The nature and characteristics of Myanmar puppetry
In olden days, Myanmar puppet show was called “Amyint Thabin [အမြင့်သဘင်] literally translated, it was “performance on the high level”, because it was performed on a raised platform or stage high above the ground. All other entertainments were performed on the grounds. So these on ground performances were called “Aneint Thabin” [အနိမ့်သဘင်] that is performance on the low level.
Many conventions, traditions and taboos govern the Myanmar puppetry and puppet show. Rules and regulations were prescribed regarding the carving of the puppet figures, hairdos, dresses, jewellery, makeup, consecrations of the puppet figures, protocol of puppet figures, construction of puppet stage, the procedure of puppet performance, qualification of puppeteers and gender discrimination.
Only the authorized sculptors who had the puppet tradition were allowed to make puppet figures. Traditionally there are minimum twenty-eight puppets in the show, namely (a) two nat [spirit] votaresses (b) one horse (c) two elephants [one black and the other white], (d) one male tiger (e) one male monkey (f) one parakeet (g) two ogres (h) one zawgyi [necromancer or alchemist] (i) one dragon (j) one garuda [mythical bird], (k) one deva (l) four ministers [two with red gowns and two with green gowns] (m) one king (n) one prince (o) one princess (p) two prince regents (q) one astrologer (r) one hermit (s) one old woman and (t) two court jesters. However there are different versions. As the above characters are most common in the plays performed by puppeteers the total number 28 is the minimum which is enough for the performance of any play, because the themes and plots are invariably taken from the 550 Jatakas [Buddha’s birth stories.]. Fables and historical episodes are occasionally reenacted.
The making of the puppet figures
The puppet sculptors are required to observe the strict rules regarding the choice of the prescribed type of wood for carving particular figures, the prescribed proportions of the figures befitting their roles and correct human anatomy including gender organs. Thus, for example, figures of deva, king, and hermit are to be made of Ayekayit wood [millingtonia hortensis], the figures of horse, elephant, human and nat-spirits are to be made of Yamanay wood [Gmelina arborea]. All the rest are to be made of Letpan wood or Thanthut wood.
The prescribed proportions of the puppet figures were described in rhymes, so that the puppet figure makers could easily memorize. The following is one such rhyme:
တင့်မျိုးဂုဏ်ကြူး၊ ခေါက်ချိုး တဝက်၊
ဆတိုးခွန်ခွဲ၊ ကလျှင်နတ်သား၊ ထင်မိမှားလိမ့်၊
For further detail on this aspect of Myanmar puppetry the writer recommend the readers a series of learned research articles titles “Anatomy of Myanmar Puppets” by Dr. Tin Maung Kyi which appeared in the August to December issues of the Guardian monthly magazines 1992. He is a medical doctor by profession but his live long hobby is Myanmar puppetry. He himself is carving puppet figures.
Two classifications of the puppet figures
After the puppet figures are carved according to the prescribed rules and conventions and correctly dressed, richly adorned and ornamented, they are classified into two categories namely the right group and the left group. To the right group belong (1) the hermit (2) the deva (3) the king (4) the ministers (5) the prince (6) the princess (7) the astrologer (8) the zawgyi [necromancer or alchemist] whereas (1) nat votaress (2) the horse (3) the tiger (4) the elephant (5) the monkey (6) the parakeet (7) the ogres (8) the dragon (9) the garuda (1) the old woman and (11) the court jesters form the left group. They are kept in two separate chests – the right chest for the right group and the left chest for the left group. When they are hung up on the bar at the rear of the stage, similar protocol order is followed. The right group puppets hung on the right side of the bar and the left group puppets on its left side.
