August 18, 2016

A Study of Myanmar Puppetry (Part I)

Daw Ma Ma Naing stages Myanmar marionette show. (Photo supplied by Daw Ma Ma Naing)
Daw Ma Ma Naing stages Myanmar marionette show. (Photo supplied by Daw Ma Ma Naing)

Twin inspirations that caused the writer to write this article are firstly the news report in the highly esteemed daily The Global New Light of Myanmar of 23rd  August 2015 Sunday, by Khaing Thanda Lwin on “Myanmar to share puppetry with Singaporean students”, secondly, on that same day the presentation to the writer by U Ye Dway of his national literary award winner book Marionettes of Myanmar.
At the invitation of Nan Yang Academy of Fine Arts, Singapore, the Mandalay Marionette Theatre led by its Managing Director Daw Ma Ma Naing would go to Singapore to train 20 students for three days from 26 to 28 August only in basic skills in the use of string puppets. The writer knows this lady very well as she was a good history major student at Mandalay University while he was the Professor of History. She should have proceeded with her post-graduate courses so that by now she would be his successor. But she turned to performing arts and chose almost obsolete art – puppetry, with the noble aim of not only reviving it but also bringing it on international stage. In spite of challenges and difficulties, she did achieve her aim and her troupe is making foreign tours almost every year. It is a good news that she is off to prestigious Nan Yang  Academy, Singapore.
U Ye Dway is the writer’s old colleague. During the writer’s 8 years service as Director-General of Fine and Performing Arts Department, Ministry of Culture, he proved one of the writer’s helping hands. Besides, in all annual performing arts competitions held at State level he worked with the writer in many capacities. Like Daw Ma Ma Naing, U Ye Dway was a devotee of Myanmar puppetry. Though a college degree holder he put his time and money in reviving and renovating this nearly dying art of puppetry. He formed a puppet troupe Dagon Aung Yokethey. He had been many countries of East and West with puppet tradition, either on invitation for performance or for seminar. When the writer browsed the pages of his book the writer was surprised and overjoyed to find in the bibliography some articles the writer wrote in English and Burmese dailies and monthlies of three or four decades ago.
Here follows the writer’s article “A study of Myanmar Puppetry”-
The origin of Myanmar puppetry Myanmar has a long tradition of puppetry. Our puppetry preceded our dancing and dramatic art and it had enjoyed pride of place in the Myanmar heart. But its origin is still an unsolved mystery. Scholars try to trace its trail far back into the past via archaeology, anthropology, history, literature and many media of arts, but they lose their trek in the welter of facts and guesses. Myanmar’s geographical proximity to India and China tempted some scholars to surmise that puppetry came from either India or China. But Myanmar puppetry has nothing in common with those of her neighbours. Chinese puppets are glove and rod types, and the Indian puppets are flat leather figures, whereas Myanmar puppets are wooden marionettes manipulated by means of strings. It is strange that although Myanmar belongs to the region of South East Asia, they wayyang or shadow puppet which has flourished in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia and water puppet of Vietnam never emerged in Myanmar.
Archaeological and historical evidences regarding puppetry in Myanmar, so far traceable, do not go beyond the fifteenth century. But old puppeteers used to chant the following rhyme:
“ရုပ်သေးအစ၊ ကျုံးသုံးတန်နှင့်၊ ပုဂံက”
“The puppet show originated in Bagan with three kinds of moat”
Unfortunately we have not excavated Bagan exhaustively neither have we chemically cleaned the walls and ceilings of monuments to recover mural paintings which may have depicted puppets shows of the time.
Right now, of the archaeological evidences the earliest one is the lithic inscription of Inwa Period of Myanmar history. The inscription was dated 1444 A.D. and was known as Sagaing Htu Payone Zedi Daw Kyauk Sar which records the great meritorious deeds of King Narapati. Lines 52 to 55 of this inscription mention the names of the performing artists including puppeteers who performed their talents at the pagoda festival. The following is an excerpt from the inscription:
”အရုပ်သည် သျှင်ပညာတင်မည် ငသုမ်၊ ငစည် ငဖြူတာ၊ အောင်နိုင် ခင်လှကဲ သူချမ်းသာ တောင်ဖက်သာ၊ အရုပ်သည် ငရွှေဦး ငမြလူ ပညာ သည်အပေါင်း ၅ ကျိပ်”
“Puppeteers, artists Nga Thone, Nga Si, Nga Phyu Tar, Aung Naing, Khin Hla Ke, Thu Chan Thar, Taung Pet Thar, Puppeteers Nga Shwe U, Nga Mya Lu—- total number of artists 50.”
The next is a literary piece from a famous poem Buyidat Linga Gyi composed in 1484 A.D. by a monk poet Shin Maha Rathata Thara of the Inwa Period. Stanza No. 152 of this poem has the following line:
”အတွေအခဲ၊ တွဲရရွဲလျက်၊ ကြိုးဆွဲငင်ချ၊ အရုပ်ကသို့—”
“There are hangings and danglings like the dance of the string puppets”
This line specifically mentions the dance of the string puppets.
Similar reference is found in another poem of the same monk poet, composed in 1529 A.D. The poem was titled “Than Wara Pyo”. Stanza No. 168 of this poem has the following rhymes:
