making of marionettes
Text & Photo: Ma Thanegi
in Myanmar all along history had been marionettes, handled through
strings. There is no tradition of hand, stick, or shadow puppets.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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
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
ratios of anatomy for puppets are handed down for generations through
a verse, as are usual with other crafts as well.
feet down five;
to be seven.
times nose and five of eyes,
is four joints of a hand"
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
28 puppets are:
King of the Celestial Beings
Zawgyi, magician of the forest.
Than-cho, the comedian
Than-pyet, his straight man
Ponna, the Brahmin astrologer.
13, 14, 15. 16. the king and four ministers.
18. The two prince regents, one with
red face of evil.
20. The ogres: the palace ogre and the jungle ogre.
22.The good Celestial Being and the Evil Celestial Being.
Garuda, the mythical giant bird
Naga, the mythical water serpent.
puppets are stork, parrot, old couple, crocodile, etc.