marshow.jpg (50670 bytes)
Postcard of Marionette show
circa 1900

In ancient times marionettes in Myanmar were more than the entertaining stringed puppets they are today. They were a form of medium to tell country folk in far-flung villages the happenings in the Capital. They were allowed safely to divulge bad news to the king when a live messenger would probably have had his head chopped off! And the king himself could reprimand members of his family in a much less direct manner so nobody would lose face.

Marionettes first made their appearance on the cultural scene in the 15th century according to written records and reached the peak of their popularity and power during the 18th century. The king patronised his own troupe, as did the queen, princes and other nobility. Other troupes would roam the country playing at Pagoda festivals, which are the country fairs of Myanmar: these troupes would include in their performances scenarios of what was going on in court circles, including royal scandals, much to the enjoyment of the villagers.

People with grievances to report to the king were more likely to succeed with the help of the master of the Grand Royal Troupe by asking him to insert a plea couched in poetic language in a show for the royal audience.The king himself knew that causing one of his family to lose face would probably result in a vengeful attempt on his life so he would instruct the troupe master to give a kindly hint during a show!

The wooden dolls enjoyed great privileges: in those days human dancers were not allowed on stage as it was considered disrespectful to stand higher than nobles or the elderly among the audience so they danced on the ground instead. Dancers of the opposite sex were not allowed to touch each other or to wear a complete outfit when enacting royalty or a priest. Because marionettes were not human and too small to be viewed with ease they were allowed to be on a raised dais with the puppeteers hidden behind a tautly-stretched white waist-high screen. There was an opening in the middle, usually hidden by a flap of cloth, where nobler puppets such as the Hermit or Celestial King could make their entrance and exit. Lesser puppets used the sides with the "good guys" using the right side and the "bad guys" using the left!

The puppets were allowed complete regalia and religious robes whereas humans had to be satisfied with a token cloth or crown: being gorgeously dressed the puppets easily outshone their human counterparts. The puppets' dancing and behaviour was also acceptably more free and to add insult to injury so to speak their art became to be known as "high drama" because they performed on a stage!

The marionettes were fashioned lovingly by the puppeteer himself in the old days, from  a particular timber (usually Yamane but not teak as this is too heavy) and real human hair was implanted on the head. The joints were carefully strung and wrapped with lengths of soft rags and sexual organs were roughly carved and drawn with red ink! A paste made from talc and tamarind seeds was painted on the face, hands and feet to give a lustrous ivory glow.

Dancing puppets have the most strings: the basic ones are the five attached to the "H"-shaped handlebar which is held in the palm of the left hand. Two are for the forehead, two for the shoulders and one for the spine; the others are looped over the fingers of the right hand of the puppeteer with one long string connecting each of the fingers, the elbows, the knees, the heels and the toes.

Needless to say the care and storage of the puppets is in accordance with ancient customs and rituals: for example small pillows are tied to their faces during storage so the paint doesn't chip.

To make these wooden dolls seem alive it isn't only the skill of the puppeteer that is at stake but the rhetoric of the singer who is hidden behind the screen and the leader of the orchestra ranged in front: the three must share a close rapport which breathes life into their small charges. The marionettes are never referred to as "it" and puppeteers will never allow anyone to unravel the strings and handle them. As soon as the strings are unraveled the puppets must be handled expertly so that they seem to breathe - even off-stage. Special "nat" ceremonies are held to supplicate the goddess of the performing arts and breathe life into the marionettes (or "instill the butterfly" as it is known). With such care for their well-being by their doting handlers it is hardly surprising that the marionettes seem to come alive in their hands, almost smiling with satisfaction!

The first "Thabin Wun" (Minister for the performing arts) decreed that there be 28 marionettes in each performance, this number being symbolic of the 28 attributes which make up the human body according to the third book of the Tipitaka, namely the Abhidhamma Pitika. The number of puppets actually used varies according to which play is enacted and we list below those generally seen:

Hermit ( Yatheik - pictured ) - traditionally he lives in the forest and helps people who have lost their way

Hermit (Bo-Daw) - traditionally the mentor of kings and arbiter of disputes; similar to Yatheik but has many lives
Maid of Honour (AhpyodawAhpyodaw and Nat-Kadaw are usually the same puppet: the crown is removed for Ahpyodaw
King of the Celestial Beings (Tha-Gyar Min or Indra) - Celestial Beings are also called "nats" but are not the same as the spirits of nat worship. He looks after the welfare of humans from his abode in the sky

Prince and Princess (Mintha and Minthamee) - the main characters of Myanmar drama   
Spirit Medium (Nat-Kadaw) - the show is always opened with a Spirit Dance
Alchemist or Magician (Zawgyi) - always in red whose dance is full of high jumps and somersaults and the puppeteer is usually very skilled in his craft
Three Jokers (Yaw Yuet, Lu Phyet & Lu Shwin Daw)   
Royal Page (Than Nye Daw)marionette puppet 080    marionette puppet 156
King (Bayin)
Queen (Meet Phaya)
Four Ministers (Wun-gyi-lay-bar) - traditionally they would inform the audience what was happening in the capital

Wise Minister (Min Gyi Theit Taw Shei)
Finance Minister (Shwe Htaik Wun)
Mayor (Myo Daw Wun)
Prime Minister (Wun Htow Gyi)

Prince Regents (Minthagyi and Minthalatt)These are usually the same puppets as the Prince and Princess but the dress is altered depending upon story
Palace Ogre (Nan Belu) & Forest Ogre (Taw Belu) - recognised by his spiked head-dress the Palace Ogre is a strict vegetarian and eats only flowers whereas the Forest Ogre eats raw meat and wears a plume on his headdress. The Palace Ogre is more noble and powerful than his rival the Forest Ogre so he always stands on the right of the stage and always enters and exits from the right. Because they are enemies they are never stored in the same trunk!marionette puppet 152    marionette puppet 152a
Good (Nat) and Evil (Nat Phyet) Celestial Beings - less powerful than Tha-gyar Min        
Mythical Bird (Garuda) & Mythical Serpent (Naga) - enemies with the Garuda being the more powerful and they can change into human form  
Horse (Myin), Monkey (Myauk), Tiger (Kyar) & Elephant (Hsin Phyudaw) - the last two are enemies 
Can also have Stork (Nyet Gyi Wun Bo) , Parrot (Kyet-to-yway), Grandmother (Ah Phwa O), Grandfather (Ah Pho O), General (Sithu Gyi) King Rama, Rama's Brother (Lakana), Thida Daywee (Thida Daywee is same puppet as Minthamee with crown added, similar to Queen). marionette puppet 089

With Thanks to Ma Thanegi/Nyan Tun


  February 14, 2012