Suitcase and World: On a String. Yoke thé.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

On a String. Yoke thé.

Burmese puppets.
(Photo by  Mydaydream89.  Licensed under CC0 via Wikimedia Commons.)
I have an explicable fascination with puppets.  With most every country I've been to so far, I've researched whether or not it has a tradition of puppetry.  Surprisingly, I have yet to see a performance.   What's up with that?

When we decided to go to Japan in 2011, I spent countless hours reading up on bunraku, which is Japan's contribution to the world of puppetry.  Sadly, we didn't make it to Japan that year as the tsunami struck just about two weeks before we were scheduled to depart for the country.

In 2013, Bro and I traveled around the Baltics and all three countries have puppetry as a traditional art form but I could not find any performances taking place during the time we were traveling.  We did make it to the NUKU Theatre in Tallinn where we spent time walking through their collection of puppets, gathered from both their own workshop and countries around the world.  We also got to peek inside their workshop and watch the artisans putting together creations for an upcoming show.

When researching up on our trip to Greece in 2014, I learned about the centuries long tradition of puppets.  Puppetry was practiced in Ancient Greece and the oldest written records of puppetry can be found in the works of Herodotus and Xenophon, dating from the 5th century BC.  It's generally accepted that during the time that the country came under Ottoman  rule, a new form of puppet theatre arose in Greece - shadow puppetry.

The main character in tales the Greek shadow-puppet theatre is Karagiozis or Karaghiozis.  It's generally believed that Karagiozis was given his "Greekness" at end of 19th century by Dimitrios Sardounis alias Mimaros, who is considered the founder of modern Greek shadow puppet theater.  I had read there was a theatre, in Athens, holding performances but I could not find a schedule online but I did have an address.  So when we were in Athens, I dragged Bro along to find the place.  It wasn't easy but we did find the place.  A woman emerged from an office and I asked if this was the theatre.  She replied yes and then with one hand, pointed to a museum.  It was obvious that there was no performance taking place but she allowed us to walk through the museum, which was just one large room.  

As we were walking around them museum, an older gentleman emerged from another office. He and the woman exchanged a few words and then she pointed to some seats and indicated for us to sit.  So we did.  In the meantime, the man went behind the screen and turned on the lights.  We were going to get a bit of a show!  What a treat!  I meant to videotape the show and in fact I caught a 2 second snippet of it but lame me, I must have turned off the video camera setting instead.  So, all I have are some photos.

The performance probably lasted no more than 30 seconds but he was operating both puppets.   It was awfully kind of the gentleman to put on this little show for us.  After it was over, we clapped and thanked him kindly.  From the smile on his face, I think he enjoyed the break from his office work.

My own Myanmar string puppet.  I thought it was Thai!

Decades ago, and I mean decades ago, I bought a string puppet from a store at the Central Market in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  Since that time and up until today, I had thought it was a Thai string puppet.  Today, when I was researching puppetry in Thailand, it was hard to find any mention of string puppetry in Thailand.  Thai marionettes are traditionally operated with rods, not string.  I was so surprised to learn this.  So, I then started reading up on the history of puppetry in Myanmar and after seeing the images of the string puppets in Myanmar, I am now absolutely convinced that what I thought was a Thai puppet is actually one from Myanmar.   In fact, I bought it long before the country changed its name so my puppet is actually a Burmese puppet.  He's one of my favorite travel souvenirs.

Traditional puppet show in Bagan, Myanmar.
(Photo by By Jacklee.  Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)
Technically speaking, string puppets fall into the category of puppets called marionettes.  A marionette is a puppet controlled from above using wires or strings depending on regional variations.  In Myanmar, marionettes are string controlled.

In Myanmar, the art form is known as *yoke thé* and like most of Burmese refined art, performances originated from royal patronage and were gradually adapted for the wider populace. Yoke thé are almost always performed in operas.  Performances are based on stories from the Jataka, the sacred text that recounts the Buddha's many incarnations, or past lives as well as historical legends, and folktales, among other stories.

A Burmese marionette troupe includes puppet handlers, vocalists, and a hsaing waing, a traditional Burmese orchestra usually provides the music.  The troupe has 28 characters, including a king, animals such as horse, elephant, tiger, monkey and parrot, ministers, prince and princess and jesters.

