppets served the people. In the countryside, they were the media when there were no newspapers. Puppet troupes travel from town to town, and the puppeteers gather information and gossip from many places, as well as from the capital city. They will relay the news through the speeches of the comedian puppets, so that the country people in remote villages also heard about city life and the latest scandals.

The comedian puppet handlers were the most important members of the troupe, and their impromptu jokes, songs and long poetic speeches were much admired. The village people attended these performances diligently, for this was a way of getting news as well as for learning about history and literature.

The best troupes would be under the patronage of the king, and queens, princes, and the nobility each had their own troupe. The competition was fierce, and jokes played on each other much amused the audiences. The orchestra is always placed in front of the stage, while the singers sit behind. The instinctive ability of the three, singer, handler and musician, to connect their minds to work in perfect rhythm is not easily established So most partners work for long years if not all through their lives.

The leading roles in Myanmar theatre are the Prince and Princess, always gorgeously dressed in silks and jewellery. They also have real hair implanted in the skulls, which is combed out, washed, and oiled by not the handlers, but the speakers who are the actual owners. The two dancing puppets are the lead- ing roles, so they are important enough to have a man each speaking or singing for them. They sit behind the screen while the puppeteer is busy handling the strings. The speakers give the final, important touch of life and personality to the puppets, so they are the owners, not the puppeteers. The official number of puppets in a troupe is 28, but there could be more: never less.

The wood used is Yamanay (Gmelina aborea) as it is light, pale in colour and durable. It is also considered 'auspicious', an important fact in Myanmar society, as the king's main throne must be carved out of it. In the old days, the 28 requisite puppets must be made out of one Yamanay tree.The log is floated and the part that is above the water was marked and carved
into male figures while the one submerged was cut into females and animals. Thicker parts of the limbs or body are hollowed so that they would be lighter. All puppets must have complete sexual organs carved in, although not in detail .

               The ratios of anatomy for puppets are handed down for generations through a verse, as are usual with other crafts as well.
              "Feet tucked three
              And feet down five;
              Upright's to be seven.
              Three times nose and five of eyes,
              Head is four joints of a hand"
              In a sitting position with feet tuck under the body, the puppet must be as high as three times the length of the head and if seated on a chair with feet down, the height is five times. Standing upright, seven.

The length of the face is three noses long and the width five times that of the eyes. The whole face is four finger-joints, which is approximately 4 inches or 10 cm. That means the whole puppet would stand lOcm or a little over 2 ft. Comedian or minister puppets can be bigger as they are not dancing roles.   
The female form is made according to the traditional concept of Three Broadness and Three Slenderness: broadness of forehead, shoulder and hips, and slenderness of nose, hands, and waist. Constructed thus, the female marionette when held upright immediately takes the basic stance of a dancer: knees slightly apart
and bent, and the shoulders flared back. The neck is sloped so that the chin is thrust forward. Human dancers once learnt choreography from puppets handled by asters, and this pose is the first they learn from their small teachers.

Each puppet is made with especially crafted joints attached 5cm apart with double strings with soft rags wrapped around them, and over which a clean cotton cloth is sewn. Dancing puppets have strings attached to each side of the forehead, back of neck, lower spine, elbows, hands, knees, and heels.

Dovetail joints form the wrists and ankles, and the fingers are sometimes jointed. They also have a pin glued to their fingers to enable them to lift up their scarves as they dance. The pelvis joints are connected with stronger strings without the use of rags. The toes curve upwards to give a sense of speed to the feet.

A circlet of wood, carved into the shape of the throat, is placed between the head and shoulders and attached through with strings, to give mobility of the head. Only the dancing roles puppets have real hair, however. Some- times Onyx and white jade are used for the eyes of the dancers. The non-dancing roles are not so elaborately constructed, and some- times have wires connecting the joints rather than strings and rags.

The white paint used on faces and hands is traditionally made with the best, the whitest talc ground on a stone mortar with a little water and the resulting paste mixed with glue obtained from boiling roasted tamarind seeds. Strictly speaking, the requisite seven layers of paint must be applied with a white chicken feather but in modern days
the use of both talc or tamarind seed, not to mention white feathers, have been discontinued. The white- ness of the faces made it easier for the audience to see the puppets under the flick- ering oil lamps used in the past. Evil role puppets have a smidgeon of vermilion mixed into the white to give them pink faces.

Craft shops in modern times sell marionettes with black and gold faces as souvenirs, but although they look elegant as objects d'art, they are not old and neither are they traditional. The marionettes that could re- ally be manipulated to dance must be specially constructed and are not easily brought off the shelves.

As there are strict rules in the making, the performance also is controlled by old beliefs and customs. When the troupe travels, the puppets are kept in two huge trunks. Some puppets are enemies to each other, for example the tiger and elephant, or the two ogres, so they must be stored separately. Even on stage, they must be hung up at either side of the stage. The Prince and Princess dancers naturally enough travel separately in their own boxes, as befit any diva of the stage.

            The 28 puppets are:
            1. The Hermit
            2. King of the Celestial Beings
            3. Prince
            4. Princess.
            5. Handmaiden
            6. Medium.
            7. Zawgyi, magician of the forest.
            8. Than-cho, the comedian
            9. Than-pyet, his straight man
            10. Pageboy
            11. Ponna, the Brahmin astrologer.
            12, 13, 14, 15. 16. the king and four ministers.
            17, 18. The two prince regents, one with
            the red face of evil.
            19, 20. The ogres: the palace ogre and the jungle ogre.
            21, 22.The good Celestial Being and the Evil Celestial Being.
            23. Garuda, the mythical giant bird
            24. Naga, the mythical water serpent.
            25. Horse
            26. Monkey
            27. Tiger
            28. Elephant
            Optional puppets are stork, parrot, old couple, crocodile, etc.
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