(Myanmar Traditional Marionettes Theater)
Yoke Thay, once a highly esteemed royal pastime, is a show not merely of stringed wooden dolls but of life-like human substitutes. They could tell stories like dramatists. They could dance like subtle choreographers. And what is more, they could make human dancers so envious of their superceding artistry that there has emerged a form of marionettes dance imitatively created by human beings themselves. In fact, Puppetry is the blend of sculpture, Painting, costuming, embroidery, and dramatic arts. Being a form of arts where many kinds of arts converge. Yoke Thay (the Myanmar Marionettes Theater) still survives with its brilliant tradition and sophisticated string craft; the art of manipulating.
Yoke Thay is the traditional stringed puppets of Myanmar. It is, in fact, wooden marionettes manipulated by means of strings. In those days of Myanmar kings, it was known as Ah-Myint-Tha-Bin which literally means performance on the high level. The Royalty did not at first allowed human dancers on the stage and thus lifeless marionette dance has a great opportunity to be on a high level stage above the Royal audience. The human manipulators and singers were hidden and obliged to perform behind the hand rail and the back curtain attached to it. Female artistes were not allowed then to present themselves on stage. Accordingly, men had to impersonate women characters. Men artiste performed as women impersonators were later known as Yoke Thay Min-Tha-Mi, the female puppet dancers on whom the title of Great Sweet Singer ( Ma-du-Thaddha-Shwe-Daung) were usually conferred.
During the reign of king Min-Don in the Kon-Baung dynasty, there use to be several types of marionette troupes: the grand marionette troupe (Sin-Daw-Gyi) to be performed in the present of King, the minor marionette troupe (Sin-Daw-Gale) in the present of the Queen and the Crown Prince, (Tha-Mi-Daw-Sin) to the Royal daughters and (Win-Daw-Sin) to be confined to the palace enclosure alone, etc…
Yoke Thay is higher in status and the creation of this art is also considered to be a sacred accomplishment. The 28 puppets were formed to depict the 28 ru-pas (physical forms) which consists of 4 bu-ta-nu-pas (elements) and 24 u-pa-da-ya-ru-pas (attachments) mentioned in the Ah-bi-damma; the Buddha's teaching embodied in the third basket of Ti-pi-ta-ka.
The 4 ministers marionettes represent the 4 elements and the other 24 puppets are two Nat votaress, one horse, two elephants (black and white), one tiger, one monkey, one parrot, two ogres, one zawgyi (necromancer), one dragon, one garuda (mythical Bird), one deva (good spirit), one king, one prince, one princess, two prince regents, one astrologer, one hermit one old woman and two court jesters.
The puppet sculptors are required to observe 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 dramas staged in Yoke Thay versions are taken from the themes of five hundred and fifty ni-pa-tas (the stories as to many preceding existences of the lord Buddha before attaining Buddha hood :). Fables and historical themes are occasionally performed. Win-Ko-Win (nine chronicles regarding the sacred facts of the Lord Buddha) forms a bulk of the dramatic repertory.
As Marionette Theater is being enacted night long, provision must be made in it to amuse young and old. The show first begins with the scene depicting the depicting the destruction of the world by wind, water and fire and then the formation of the new world. To symbolize the destruction of the world, harsh and deafening music is played by percussion instrument three times. When the music of destruction stops, the music of creation follows, ushering a nat votaress who enters from the middle entrance. The appearance of the Nat Votaress indicates that a new world has been created. Only experienced veteran puppeteers can manipulate the Nat Votaress because this marionette has to perform all dance steps and sing all appropriate songs. It is said that in olden days the Nat Votaress puppet had sixty strings attached by which it could imitate all human movements.
When the Nat votaress goes in, the scene of the Himavanta forest appears and the animal figures come in successively. They dance animatedly and stylistically to their musical accompaniment and songs. In this scene, the stage traffic (i.e. the exit and entrance of the figures) is strictly prescribed in accordance with their nature and habits: all winged creatures and mythical figures enter and exit the stage from above the bar (the hand rail) and all crawling and marine creatures enter and exit the stage from below the bar. The scene keeps alive as Himavanta is supposed to be inaccessible to human beings. Only ogres and Zawgyi (supernatural beings endowed with the power of magic) might be found wandering in those wilds. Incidental amusement draws the attraction of the young audience and this scene is thus repeated every night. It means to preserve the tradition.
