"If the puppeteers performed flawlessly they were richly rewarded; vice-versa, if they blundered they were punished. During the colonial periods, the puppeteers performed in pagoda festivals to wide acclaim. People would rather watch puppet-theatre than an opera with human performers."
In the past, troupes of performers would travel across the land and perform in the art of Yoke Thé, or Myanmese puppetry. With devilishly difficult to control marionettes, these artists would bring to life the myths and the legends of their ancient culture.
In a small street in Yangon, near the bend of the river, as you come near the shipyards, there is a shabby house. In its second floor, an adapted living room, U Khin Maung Htwe and his company are reviving the old art of puppetry. The show is wonderful, the intricacy of the movements is mesmerising, and the marionettes come to life before your eyes. After the show, I sat down with the mastermind behind this renaissance. Here are his thoughts.
You often speak about the preservation of Myanma culture, why do you think that puppetry is such a good way to do it?
Before I began my career as a puppeteer, I didn’t even know about Myanma marionette customs and traditions. I used to be a sailor. Once, I docked in Bangkok on my way back home. My wife went to meet me there. She had never been abroad so we arranged to meet at the airport and visit Bangkok together. I had been to Thailand many times before. In Chiang Mai, I saw a traditional show. Also in Phuket, in a really big theatre. Also in Pattaya, there is a professional show. But not in our own country.
Frankly, I wanted to be an engineer ever since I was young. I had to become a sailor instead because of my family’s financial circumstance. I always said I wanted to be an engineer to build big bridges… I love to see cars going across bridges. I couldn’t become an engineer because my parents couldn’t afford to send me to the Government Technical Institute. But it turns out puppeteering has something in common with engineering. A bridge that goes over a river is a visible one. The bridge that I am building is invisible. It is a bridge that connects the teachers and masters of my community to my sons and daughters and, eventually, to all the youth that is interested in it. That’s also why I volunteer to perform at schools.
GO ON AN AMAZING HOLIDAY
What was the role of puppetry in the past?
When I study the historical sources, I find that it is an art more ancient than I thought. It was an artform honoured by kings. This is the art that in a way brought rules closer to their people. The Royals went out of their way to see it. Eventually, they brought up a whole system of rules and regulations. For example, if the puppeteers performed flawlessly they were richly rewarded; vice-versa, if they blundered they were punished. During the colonial periods, the puppeteers performed in pagoda festivals to wide acclaim. People would rather watch puppet-theatre than an opera with human performers.
Do you think it could play a similar role in the future?
As long as tourism keeps growing in Myanmar, puppetry will remain popular.
How do you make your puppets? Do you buy them or make them yourself?
I have to order the puppets from a master carver. Carving puppets is not an easy task. Not every sculptor can do it. There are a lot of rules and guidelines to create a true Myanma puppet. Each limb has to be similar to that of a real person. The most difficult and important part is joining the limbs together. The attention to detail is fundamental since even males and females have the corresponding anatomy. The puppets you sometimes see in Bagan or elsewhere hanging from trees are not authentic. There are only 2 or 3 puppet carvers left nowadays. What I do depends on these masters, so the preservation of their art is crucial to me.
How many years does it take to master Myanmar puppets?
This has changed throughout history. In the past, a person needed to be a journeyman for the puppet theatre for a year. Then, when the puppet master deemed him reliable, he would be taught the craft. It used to take 5 to 10 years to become a proficient puppeteer. Today it takes only 4 years. There is a Dramatic Arts and Marionette specialization in the university.
How do you choose the stories you tell in your shows?
I use my own ideas. I also try to keep the dialogues to a minimum to keep it dynamic and entertaining. I usually arrange music from operas, choose the liveliest bits, and make it shorter.
Do you plan to include a modern repertoire - though true to Myanmar values - or are you sticking to the classics?
Actually, I already incorporate a modern repertoire because people are eager for new experiences. I have already performed “The Four Puppets” in French, and a home show for another 5 countries, arranging the music to the piano. In the future, we will have English dialogue as well. We keep true to the traditions but modify both the look of the puppets and the story to suit the modern taste.
You have gained international attention, from foreigners eager to learn more about Myanmar culture and arts. But how do you plan to re-engage your own fellow countrymen? How are you planning to make them a part of your puppetry revival?
My dream is to build a proper Puppetry Centre instead of performing at my home, which is what we currently do. I would need a big property to make my dream come true. My plan is to put a wood carving workshop, which is paramount if we are to have a new generation of carvers! There would also be a museum about Myanma puppetry, obviously the theatre and a restaurant in the middle. I also plan to sell authentic puppets at the centre and online. There’s a high demand for our puppets, especially from the US. The museum and the workshop, those would be free of charge. I want people to get involved.
In a world of small attention-spans and on-demand content consumption, what is the role of traditional performance arts, not just in Myanmar but also for traditional performers in all nations?
Yes indeed, it is difficult to get people to come and watch a whole show. Earlier productions used to be long-winded, a full evening of entertainment. The same happens with the opera: only a select audience has a taste for lengthy performances. I think we have to adapt our stories and our art to suit the modern taste, while still keeping true to our art. If you do that, you will find that people still love the traditional performing arts.