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July 08, 2020

A Study of Myanmar Puppetry (Part III)

The procedure of performance
Traditionally for every puppet show there should be three successive night performances. Permission must be obtained from the local authorities concerned who will see to the security and the needs of the show. Myanmar dramatic and puppet shows are all night shows beginning in the late evening around 9 p.m. and finishing in the following morning at about 6 a.m.
The premier show is preceded by a ritual overtune of music which depicts the destruction of the world by wind, water, earth and fire, and creation of a new world by earth, water, fire and wind. To symbolize the destruction of the world sonorous and deafening music is played by percussion instruments four times to represent four elements. After the music of destruction subsides, the music of creation of a new world by four elements of nature follows suit, ushering in a nat votaress which enters from the middle entrance of the bar. Her appearance indicates that a new world has been created. Only experienced veteran puppeteer can manipulate the nat votaress figure because this puppet has to invoke and perform all dance steps postures and sing all appropriate songs of the 37 nat spirits of Myanmar Pantheon. It is said that in olden days the nat votaress puppet had as many as 60 strings attached, by which it could make almost all human movements. The writer had seen such nat votaress puppet with 60 strings but not manipulation of them.
The nat votaress invokes all nat spirits one by one according to their protocol and dances and sings their respective dances and songs while the music is played their respective music numbers. She begins with Thagyar [Sakka deva or Thunder god] and ends with the last nat spirit Shin Hne Mi in the 37 order, praying and begging for their favours. The following is the first song, addressed to Sakka deva, extolling his power and glory. English translation was made by G.E.R. Grant Brown, I.C.S. It was the first published in the Journal of Burma Research Society [J.B.R.S.] Part 1-2, 1911-1912.
The nat votaress puppet figure is very beautiful and graceful and elegantly dressed. Jewellery she wears are real. She had diamond earrings, gold bangles, gold and green emerald or jade, necklaces, diamond ring on her finger and gold anklets on her heels. She pays respects to the stage which in Myanmar is called Sin Taing Gyin. She also pays homage to the local authorities and also to the audience so that they all cooperate in the successful performance of the show. The extraordinary feat she exhibits is the raising and carrying of the Kadaw pwe {a votive tray with one green coconut with 3 bunches of banana around with flowers, lit candles and scent sticks [which is quite a load for a human girl]} three times upward move and conveying in her two hands as she dances walking the entire performance area! In fact the said Kadaw pwe load is manipulated by black strings by two puppeteers concealed. But their manipulations and the movements of the nat votaress figure are so perfect in harmony with music and dance steps that you get the illusion of the puppet figure itself is executing with the power of nat-spirits. When she comes to the performance of the dance of Myanmar wine nat Alcoholic Pakhan Min Kyaw the puppet votaress assumes the posture of a drunkard, singing and dancing like a drunkard. The following are a few lines:2
As the votaress puppet dances like a young male drunkard she assumes and displays many amusing gestures to the point of obscenity, [She winks, rolls eyeballs, puts tongue out, shakes head, chin shoulders, breasts, hips etc. flirtatiously] but much to the delight of male youths who give a resounding applause, throwing some cash to the votaress puppet as their award.
When the nat votaress goes in, the scene of the Himalayan Forest appears as a green bunch is set up in the middle of the performance area. The first flora that grows in a new world is grass and horse is the first animal to eat grass. Therefore the first animal that comes out dancing is horse. First, slowly then changing steps till gallops. It is a male horse exhibiting all anatomical parts of its body including its gender organ. The audience is moved to laughter. The elephant, the tiger, the monkey, the ogre, the garuda, the parakeet, the necromancer [zawgyi or alchemist], the crocodile, the fish, etc. the old man, the old woman, enter following one another dancing stylistically to their musical accompaniments and songs. All winged creatures and mythical creatures enter and exit from above the bar, and all crawling and watery creatures enter and exit the stage from below the bar. The end of the Himalayan Forest scene marks the end of the first part of the show.
There is an interval of about one hour for public convenience – toilet, snacks, tea or coffee at the nearby stalls.
The second part begins with the entrance of four ministers. They are somewhat like chroniclers in a Shakespeare drama. They announce the name of the zat [drama or play] to be performed that night and they also introduce the synopsis of the play to the audience, using elegant language of the court. Then they announce return of the crown prince from Taxila after completion of his higher education and training in 18 princely arts and sciences. The crown prince has brought with him his lover or fiancé who is a princess royal, whom he met at Taxila. They are now having a rest in the forest, because the princess royal is very tired and her feet are aching. So saying, the four ministers go in, followed by a romantic sylvan scene.
In this scene, the prince and princess converse all nice, sweet and romantic things. They sing troth-plighting [opömxm;] songs and dance duet. Here the manipulators of these two puppet figures not only display their skill in manipulating but also their talent in singing and miming. To mime the voice of a young lady is equally difficult like miming her movements. This scene is called “Myaing Hta Hnitpa Thwa”, a duet dance in a forest. Two or three court jesters tease them jokingly. Court jesters are public mouthpieces. Through them people can make complaints and demand for redress while authorities concerned are present at the show. Mimicry, jokes or satirical songs disclose social and economic ills people are suffering. But blatant jokes, abusive language and personal affront are strictly forbidden. This scene lasts nearly two hours.
The performance of drama begins at round about 3 a.m. and carries on till dawn or 6 a.m. The plays performed are all melodramatic and mostly comic tragedies. The dialogues are grandiloquent and in verse, interspersed with rhymes, which master puppeteers compose extempore, in addition to the set classical songs they sing by heart. Like Myanmar live high drama, Jataka stories have been the main themes and plots of Myanmar puppet plays. Although there are pyazats or secular plays written by native playwrights, the master puppeteers prefer Jataka stories to any other. There are reasons for this preference. Firstly Jataka stories are easy to dramatize and present on the stage. Secondly, Myanmar dramas, whether live or puppet are not merely entertainments. They are meant to educate the spectator-audience morally and culturally, with the background of a Jataka story.
There are two old Myanmar sayings in rhymes regarding Myanmar dramatic performance:-
“ဇာတ်သမားလာရင်၊ မှတ်သားစရာပါရမည်” and “ဇာတ်သမားပြန်ရင်၊ မှတ်သားစရာ
ကျန်ရမည်” “When the dramatic actor comes, he must bring with him something worth noting.” And “When the dramatic actor leaves, he must leave behind some moral lesson.”
Thirdly, it is said that the zat [drama] must have the trinity of themes, namely Loka [secular or temporal], Dhamma [religious or spiritual] and Yaza [Royal or kingly or state or government] so as to instruct and admonish both high-born and low-born, clergy and laity, adult and young, and king and commoner. Jataka stories fulfil all these requirements. Besides, they have all essential features of a dramatic plot – exposition, complications, climax, and anti-climax or denouement.
Therefore, it is no exaggeration to say that Myanmar puppet show is many sided. As in the case of Myanmar high live drama, Myanmar puppet show is all in one operatic, tragic, comic, farcical and melodramatic. All essential characters of a classical play are found in every plot of Myanmar puppet play, such as hero, heroine, villain, king, queen, prince, princess, hermit, astrologer, nat spirits, ministers, jesters etc. etc. Whatever the plot is, there is always a moral lesson for the young, and religious instruction for the adults. It always ends with a poetic justice— reward for the good and punishment for the evil. The hero and the heroine are reunited in the final scene and they live happily ever after.
The spectator-audience return home sleeplessly retired but much satisfied and elated with the show.
(To be continued)


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