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Yoke-Thay Pwe, Burmese Marionette Theatre
The subject of the Burmese theater ‘Pwe’, in general, and especially the Burmese marionette theater ‘Yoke-Thay Pwe’, is certainly very interesting, but it is also very complex. Therefore, it is difficult to deal with it sufficiently in the form of an article. After all, entire books with hundreds of pages have been written on this topic. All right then; I try to do my best and let me know if I succeeded.
In his ‘Brandon’s Guide to the Theater in Asia’, first published in January 1967, James A. Brandon wrote: “The description of the Burmese as a happy and smiling person is borne out on the stage more than one might think possible” and that is very true.
The theatre, ‘Pwe’, has a long tradition in Burma. Although today especially urban, but also rural audiences are increasingly turning their attention to more modern and easily consumable forms of entertainment such as television, cinema, video and video games, etc. pwe (theatre) is still very much alive except, unfortunately, for one form of pwe. But that’s a prediction.
There are several types of theater here in Burma. The most popular is perhaps the mix of dance, music and drama called ‘Zat Pwe’. Zat pwe is often preceded by a theatrical form of pwe, called ‘Pya Zat’; here the heroic prince must defeat the evil deeds of demons and sorcerers.
Another form of pwe deals with episodes from everyday life and is called ‘Anyein Pwe’. Pure dance theater performed by both lead dancers and groups is ‘Yein Pwe’.
Fairly rarely seen by foreign visitors/tourists as it is only performed publicly within animist festivals (Mt. Popa, Taungbyon, Magwe, Bago) and otherwise only at private ‘Nat Parties’ is ‘Nat Pwe’. This is an animistic event where the Nat Kadaw functions as a medium between the nat (spirits) and people who believe in supernatural beings and their powers and communicate with the respective nat through the medium. This, by the way, is a reason to celebrate nat pwes. U Min Kyaw also known as Ko Gyi Kyaw or Min Kyawzwa is probably the most popular nat. U Min Kyaw is the guardian of drunkards and gamblers and being with him means having a good time. But the most important reason why people love him is that he gives wealth to all those who believe in him.
An exception to all the different types of pwe is an art form that is said to have originated in India, but over time developed into a uniquely Burmese form of theatre: this is ‘Yoke-Thay Pwe’ or ‘Marionette Theatre’.
Historians do not agree on when marionettes/puppets first appeared in Burma. According to one account, they were first mentioned in a poem written by Rattasara, a novice Buddhist monk in the 15th century. Others say that yoke-thay pwe has its foundations in the time after the return of King Hsinbyushin to Ava after the conquest of the Thai capital of Ayutthaya in 1767 AD.
Be that as it may, it is undeniable that the king’s son Hsinbyushin Singu Min (the usurper on the throne), who succeeded him, called into life at his court in 1776 the ‘Ministry of Fine Arts’. He appointed a ‘minister of royal entertainment’, U Thaw Win, who was now entrusted with the development of the new pwe art form.
It is important to know and consider that in the history of Burma, even to a small extent, the standards of etiquette and moral behavior did not allow the public display of intimate romantic scenes and that the future Buddha is depicted in the ‘Jataka’. ‘ stories were considered sacrilegious. For this reason, the actors refused to play this role. These things represented real problems and the solutions for them were marionettes or puppets. What human beings were not allowed and/or would not do in public, wooden figures could do; ‘Yoke-Thay Pwe’ was born.
It is not undisputed, but still widely accepted that by setting strict guiding principles and rules, Minister Thaw Win regulated and standardized yoke-thay pwe more than any other type of pwe. From the stage to the marionettes to their clothes, everything was standardized.
Yoke-thay pwe stage called ‘chauk khan sin’ in Burmese must be 9 meters wide and made of light teak and bamboo. The background where the stories are played and told must always be the same: the rainforest on the right, the throne on the left and the sofa or couch in the middle. According to the guidelines, marionettes are divided into ‘yoke-kyi-sin’, large marionettes (2.5 to 3 feet/0.75 to 0.9 meters high) and ‘yoke-thay-sin’, small marionettes, subsequently, up to 2 .5 feet/0.75 meters.
All yam thay pwe troupes had to be registered and the number of string puppets as well as their physical parts was determined to be 28. This number is derived from the traditional Buddhist belief that each and every organism is made up of 28 physical parts.
The art of puppetry not only requires learning for many, many years under the close supervision of a master puppeteer, but also no small talent as one puppeteer must manipulate 28 separate puppets/marionettes. Some of them have as many as 60 strings attached to perform various gestures and dances. However, most puppets require mastering an average of only (!) 20 strings. The puppeteer also presents the dialogue of the puppets who are simultaneously supported by only two assistants on stage.
