Craft: Marionettes

PHOTOS BY Lwin Ko Taik

Myanmar marionettes are handled through strings attached to the forehead, neck, spine, elbows and hands, knees and heels. The criterion of the highest talent in puppetry is that the small wooden dolls must be completely life-like. This means that the puppeteers have mastered their art to such a degree that the dolls they manipulate with strings move and dance like humans.
They became very popular in the 18th Century, even more so than human performers and even at court. The reason for their power of that time is based on the logic of the Asian mind: since they are wooden dolls, what they say could not be taken as offensive by even the King and it does not matter that behind the screen there is a man talking on its behalf.

 This logic was very useful: it allowed the puppets to speak freely to the King what his Ministers do not dare say. Thus a great many wrongs had been righted, and many lives saved through the speech of the puppets. It was also the privilege of the Minister of Theater that he can invite the King or Prince to a puppet show in an emergency.
For example, one cruel queen locked a young princess in a big teak trunk as they were playing hide and seek. The queen was of common birth so she could not be chief queen as long as this princess lives, for she is of full Royal blood and destined to become the Chief Queen as soon as she was old enough.

At that time she was only fifteen.
When the Minister of Theater heard of this, he hurriedly arranged a puppet play to relay the news, and invited the Crown Prince to watch. As soon as the Crown Prince realized the story behind the play, he hurried to save the princess. She was still alive, testimony to how quickly the play was arranged and performed. The Crown Prince later overthrew his brother the King and executed the commoner Queen.
At that time, human performers acting the part of a king were not allowed to wear the King’s costume. Only by holding a sword in his hand could the dancer let the audience know he was supposed to be the king in the play. However, for puppets, it was a different matter altogether, for they could be dressed in all full regalia, with gorgeous silks and gold. Puppet plays could also be performed on a stage, whereas the humans dance on the ground. So puppetry was known as the High Theater and the human as Low Theater. This made the puppeteers look down so much on the humans. Not only that, but human performers must dance as much like a puppet as they can, and this is still the criteria of Myanmar choreography. For this reason, many famous dancers of the past were taught to dance by following the moves of a puppet.

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Ma Thanegi writes prolifically about Myanmar, especially the people who are the country’s true representatives. She lives in Yangon."


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