In Mandalay, a Theater Revives the Dying Art of Burmese Puppetry

Zarni Mann The Irrawaddy

MANDALAY — As night falls, a small wooden hut, near to the corner of the walls surrounding the Royal Palace, comes alive.

Foreign tourists chat and buy tickets to enter into the hut, while some set up their video cameras. “It looks exactly like you!” says a female tourist, teasing her boyfriend as she points to a buck-toothed clown puppet hanging on the wall inside.

The hut is the theater of Mandalay Marionettes, where visitors are treated to a performance of yoke thé—traditional Burmese puppetry, an art form developed as entertainment for Burma’s royalty, once housed in the nearby palace.

Marionette operas, using wooden puppets dressed as people in traditional clothes or animals,
Was once a popular art form in Burma, and was used as a medium to tell stories and educate people in religion, history, literature and culture.

But the scene in this small wooden building is rare in modern Burma. As the clock strikes to 8:30 pm, a traditional orchestra, or sai wine, begins tuning up, and there is a hush inside the hut. The curtain of a small stage lifts, revealing a woman playing classical songs on a Burmese harp.

As well as traditional Burmese dancing, puppets depicting a cast of characters dance to the music. Scenes named “Himalayan Scene,” “The Alchemist” and “The fight of the Garuda and Serpent” are performed to the lively music of the orchestra.

Mandalay Marionettes’ most famous dance sees a marionette of a boy dancing beside and a real boy, who moves as if he is a puppet.

Founded in 1990, it is the only puppet theater in Mandalay, where hundreds of tourists enjoy the show every year.

“Foreigners who come to Mandalay want to see our culture, but there are no places to see traditional shows such as puppet theater or cultural shows, even though Mandalay has more pagoda festivals then the other city,” said Ma Ma Naing, founder of Mandalay Marionettes. “That’s why I decided to set up a puppet theater.”

At first, Ma Ma Naing ran a small souvenir shop, selling decorative Burmese traditional puppets, embroidery and handicrafts. But in 1989, the words of a tourist couple pushed her to set up the puppet theater and to become a puppeteer.

“A German and Philippine couple was about to buy the puppets that I was selling. Suddenly, the lady from the Philippines asked me to pull the string of the puppets and make them dance. She said she would not buy one if I could not make them dance,” she said.

But the puppets for sale at that time were only decorative, and Ma Ma Naing was not a practiced puppeteer.

“I was saddened for I could not make them dance, not because she didn’t buy my puppets,” she said.

Ma Ma Naing rushed to see Pan Aye, a veteran puppeteer in Mandalay, and asked for his help.

“She asked me to come to her shop and perform on that same evening. I went there, bringing the Prince and Alchemist puppets and performed with songs played on cassette tape,” Pan Aye recalled.

The show was watched not by the couple, but by a Belgian tourist, who loved the show and subsequently bought all the decorative puppets for sale in the shop.

“After the show, Ma Ma Naing told me to help her to set up a puppet theater,” he said.

While puppetry was once widely performed at Buddhist festivals in Burma, television and more modern forms of entertainment are now more dominant.

In 1975, Burma’s famous puppet artist, Shwe Bo Tin Maung, considered one of the last in a long tradition, died. Pan Aye and a group of fellow puppeteers did still perform alongside the dance performances of Mandalay artist Thein Zaw, but after Burma’s 1988 uprising against the military regime, public celebrations become less and less frequent.

“During the uprising in 1988 and the years of unrest that followed, we were pushed away from the stage again and depressed. From that time, there were no puppet shows in Mandalay region,” Pan Aye said.

“When Ma Ma Naing told me to do more puppet shows, I had no faith because I saw clearly that people’s interest in puppets had already flown away,” he said.

“But when she told me that her puppet show was to show off the tradition to the foreigners, I felt that I would be a puppeteer again so I agreed to work with her.”

From a small stage set up in the living room of her mother’s home, Ma Ma Naing’s Mandalay Marionettes has become popular with tourists to Mandalay, Burma’s cultural center. In peak tourist season the show is booked out in advance, with foreigners paying 10,000 kyat, or US$10, for the show.

“I’m so glad that I could somehow help this dying art to prevent it from disappearing. I’m honored that the veteran puppet artists like Pan Aye joined us and encouraged us to maintain the culture and show it off to the world”, said Ma Ma Naing.

The theater’s popularity has seen the puppeteers invited to perform at international events, including in France, Germany, the United States, Finland, Australia, Japan, Hong Kong, Indonesia and Thailand.

“I’m honored and proud to represent Burmese puppeteers,” said Pan Aye. “I’m glad to hear praise from foreigners. They say our Burmese puppets are unique and dance more wonderfully than other kinds of puppets because they can dance almost likely with the human.”

However, Pan Aye said, Burmese rarely come to the show, although entrance is free for locals. He was saddened, he said, that the tradition was not more valued among Burmese people.

“It’s dying,” he said, “not because of the lack of the professional puppeteers, but because of the lack of audience.”