The portrayal of the founding of a kingdom begins with the appearance of four ministers in the second part of the night. They hold a conversation give and take on secular, religious and royal affairs. Moreover, they introduce the synopsis of the drama to the audience, which is going to be performed. They also mention the names of the leading characters and their brief accounts. Then, they go to the councils. Then, they go to the council chamber where the king will hold a Royal audience with his ministers. Meanwhile, the king asks about the prince who will be returning from the Taxila (university) in the completion of his high education. The ministers are then summoned to wait and attend the return of Royal son.
After the court scene, the romantic performance of the dance-duet in a sylvan journey follows. It is know as Myaing-tha-hna-pa-thwar. The prince has brought with him his lover or fiancée, a beautiful princess he met at the Taxila. On the sylvan journey, the princess who feels tired and ached in her feet appeals for taking a rest. The words of the princess's appeal and the prince's consolation are conveyed to each other by lyrics and troth-plighting dances while two or three court jesters tease them and joke about. The above-mentioned scenes are indispensable to any drama.
The master puppeteers display their virtuosity not only in manipulating and singing but also in feminine voices and gestures. The dramatic dialogues are grandiloquent and in verse form. The plays performed are all melodramatic and comic tragedies base on jatakas and ni-pa-tas. Whatever the plot is, there is always a moral lesson for the young and religious instructions for the adults. Myanmar Marionette Theater is not merely an entertainment. It is meant to educate the audience morally and culturally. It always ends with a poetic justice: reward for the good and punishment for the evil. The hero and heroine, in the face of adversity, recite melancholic verses or Nyo-Gyin in the middle of the plot. Finally, the happy reunion of them ends the plot by showing the fact that honesty wins a victory over deceit.
Myanmar the only country which had a Royal officer of ministerial status appointed by the kings themselves to look after all entertainments. It was in times of King Sagaing Min (AD 1819-1837) commonly known as King Ba-Gyi-Daw in Myanmar History that his minister for Royal entertainment, U Thaw, was authorized by his royal master to issue a Royal Edict on Myanmar Marionette Theater. In this edict mentioned the laws that the marionette artistes were to abide by.
The ancient Myanmar Kings patronized this important branch of Myanmar art with great emphasis. Nowadays, the old marionette generation has almost faded away. But there is still a rosy future for this performing art.
Article “About Myanmar traditional Marionettes Theater”
U Ye Htut
Department of Dramatic Arts
University of Culture
The Hermit (Bo-daw)
Dispenser of wisdom, arbiter of disputes, mentor of kings and princess; all of these titles suit the Bodaw. His speech is admonition to the audience. He is not the strictly religious recluse, but a holy man endowed with Powers to bring comfort and good fortune.
The Bodaw marionette is made of a light and auspicious wood, the E-ka-rit or 'Emperor of Timber'.
Bodaw's robe is a simple garment of dark saffron or brown. It's usually wrapped in the fashion of a monk's robe. But it is sometimes made in the style of the Brahma's costume.
Tha-Gyar Min : King of the Celestial Beings
His costume is most opulent, the tiered head-dress studded with brilliants, and his robe stiff with sequins and beads.
The Thagyarmin puppet always descends upon the stage from above the handrail, signifying his abode on high. His couch is so soft that he sinks to his waist. At times of distress for the good People below, it is hardened to stone, his signal to Peer earth-wards and do the needful.
Every New Year, 'Thingyan', which by the Burmes Calendar is in mid-April, he must descend to earth, riding on a creature symbolizing the fortunes of the coming year.
Sama-deva Nat, or Brahma : The Good Celestial Being
Sometimes, he is the guardian spirit of a tree, or Yokazoe, dressed in white, or he may be a higher spirit from one of the six towers of Celestial Dom. In that case his costume will be much like the attire of the Thagyar Min, but with fewer tiers to the headdress.
The Yokazoe is not a very powerful nat, perhaps, but very kind and capable of granting some favours, most especially the gift of male children. The Nyaung trees (Ficus SPP) that he lives in are even nowadays seen to have small shrines tacked to them, with offerings of flowers, and a lighted candle at dusk.
Since they are endowed with supernatural powers, the nat must hover on mid-ar, their feet not being allowed to touch the stage. The puppeteers have a heavy time of it; fortunately these dignitaries do not dance, so they must only be held aloft while making a few sweeping gestures with the hands.
Nat Pyet; The Evil Celestial Being
The usual Nat-Pyet is a comic figure, creating havoc out of pure mischief and not out of malice. He is small and flump, with a round white belly protruding from under a too short jacket, his waist-cloth tucked up to show tattooed thighs and fat knees. His teeth are bared in a Perpetual grin.
In the right hand is a diamond-shaped dagger of gold, in the left a fly whisk with a jeweled handle.