Myanmar Puppets: A Fading Traditional Gem
Countries are not by their borders but by the people and their traditions. Myanmar being a prominent Asian country is filled with tradition and culture. But due to increased influx of modernization, many old customs and traditions are fading away. One such fading tradition is of Myanmar Puppets.
Puppets are integral to the Myanmar culture since long. The puppet shows were very popular during the 18th century and their popularity even exceeded human performers. They were so popular because in ancient times, ordinary people were not allowed in the court. Hence, they needed a medium to convey the message to their kings. Even the king doesn’t take offence of a puppet. So, if an urgent matter was to be bough to the kings notice, a puppet show was arranged. In this puppeteers can deliver the message from the painted lips of these beautiful puppets.
This useful technique of using puppets for royal conversation corrected many wrongs and saved countless lives. Also, earlier human performers were not allowed to dress as king. But puppets can be dressed elegantly as the king and a puppeteer can also mimic a kings voice. The king won’t mind to this. This elevated the level of puppet theatre. Slowly, human performers also started to dance and act like puppets. This filtered down the generations and even now most of the Myanmar choreography is inspired from puppetry.
This art of puppetry served another purpose – that of a news reader to country people. The puppet groups would travel to interior parts of the country where there are no means of communication and provide people with news. These groups used to collect news and gossip when in city and then stage puppet shows in the country side. For a long time, these puppeteers have served a noble cause to these remote people.
The Myanmar puppet stage has two leading roles, that of a Prince (Mintha) and a Princess (Minthamee). They are always beautifully dressed with jewels and silks. Sometimes, puppeteers implant real hairs in their skulls to increase the originality quotient. Each puppet is made elaborately with especially crafted strings (total 17 strings) and joints to depict real life movements. Besides the two important puppets, there are many others like Demon/Ogre (Belu), Dragon (Naga), Brama (Byarmar), Horse (Myin), Monkey (Myauk), Tiger (Kyar), Parrot (Kyet To Yway), Spirit (Nat Ka Daw), King (Bu Rin), Minister (Wun), Brahmin Astrologer/Villain (Ponna). These are the stock characters and there have to be minimum 28 characters in a puppet group.
Presently, there are a few places where you can watch a traditional Myanmar puppet show. In Yangon (Rangoon), daily 4 shows are organized. These shows feature 14 kinds of puppet programs. Some of these programs are:
- Puppet Praying before Lord Buddha
- Natkadaw ritual Dance
- Monkey Dance
- Horse Dance
- Garland Dance
- U Shwe Yoe and Daw Moe Dance
These shows can be watched at Htwe Oo Myanmar Puppet Show in Yangon (Rangoon) and other places around Myanmar. But local people seem to ignore the puppet shows. The crowd mostly consists of foreign tourists who wish to see this fading cultural marvel. The exchange students from other countries also show much interest in this art form and regularly attend the screening of many puppet shows.
In this modern age of communication, it is really fortunate that such an art form is thriving. But now, they serve only the purpose of entertainment. While in the earlier days they held an important place in the king’s court.