The rite of consecration “La-maing Tin Pwe” [Putting life into the figures]
A special rite is necessary to animate [to give life to] the wooden puppet figures. It is called “La-maing Tin. “La-maing” is a guardian nat-spirit to be propitiated in cultivation, hunting and performing arts. Tin means to offer something to propitiate. Offerings are a green coconut placed in the middle of a raised tray, three bunches of bananas are arranged around it. White and red ribbons are adorned on the coconut. Packets of pickled tea and betel nuts with betel are placed between bunches of bananas. Flowers and Thabyey [Eugenia Sprigs] glutinous rice, fried fish and rice cake are offered. Incense sticks and candles are lit. Either spirit medium or senior puppeteer invoked the La-maing spirit in a sing song chant with the accompaniment of the music of the musical ensemble. All manipulators pulling the strings of puppet figures in a worshipping style pay homage to the arriving La-maing spirit many times telling her to awaken the puppet figures and to give her help in every performance and no disturbance and hindrance of any kind. La-maing nat spirit is a female spirit. She is the daughter of the wise Sage “Kawa- La-maing” whom Saka Deva [Thunder God] and the Asi Brahman consulted regarding the solution of their heatedly contended mathematical problem. She inherited all wisdom and power from her father. She is propitiated for good harvest by farmers, for good games by hunters and good success by performing artists.
After performing this rite, the “consecrated” puppet figures are believed to be animated, as such they are regarded as “alive” and the puppeteers treat them as though they were their children. The puppeteers have now parental duty to look after the welfare of their puppet children. The puppets are now ready for performance.
Special stage for the puppet show
As the performance area is frontal and horizontal the stage for the puppet show has longer length in the front than it is in the rear. It measures about 25 feet in the front, about 16 feet in the rear and about 20 feet in depth. It slopes from the rear to the front. Actual performance area is much smaller and the major space of the stage is occupied by the puppeteers and their belongings. The bamboo bar behind which the manipulators stand is about four feet high. A space of about 2 to 3 feet on either side of the stage front is left unbarred for the entry of the puppets. The bar is overhung with a long black cloth to conceal the puppeteers as well as black strings of the puppets and to serve as a back drop. Right in the middle of the bar is also another entrance but it is covered when not in use.
In constructing the puppet stage only bamboo and thatch or dani [nipa palm] or in leaves of a timber tree [Dipterocarpus tuberculatus] must be used. Other materials are tabooed. The façade of the stage is decorated with a hanging of a white cloth curtain, the motif of lotus petals. Scene change is done by music and symbolic stage setting. For example, if a bunch of green leaves or a branch of tree is set up in the middle of the performance area it is a forest scene. A court scene is presented by a throne, with two white umbrellas either side and the music of the court.
The site for the stage is either in the open space in the paddy field, in the precincts of pagoda or the compound of the monastery if the abbot permits.
The music troupe occupies the ground right in front of the stage. It is the same type of music used in drama “zat saing” ဇာတ်ဆိုင်း The musical ensemble is composed of (1) one pat-waing or a circle of 21 drums in the order of seven tones in three sets – totaling 21 (2) one kyi waing or bronze gongs circle of 18 bronze gongs (3) a big double face drum called Pat magyi (4) a set of six drumlets called Chauk Lone pat (5) one sit-toe drum (6) one sa-kunt (7) one bon-taung (8) one set of six bronze gongs called maung saing (9) none big and one small oboe plus a bamboo flute (10) a pair of big bronze cymbals (11) two to four bamboo clappers called Wa Let Khut (12) a big gong called ကြေငြာမောင်း for announcement or royal proclamation.
Gender discrimination of traditional puppet shows
Myanmar traditional puppet show used to be an exclusively man’s world. No fairer gender was allowed. The roles of both genders were played by men. It is believed that nat-spirits do not allow fairer gender on the stage. Besides, in olden days feminine modesty and dignity inhibited Myanmar women to appear in public on the stage with men. In other cultures also, in early days performing arts were the monopoly of men. For example in Shakespeare’s play of Elizabethan Age women’s roles were played by men. In Japan till today Kabukee is the play performed by men only. In the performance of Ramayana and Mahabarata also men took all roles. Women felt socially inhibited to appear on stage.
Since Myanmar regained independence that masculine monopoly was gradually done away with as women flowed into all fields of professions. Today in Myanmar the world of performing arts is populated more by fairer gender than their male counterparts. *******