Each of the 28 marionettes comes from and represents a mythical being or historical figure. These are usually:
a) one king (Bayin), b) one prince (Mintha), c) one princess (Minthamee), d) four ministers. Two with red faces, two with white faces (Wun-Gyi-Lay-Pa), e) one Brahman (Ponna), f) one hermit (Yat-Hay), g) one old woman (Ah-May-Oh), h ) one clown assistant (Daw Mo), I) one clown assistant (U Shway Yoe), j) one alchemist (Zar Gyi), k) two demons/ogres. One with a green face, one with a red face (Balu), l) one spirit (Nat), m) one snake (Naga), n) one horse (Myin), o) one white elephant (Sin-Pyu), p) one black elephant (Sin-Net), q) one tiger (Kyar), r) one parrot (Kyet-To-Wyay), s) one monkey (Myuak), t) one spirit medium (Nat Kadaw), u ) one ‘Girl’ (Ah-Pyo-Daw), v) two senior princes. One with a white face, one with a red face (Min-Tha-Gyis), w) one Brahman (Byanmar).
An additional and very important figure not so much for the show as for the puppeteer is x) the guardian spirit of the puppeteer (Lamaing-Shin-Ma).
There are other figures such as the guardian spirit of the trees (Nyaung-gyin) also known as the ‘Old Man of the Banyan Tree’ and) the page (Thu-Nge-Daw).
And the costumes of all these figures are clearly stated and must be identical to the original.
The main characters are always Minthamee and Mintha around whom the romantic plot always revolves.
The greatest attention in yoke-thay-pwe is given to the orchestra and the vocalist because they are of vital importance to it.
a) double-headed drums (Pat-Waing), played by the leader, b) various brass gongs (kyi-waing), c) triangular gong (kyi-se), d) large circular gong (moung), e) six different double-headed drums (hauk-lon-pat), f) large double-headed drum (pat-ma-gyi).
In the composition of the orchestra is ig) flute or a type of oboe (hne).
The order of the various scenes is also predetermined and the stories played out, especially the ‘Ramayana’ and ‘Jataka’ stories, are usually the same and generally well known. The Ramayana tells the rich story of the capture of the beautiful princess ‘Sita’ by the demon king ‘Dasagiri’ and her rescue by her heroic husband, Prince ‘Rama’. The Jataka refers in a quasi-historical moral manner to Gautama Buddha’s overcoming of various sins to earn his final rebirth and enlightenment.
The song that opens most yoke-thay-pwe performances is very popular in Burma for generations and always leads the appearance of everyone’s much-loved ‘Maid of Honour’, ‘Ma Shat Tay’. It goes like this:
“Ahpya daw Ma shat tay hwet khat bar daw lay, Saing saya Ma Aye pay tee lite par daw lay.”
“Girls, Ma Shat Tay (Clumsy Maid), please come out and dance. Orchestra Master (Master Ruffin), please play the music.”
Unfortunately, yoke-thay pwe which was once awarded a higher status than any other form of pwe and which undisputedly ruled the world of Burmese theater is slowly but surely disappearing. And this is partly due to the departure of the old generation of puppet masters, a loss that, unfortunately, has not been compensated by the appearance of a sufficient number of new masters, and partly because traditional yaram-tai pwe performances last almost the whole night, therefore they are very demanding for both the puppeteers and the audience . But there is no substitute for this wonderful art of highly entertaining theater which is why something must be done to avoid its extinction.
Two of the few people in Burma (Myanmar) who are doing their best to keep the art of yok-thay pwe alive – both domestically and internationally in collaboration with UNESCO – are puppeteers Ma Ma Naing and her husband ‘ Mandalay Marionettes Theater ‘ in Mandalay, located on 66th Street, between 26th Street and 27th Street (just around the corner from Mandalay Swan Hotel and Sedona Hotel) where the best yoke-thay pwe shows are held every night.
The theater was founded by two ladies in 1986 and the troupe began its career performing for tourists visiting Burma.
The two founders were Ma Ma Naing, daughter of U Thein Naing, writer of the Burmese Puppet Theater (1966), and Naing Ye Mar. The troupe is supervised by dr. Tin Maung Kyi, Burmese puppet researcher, U Pan Aye and U Shwe Nan Tin, respected and highly skilled puppet makers. The group won numerous national awards and performed in various foreign countries.
Anyone who has the opportunity to visit the theater should make time for the chuk; do so and immerse yourself in the enchanting world of Burmese puppet theatre. It is guaranteed to be a very entertaining evening and an unforgettable experience that cannot be found anywhere outside of Burma.
All those who have devoted their lives to the maintenance of the art of puppetry and all those who love to enjoy the exciting and very moving yoke-thay pwe shows should make a concerted and tireless effort to call on ‘La-Maing-Shin-Ma’ not to let this a wonderful ancient form of entertainment forever to remain in the past and disappear. Maybe there’s something wonderful in store. Remember, the ways of the heavenly people are mysterious. After all, his right to exist as the puppeteer’s guardian spirit is as threatened as the existence of those he is meant to protect.
So, dear La Maing Shin Ma, I suggest you roll up your sleeves and get to work.
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