”ပျော်မှုတသီး၊ ရုပ်ကြီးရုပ်ငယ်၊ မီးဝယ်ကြည့်ပွဲ၊ အံ့အဲမနိုင်၊ အဆိုင်ဆိုင်လျှင်၊ အဲတိုင်၊အဲခံ—”
“Entertainment such as marionette at night to be seen under the light is very wonderful. A variety of performances with the songs Eh-chin and An-chin—”
Performance of marionettes was also referred to in the satirical poem “Yama Yakan” composed in the years Myanmar Era 1113-1158 [1751-1796 A.D.] by a lay poet named U Toe. The following passage from his poem has mention of puppet show:-
”ကင်းလျှိုးလမ်းလျှောက်၊ ဓါးမြှောက်ရုပ်စုံ၊ မြေကြီးများတုန်အောင်၊ ဘိန်းပုံလိမ့်၊ ပိန့်ဘောင်းသာနှင့်လေး”
“Acrobats doing handstand and headstand stants, Jugglers playing with daggers, puppets dancing, and Sonorous music resounding till the ground trembled.”
The Great Chronicle named U Kala Maha Yazawun Gyin compiled by a lay historian U Kala during the reign of King Taninganwe [1714-1733 A.D.] records the grand royal banquet followed by performances of artists accorded on the first day the waning moon of the month of Taboung [March] in the Myanmar Era 980 [1615 A.D.] in honour of the Envoy of Mogul Emperor Akbar, the Ambassador from Colchonda [ a kingdom on the Coromandle Coast of India] and the Ambassador from Achin [an island kingdom in the East Indies]. A variety of entertainments including marionette show was staged at this reception. Eyewitness U Kala records as follows:-
”ထိုနေ့က၊ ကချေသဘင်စုံခံရသည်။ မွန်ပတ် တဆယ့်လေးဆိုင်း၊ မြန်မာပတ်တဆိုင်း၊ ကချေ ၁၃၊ အရုပ်ကြီးအရုပ်ငယ် သဘင်စုံခံရသည်”
“On that day, a variety entertainment was staged. Fourteen Mon musical Ensembles, one Myanmar musical Ensembles, thirteen dancers, and puppet and marionette shows were performed—”
The Konbaung Period [1752-1885 A.D.] of Myanmar history provides abundant evidences both pictorial inscriptional and historical, of the performance of marionette plays. Marionette shows were depicted in the mural paintings on the ceilings and walls of religious monuments and pagodas, and carvings and sculptures of wooden monasteries or brick and stone buildings at and around old capital cities such as Shwebo, Sagaing, Pinya, Inwa, Amarapura and Mandalay.
King Bodawpaya whose reign lasted long [1782-1819 A.D.] 37 years was the sixth king in the Konbaung dynasty. He was a great royal patron of art, architecture and literature. He appointed a learned man named U Thaw as Minister in charge of entertainment. U Thaw continued to serve under the next king Bagyidaw [reign 1819-1837 A.D.]. On the 9th day of waxing moon of Tabaung [March] in the Myanmar Era 1183 [1821 A.D.] King Bagyidaw issued a set of rules and regulations regarding Myanmar marionette show. [English translation of these rules and regulations on marionette show will be appendixed at the end of this article.]. All puppeteers in his kingdom were bound to abide by them, or pain of punishment.
In the year 1823 A.D. King Bagyidaw built a royal monastery named Maha Aung Myey Bon Tha Kyaung Taw at his capital city Inwa. In line 77 of the stone inscription set up in the compound of this monastery which recorded that great religious merit are mentioned sundry entertainments including puppet shows, performed at the ceremony of the Royal Donation. The line runs thus:-
“မီးပုံဆင်းပွဲ၊ ဂွမ်းထိုးတိုင်တက်၊ ပချုပ်ငှက် ထွက်၊ သရက်သီးဆွတ်၊ လမ္ပယ်၊မြွေဖမ်း၊ လက်ပန်း လက်ပွေ့၊ ဇာတ်ကြီး၊ရုပ်သေး၊ ရုံး၊ယွန်း၊ယိုးဒယား၊ ကုလား၊ ဝေသာလီ၊ တရုတ်တရက်၊ ဘာသာအဖွဲ့၊ အချီး၊ အတီး အက၊ ယင်းသို့စသော ပွဲမျိုးစုံတို့ဖြင့်—”
“Camp fire, some result, pole climbing, magic, snake-charming, wrestling, puppet and marionette shows— Performances of music and dances by such nationalities as Shans, Yuns, Thais, Vesali, Indian, Chinese, Tartars, and similar variety of entertainments were staged.”
One white parabike [white folding book] of the Konbaung Period contains a colour fully illustrated scene of a puppet show, depicting the stage in progress of performance, the music troupe in action, and the spectator audience in a rejoicing mood. It vividly conveys to us a realistic picture of a marionette show in its contemporary setting.
Major Michael Symes, an English Envoy dispatched to the Court of Inwa in 1795 A.D. during the reign of King Bodawpaya recorded fully the Myanmar marionette show he was honoured to watch after the Ihingyan New Year water festival he participated at the great house of the Myo-wun [Mayor] of the Dagaon Town. The entertainment of a dance and puppet show lasted till eleven. [Vide Michael Symes, An Account of the Embassy to the Kingdom of Ava, London, 1800 pp. 178-180]
In the writings of English and western visitors, servicemen and tourists in the British colonial period Myanmar puppet shows were penned appreciatively with photographic illustrations. Prominent among them were Grant Browne, J.G. Scott [Shway Yoe] R.Boileau Pemberton, Maurice Collis.
The fact that the above evidences are not earlier than the 15th century does not rule out the possibility of the emergence and existence of Myanmar marionette show prior to tat century. More research is needed and archaeology and cultural anthropology have yet to turn up hitherto unearthed data regarding this subject.


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