The Mandalay Marionettes Theater
1 harpist / singer
Written By Naing Yee Mar, co-founder of the Mandalay Marionette Theatre, Mandalay, Myanmar since 1986
Myanmar marionette theatre (Yoke Thay) - once a highly esteemed royal pastime - is a show not merely of stringed wooden dolls, but of life-like human substitutes. It is in fact, wooden marionettes manipulated by means of strings. They could dance like subtle choreographers. The Myanmar puppet still holds its own national characteristics and the original Myanmar tradition as it includes all the artistic works such as Myanmar dancing and music, sculpture, sequin embroidery and painting.
Myanmar puppetry dates back several centuries. It was well established in Myanmar during the Pagan Era, 11th century and records of the arts were made in the fifteen century. Since then it has trod a dogged track, sinking,
time again, into popularity. This process of revival and decline had recurred repeatedly. Puppetry was in great demand at the courts of the Myanmar royalty, especially during the Kone Bong Era (1820-1885).
In those times of Myanmar Kings, the royalty did not at first allowed human dancers on the stage. That was a great opportunity for lifeless marionette dancers to be on a high level stage above the Royal audience. It was known as Ah-Myint-Tha-Bin which literally means performance on the high level. Female artists were not allowed at that time to present themselves on stage. Accordingly, male artists who performed as women impersonators were later known as Yoke-Thay-Min-Tha-Mi. The muman mani pulators and singer were hidden and obliged to perform behind the hand rail and the back curtain attached to it.
The 28 puppets were formed to depict the 28 ru-pas (physical forms) which consists of four bu-ta-nu-pas (elements) and 24 u-pa-da-ya-ru-pas (attachments) and mentioned in the Ah-bi-damma; the Buddha's teachings embodied in the third basket of Ti-pi-ta-ka.
The puppet sculptors are required to observed the strict rules regarding the choice of the prescribed types of wood for carving particular figures, the prescribed proportion of the figures befitting the roles and human anatomy including sex organs.
The themes of puppet plays were drawn from the ten great lives and the 550 Birth Stories of Lord Buddha and for historic legends. The accent Myanmar kings patronized this important branch of Myanmar art with great emphasis. With the demise of Myanmar royalty the art commenced a sharp decline and during pre-war days efforts for its revival were undertaken with meager results.
Nowadays, the old traditional marionette generation has almost faded away. This is simply due to the lack of patronage required during the last few decades. Therefore, it has come to pass that the art of marionette is referred to as a dying art. The same story is applicable to the artists.
For that reason, there is an arrangement of a special Marionette Theatre in Mandalay, the old capital of Burma and the centre of Myanmar art and culture. A private team of professional artists has tried to restore this folk art, which was rapidly disappearing with the advanced of modern entertainment.
I consider that this show would be of great interest to the audience and also a good help to give them an idea of ancient Myanmar and Myanmar culture. It is being organized by two Myanmar women, who were sincerely interested and focused on the discovery of puppetry since 1986. The first one is Mrs. Ma Ma Naing, who is a daughter of U Thein Naing, the writer of Burmese Puppet Theatre published in Rangoon in 1966. The other one is Mrs. Naing Yee Mar, who was a student of researcher Dr.Tin Maung Kyi. The aims of his research are to rediscover and preserve Myanmar anatomical science relating to puppets and to help future scholars who opt to preserve and further promote this science.
In the course of private studies of the two founders of Mandalay marionettes Theatre, they gradually discovered two puppet players U Pan Aye, 70 years old and U Mya Thwin, 82 years old. They are the former pupils of the Marionette artist Shwe Bo U Tin Maung, one of the remaining descendents of the ancients professionals. The two female founders of the theatre discovered not only these two old puppet masters but also found out the way the old masters carved, joined, ornamented and strung puppets was and art in itself. The anatomical proportion of puppet of a prince and prince figure, as measured and recordered by U Mya Thwin, are :
- diameter of head around… one span (between thumb and tip of middle finger) plus four fingers
- length of face from centre of skull to chin tip… one unit of measure
- seven and a half times unit of measure… height
- half of height… length of hands
- double lengths of hands… height
- height… one cubit (18 inches) plus one span of fingers.
These ratios of anatomical formations of a prince and princess of the royal troup are so important they can be memorized by learning the ryhyme.
My desire is to give you a memorable glimse into a dying art which we hope will once again find its legitimate place in the entertainment world.