March of the Marionettes

By Nyein Nyein 20 April 2015

MANDALAY — Ma Toe Toe was in her twenties when a senior male puppeteer and close friend first taught her the art form that would eventually become her profession.

“I was introduced to puppetry in 1998, and I soon got hooked,” recalled the puppeteer who now manipulates the strings nightly at the Mandalay Marionettes Theater and whose sister is a harpist with the group.

Traditional puppetry was once performed as entertainment for Myanmar’s royalty and on street stages during carnivals and events, including Buddhist full moon days.

The shows thought to date back to the late 1700s were also popular among rural populations, and performances often lasted an entire night.

Under the previous military junta, Myanmar’s marionette operas became a dying art and were only performed for a handful of foreign tourists. For some years, Ma Toe Toe worked primarily entertaining tourists at hotels in Bagan in central Myanmar and her career looked precarious.

Now with nascent political and economic reforms since 2011 and a boom in tourist arrivals, the culturally significant art form is back in the spotlight and the role of the puppeteer is increasingly being viewed as a potential career option for young artists, including women.

In September 2014, the Myanmar Puppeteer Association was formed, and performances now take place in some schools and at the National Theatre in Mandalay.

The revival is owed mostly to the chair of the Myanmar Puppeteer Association Daw Ma Ma Naing, who co-founded the Mandalay Marionettes Theater in 1990.

Public interest is growing again at last, she said.

“These days, the art is transforming,” she said, explaining that puppetry is now also taking on current issues such as health awareness and human trafficking.

Beginning earlier this year, puppeteers now perform shows twice a month at the Mandalay National Theater. One performance is a 45-minute awareness-raising drama, “Tear from the Sky,” which explores the issue of child trafficking, Daw Ma Ma Naing said.

The troupe appeared at an event to mark the 100th birthday of Gen. Aung San in Nat Mauk, Magwe Region, in February, together with the Yangon-based Htwe Oo Myanmar Puppetry group.

“Many people in the audience showed a lot of interest in this rare art,” Ma Toe Toe recalled with a broad smile.

Keeping Tradition Alive

Daw Ma Ma Naing has helped lead the way in recent years to ensure that the unique art retains its place in Myanmar’s cultural landscape.

In a globalized economy, she warned, “our culture is in danger of extinction due to foreign cultural influences.” She said a firm commitment to her work and a healthy dose of stubbornness had helped her to continue.

Daw Ma Ma Naing performed street puppet shows to rural audiences in more than 50 villages across Mandalay and Sagaing Regions from 1995 to 2007. Though she was not from a puppetry background, she was a quick learner.

Since founding the Marionettes Theater, she has recruited both professional puppet masters and a new generation of performers.

It’s vital to have a real “interest in the art,” according to Ma Toe Toe, as the skills for mastering puppetry only develop with plenty of practice. She learned the basics in ten days, but mastering the ability to play all the characters took a lot longer.

She has now been a puppeteer for more than 17 years.

Today Ma Toe Toe is one of seven women pulling the strings at the Marionettes Theater, the only venue in Mandalay where tourists can enjoy the traditional art form.

One-hour shows take place every night from 8:30 pm and are primarily targeted at foreign tourists.

An Egyptian tourist, Susanne, told The Irrawaddy, “it was a special show” after a recent performance.

But while the shows are popular with foreigners, so far few Myanmar attend, according to Daw Ma Ma Naing.

Prominent local writer Hus Nget said many youth still lacked an appetite for the art.

“Despite it being a career option for young artists in this tourist-driven economy, we don’t see many youth interested in the art itself,” he said.

It was fortunate that puppet lovers such as Daw Ma Ma Naing and a few other small troupes were trying to maintain the art, Hus Nget said, but it was a difficult job.

Artists also needed to master the singing techniques that accompany traditional Myanmar puppetry, he added.

“Mandalay lost its good vocalists in puppetry about forty years ago,” he said.

The small Mandalay theater employs about 30 staff who balance multiple roles including making the puppets, dancing, singing, playing the harp, and manipulating puppets for the audience.

“I dance when we need a dancer, I play harp when we need a harpist and I pull the strings when we need a puppeteer to make the dolls dance,” said another female puppeteer, Ma Han Su Yin.

Now 27, she developed her skills from an early age with the help of a special tutor: her mother, Daw Ma Ma Naing.

“At that time, we lived in the theater, which was a stage at night and a home as well,” Ma Han Su Yin said.

A puppeteer by night and a hairdresser during the day—while also running a beauty salon— Ma Han Su Yin shared her hope that the art form her mother helped to preserve will once again attract a local audience.

“As a youth, I try to balance work and my interest in the traditions we should maintain,” she said.

This article originally appeared in the April 2015 issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.