The 28 Characters of a Myanmar Marionette Troupe

Nat votaress (နတ်ကတော်ရုပ်, Nat Kadaw) – two figures
Alchemist (ဇော်ဂျီ, Zawgyi) – one figure
Minister (Wungyi) – four figures
Celestial King King (Mintayar gyi) – one figure
Prince (မင်းသား, Minthar) – one figure
Princess (မင်းသမီး, Minthami) – one figure
Prince Regent (Uparaja or Ain-shei-Minthar) – two figures (one white-faced, one red-faced)
Brahmin (ပုဏ္ဏား, Ponenar) – one figure
Hermit (Yathei) – one figure
Monkey (Myauk) – one figure
Deva (Maha Deiwa) – one figure
Old man (Apho-O) – one figure
Old woman (Aphwa-O) – one figure
Jester (Lu phyet) – two figures
Horse(မြင်း,Myin) – one figure
Elephant (ဆင်, Hsin) – two figures (one white, one black)
Tiger (ကျား, Kyar) – one figure
Monkey (Myauk) – one figure
Parrot (Thalika) – two figures

I wanted to know why 28 characters and in my search for the answer, stumbled across this note, penned by Daw Naing Yee Marthe co-founder of the Mandalay Marionette Theatre in Myanmar.  This will teach me to go digging for information :-)

The twenty-eight puppets are made to depict the twenty-eight physical forms (ru-pas) which consist of four elements (Bu-Ta-Nu-Pas) and twenty-four attachments (U-Pa-Da-Ya-Ru-Pas) mentioned in Buddhist teaching as embodied in the third basket of the Ti-Pi-Ta-Ka.
Well, I read the explanation several times but still don't understand it so I dug further for an explanation I could understand.

In simple English,  the number 28 represents the physical forms present in traditional Buddhist text. The four primary elements of fire, water, earth and air are already four, the rest are derived matters ranging from the human eye to physical aging. All these are represented by characters we can relate to, such as a horse, a prince, a jester and so forth.

Traditionally, yoke thé puppets are about 56-69 centimeters (22-27 inches ) tall.

Burmese puppet.
(Photo by Htoo Tay Zar.  Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)
The *basic* marionettes are controlled using five strings  attached to the "H"-shaped handlebar which is held in the palm of the left hand. Two are for the forehead, two for the shoulders and one for the spine.

Dancing characters require up to 19 strings to operate with the additional strings looped over the fingers of the right hand of the marionettist with one long string connecting each of the fingers, the elbows, the knees, the heels and the toes.

The marionette carvers are required to observe strict rules regarding the types of wood used for carving particular figures, the proportions of the figures befitting the roles, and the human anatomy including sex organs.  Yes, they supposedly have sex organs.  I don't know why and I never checked under the skirt of my case you're wondering.

Needless to say the care and storage of the puppets is in accordance with ancient customs and rituals as well.  For example, small pillows are tied to their faces during storage so the paint doesn't chip. guy just sits on my raised fireplace hearth. He's been there for more than 10 years.  I wonder if that's not okay?

Myanmar puppetry dates back many centuries. It was well established in the country during the Pagan Era (11th century) and records of the art were made in the 15th century.  The art form reached its height of popularity during the Kongbaung Dynasty that ruled the country from 1752 to 1885.  During that time, troupes of marionettes were commissioned and maintained by royalty. 

Though the stories told by the marionette troupes were no doubt fascinating and entertaining, they served a very real public service in that Burmese marionettes also served as a conduit between the ruler and his subjects.  They were used to inform country, folk in remote villages, of the happenings in the capital and on the flip side, they were also used to deliver messages to the king in the form of messages counted in poetic language - you could kill a messenger but not a marionette.

Photo from Htwee Oo Myanmar, a puppet show theatre located in Yangon.
Furthermore, these humble wooden dolls enjoyed another great privilege for this was a time when the kings of Myanmar at first forbade human dancers to appear on the stage as it was considered disrespectful to stand higher than nobles or the elderly among the audience.  Marionettes were small enough to not tower over any human being.  They were also allowed to dress so regally that they easily outshone their human counterparts.  Their dancing and behavior was also acceptably more free.

Until the conquest of Upper Burma by the British in late 1885 during the Third Anglo-Burmese War, yoke thé troupes thrived under royal patronage.

After that the art form experienced a decline in interest. Thankfully, in recent years, yoke thé has seen a resurgencen in popularity,  largely in part as desire to maintain the country's heritage and culture and in part, to entertain tourists.

We are definitely going to see a performance - there are two venues that seem to be well rated.  The first is the Mandalay Marionettes Theatre.  They have daily performances and tickets are only $8!  My plan is for us to see a show here.  If for some reason we can't make it to the show in Mandalay, Nanda Restaurant in Bagan that also has daily performances.

I've tried twice now to see a show - once in Tallinn and then another time in Athens.  Here's hoping that third time's the charm!