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July 08, 2020

A Study of Myanmar Puppetry (Part IV)

More foreign interest in Myanmar Puppetry
Frankly speaking, Myanmar puppetry to-day receives more foreign interest than national interest. At home this performing art is gradually waning and no bright future seems to await it. Since regaining independence successive Myanmar governments had made efforts to revive and sustain Myanmar cultural heritage, tangible and intangible. The annual traditional performing arts competitions and the performances of the ethnic nationalities on the occasions of the Union Day 12 February as well as their State Days, do have the desire objectives achieved but not very much satisfactorily. The reason was simple, clear and logical. Puppetry is an old art and therefore, it is dying of old age. Kwet Seik [uGufpdyf], the art of storytelling in a dramatic narration by one performer and Mye waing zat [ajr0kdif;Zmwf] dramatic performance by a trio of actors on a circular patch of ground, these two old performing arts have already had their last days, but the former still lingers on in the radio programme. The impact of modern entertainments such as movies, TV, videos, stage shows, karaoke etc, etc. has flung fatal blows to all performing arts including puppet shows. This is quite logical in the order of the law of change — the old ones being replaced by the new ones, and any attempt to get rid of the new ones, so as to revive the old is bound to be a failure.
There is, however, a possibility of salvaging this dying art, if not immediately reviving and popularizing it. To do that, we should first adjust this art to modern condition by reforms and innovations in every aspect of it, construction of the stage, the time and length of performance, manipulating technique, stage craft, setting, procedure of performance and presentation etc, etc. Next we should propagate it through all mass media. We should educate the public especially the young generation how to appreciate puppet show. It is a mental torture to insist the young to watch puppet plays without teaching or conditioning them how to understand and appreciate them. One should cultivate the taste first before eating an alien meal. All higher arts need introduction. Our young ones must be slowly introduced to puppet shows since their childhood. In highly developed countries of today in East and West puppet shows are widely used as a means of teaching children. Drawing, painting, singing, dancing and acting are also used as effective means in child education. Though we have started such programme in some pre-schools and primary schools, there are no follow-ups.
During the writer’s service years at the Department of Fine and Performing Arts Department, some headways were made. In the years 1966, 1976 and 1978, some puppet shows were staged at the then open air theatre and Jubilee Hall. Puppet Troupes led by Shwebo Tin Maung, Ponna Pyan Kyaw Aye and U Ye Dway repeat some successes. Occasionally, Myanmar TV inserted puppet shows in its TV programme. During the writer’s duty trip to Bagan he found quite a few puppet theatre houses were holding performance of puppet show for foreign tourists, who paid entry fees for an hour long performance. It was learnt that they also appreciated Myanmar puppet shows.
In countries like Russia, Germany and Czechoslovakia, puppetry is kept alive by state patronage and public interest. During the writer’s official visit to the Soviet Union in the spring of 1978, he was honoured by the hosts who took him to ballet, opera, circus and puppet show, puppet museum and workshop and puppet library in Moscow. The writer saw two puppet shows, for the adults the puppet show performed Casanova, the famous adventure in love story of medieval time. For the children it was the Pied Piper of Hamelin, a German legend. Both shows were lively, humorous and hilarious. Puppetry in these countries has been used not only as an entertainment but also as communication and education media. In the museum the writer viewed a wonderful display of puppet figures of different countries, including 28 Myanmar puppet figures on a typical Myanmar bamboo stage. In the library literature on puppetry contains books, periodicals and photographs in native languages including my articles on Myanmar puppets in Burmese.

Marionettists demonstrate puppet manipulation.—Photo supplied by Daw Ma Ma Naing
Marionettists demonstrate puppet manipulation.—Photo supplied by Daw Ma Ma Naing

We already had made international contact to promote our puppetry. In 1970s there were some visits of puppeteers from West Germany and Czechoslovakia. In 1976, the writer hosted an Australian Puppet Troupe called “The Tintookies” at the open air theatre. It was the second visit because its debut previously was a big success. The troupe leader director Peter Scriven had talks with the writer. He said that he got inspiration from Myanmar puppet shows and that his puppet figures follow the measurements and ratios of Myanmar puppet figures. But all his puppets are made of cloth and manipulated by strings. Stage craft, settings, light, sound, music and other details were his and his colleagues’ innovations. Three rows of manipulators line up concealed to animate the figures. So his stage was not frontal, it had depth.
Apart from the performance, there is an ever widening academic field of puppetry. The writer receives invitations to puppet conference, seminars and workshops, publications and calendars pertaining to international puppets. There was one German Ph.D. candidate whose
dissertation was Myanmar traditional puppetry. Saya Hla Tha Mein and the writer were invited to West Germany as
External Examiners of his Ph.D. thesis. As passport and visa were very difficult to obtain in those days, we both politely declined to go. But H.E. Mr. Von Marshalle, the ambassador of Federal Republic of Germany kindly arranged external examination at his embassy in Yangon. The candidate Mr Blooms and his wife appeared to defend his Ph.D. thesis on Myanmar puppetry. Hla Tha Mein and the writer thoroughly went through the English version of thesis in German. Nearly two and a half hours, we both “tortured” the candidate who had to make 16 visits to Myanmar to do field research on Myanmar puppetry – visiting remote areas in the countryside where he witnessed all night puppet shows at pagoda festival. When the writer asked why he took so much trouble and spent so much money and he could study Asian puppets other than Myanmar, his straight answer was the because Myanmar puppetry still remains original. His Ph.D. dissertation was published in German and English and on sale at all airport book stalls.
There were two books in English on Myanmar puppet show. One was written and published by Noel Singer, an Anglo-Shan gentleman born and brought up in Myanmar, now residing in London. It is, Burmese Puppets, a fully illustrated and informative book. The other was written by Ma Theingi, a Myanmar lady, prolific in writing English. Her book is also illustrative and informative. The last but not the least is U Ye Dway’s Literary Award winner book, Marionettes of Myanmar, the presentation copy of which the writer received from him on 24-8-2015. His book was academic and systematically written and beautifully illustrated and with bibliography and index.
Though Myanmar puppetry is losing popularity among upcoming generations, academic and research interest in it is gaining ground. There had been writings on puppetry in Myanmar by Myanmar authors. Even one veteran journalist who was assassinated together with Bogyoke Aung San was Deedoke U Ba Cho who wrote a series of articles on Myanmar puppetry in his daily. The writer had supervised 3 Ph.D. dissertations in Yangon and two in Mandalay universities respectively.
Right now, in our country full-fledged puppet shows are extinct in cities and towns. In the countryside during the open season they are occasionally held at local festivals. It is the writer’s humble but sincere suggestions that master puppeteers should cooperate and adapt to the changing conditions of time, if they wish to retain their much and long cherished art. If they still cling to their traditions and convention of their art and profession just for their own sake, their puppets will depart from the stage to the museums.
(to be continued)


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