Like most anthropologists, I have a large eclectic collection of artifacts I brought home from the field. One of my most prized possessions is a wooden Burmese marionette I exchanged for a couple of cartons of Burmese cigarettes from a small shop outside Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon in 1982. Yes, it was an unusual transaction but that’s how it worked in Burma. My marionette is one of the 28 characters found in the traditional marionette theatre of Burma (Yoke Thay) known as Min Thar – The Prince. The photo on the left was taken of him just before I took proud ownership. I later acquired another marionette at the Thai-Burma border to keep him company – the Nat (spirit).
Yoke Thay (marionette theatre) has existed in Burma since the 15th century. In the 18th century, the royal court began to formally sponsor and regulate marionette performances and by the 19th century numerous troupes were commissioned and maintained by the royalty. The height of popularity for Yoke Thay was between 1820 and 1885 when it was considered to be far superior to live theatre because of the high degree of technical skill and the perfection of execution reached by the puppeteers over the centuries.
A Burmese marionette troupe typically includes 28 puppets representing human beings, mythological figures, spirits and animals; a little orchestra of traditional instruments played live by 6 musicians; dancers; story tellers and singers.
Links to short videos of Burmese marionette theatre can be found at the end of this post. For a very quick preview of a contemporary performance, click below:
The marionettes are manipulated through strings controlled from above, displaying all the traditional artistic elements of Burmese puppetry: dance, music, wood carving, sequin embroidery and painting. The figures are carved in such detail that even the chin and knuckles can be manipulated by strings. They can range in height from 30cm to 1m, with the average puppet being 55cm.
The plays are staged on simple raised platforms with decorated interchangeable backdrops. Puppeteers are visible from head to waist so that the strings, controls and hands of the puppeteers are visible during parts of the performance. A small orchestra of traditional instruments (cymbals, drums, brass and bronze gongs, bamboo clappers and shawms) plays sitting in front of the audience.
As in their traditional form, the play begins with the mythological creation of the world and the animals; it proceeds with the establishment of the Kingdom and the human beings. In the second part of the performance, one of the Jataka Tales is enacted, 547 stories about the past lives of the Buddha. Each Jataka symbolizes a specific virtue such as honesty, wisdom, love of a son for his parents, etc. These stories feature kings, princes and princesses, hermits and wise men who undergo all kinds of adventures. A happy end is mandatory: virtue is rewarded and evil is punished. The performances are open air shows and usually last all night.
Traditionally, marionettes were used as a medium for educating people in literature, history, religion, lifestyle and customs as well as informing subjects of current affairs. The plays also functioned as a conduit between the subjects and the king. An event or warning for the royal court could be depicted by marionettes without fear or threat to human lives. Marionettes could also portray the Buddha, sacrilegious for actors at the time. These wooden figures were given the sanction to portray roles and facets of life deemed unsuitable for public, such as demonstrative displays of affection.
The original ‘band’ of marionettes was 18, increased to 28 in 1776 and then up to 36 or 42 for some plays in 1821. The Basic 18 characters of the original band include:
1. Demon/Ogre (Belu) 2. Alchemist (ZawGyi) 3. Dragon (Naga) 4. Garuda (Galon) 5. Brama (Byarmar)
6. Horse (Myin) 7. White elephant (Sin Phyu) 8. Black elephant (Sin Net)
9. Monkey (Myauk) 10. Tiger (Kyar) 11. Parrot (Kyet To Yway)
12. Spirit Medium (Nat Ka Daw) 13. Prince (Min Thar) 14. Princess (Min Tha Mee) 15. King (Bu Rin) 16. Minister (Wun) 17. Brahmin astrologer / Villain (Ponna) 18. Hermit (Rathay)
In 1776 AD, the number of characters in a band increased to 28 characters. The changes were:
(forest demon and royal demon) 2
Spirit (Nat) instead of Garuda (Galon) 1
- Old Lady (Ah may O) 1
- Comedian (Lu shwin taw) 2
- Female Dancer (Ah pyo taw) 1
- Senior Prince (Min thar Gyi) 2
- Minister (Wun) 4
Today, at Mae Sai on the Thai-Burmese border in Chiang Rai Province, you can find plenty of new marionettes. Their costumes are more dazzling than in former times but the characters remain the same.
You can find photos of more marionettes from Burma and elsewhere here. Videos of contemporary Burmese marionette theatre can be found at the following links:
Text and photo copyright © Marti Patel / http://www.sanuksanuk.wordpress 2010