The history of Myanmar’s traditional marionette performance called Hoon Sai can be traced back to over 500 or 600 years. Known to Burmese locals as Yoke-Thay, the performance was popular with all castes of society.
The most common storylines are related to the tales of Lord Buddha’s former incarnations, as depicted in the ancient classic, Jataka. Stories related to folktales and other local legends are also performed occasionally, with a tendency to reflect the social and political issues of the time.
Hoon Sai puppets come in hundreds of characters, but the most popular ones seem to be animals, alchemists, viceroys, princesses and princes. Traditionally, the performance begins with an animal dance and music performance by the alchemist character as the prologue. Each scene includes not more than 5 or 6 marionettes on the stage and each character has its own song during the performance.
The wood used to make the marionette would have been soaked in water. Those that float are used to make female characters while those that “drown” become male characters.
Experience this fascinating performance yourself at the ASEAN Enchanting Puppet festival from 22nd to 24th February. The troupe Htwe Oo Myanma from Rangoon will be the representative of the Hoon Sai performance.
Mulat Theater, Philippines Puppet Group for Youth
People in literature and drama circles in the Philippines all know Amelia Lapeña Bonifacio as well as the International Puppet Group for Youth, especially in the Asia Pacific Region.
Amelia Lapeña Bonifacio is considered to be the “Mother of Philippine Puppetry” and the“Grand Dame of Southeast Asian Children’s Puppet Theater”. Her bynames came from her works and contributions since she began to be a writer. Her works including Sepang Loca, a piece of writing concerning the unfortunate lives of strangers living in the big city, Bulacan, and other writings. In addition, there are dramatic compositions reflecting Philippino society such as Ang Bundok which depicts the protest by the local people against dam building.
Apart from her written works and dramatic compositions, Amelia was also a lecturer at the University of the Philippines Diliman. In her retirement, Amelia transformed the area in front of her home into a small theater for children who are interested in drama. Teatrong Mulats or Mulat Theater was thus established and passed on to the next generation. Mulat Theater travels around the country to meet the audiences. Grandma Amelia is the one who tells the stories while her children activate the great puppets.
The puppets of Mulat Theater are marionettes and contemporary shadow puppets integrated with traditional puppets and the emphasis is as a show performed by children for children. Therefore, the stories are cute and fun. Some are fairy tales and others are somehow part of the epic of the Ramayana.
For those who like watching puppet shows, do not miss the show from Mulat Theater, the representative from the Philippines in the Asean Puppetry Festival from February 22nd to 24th.
The Indonesian Puppets of Java and Bali
Many Indonesians will tell you that there are two types of puppetry in the world—Wayang Kulit and Wayang Golek.
Wayang Kulit, also known as Indonesian Shadow Puppets, are very similar to Thai shadow puppets except for their exaggeration of facial features, the delicate costumes and the storylines.
The dalung is the most important person in the show because he manipulates every puppet and narrates the story at the same time. To qualify as a dalung means you are very dexterous and quick. Watching an expert in action can be quite breathtaking.
Wayang Kulit shows are generally scheduled for after sunset when performances can be held behind a large screen with the aid of a torch. A band accompanies the show with a gong and drums.
Wayang Golek are puppets made of light wood carved into delicate characters and adorned with beautiful costumes and headdresses. Blue gemstones are used as their eyes. Their eyebrows, hair and beards are painted black. The king or queen wears luxurious outfits while the poor peasants don only light batik cloths.
One form of Wayang Golek is called “Golek Cepak” which depicts the life and tales of Amir Hamza who was the uncle of the Prophet Muhammad. Its purpose is to teach morality and religion.
Another theme is “Wayang Golek Purwa” which recounts the adventures of nobles and their family members.
At the ASEAN Puppet Festival, a troupe led by Mr. I Nyoman Sumandhi from Bali will present performances of Wayang Kulit and Wayang Golek.
A group from Java, headed by Mr. Nuri Aryati, will perform contemporary dance and other Javanese performance arts.
Sabek Thom Cambodian Puppetry
Apart from the sublimely fascinating smiles of the apsara [angels] bas-reliefs at Angkor Wat, Cambodia's art and culture is not so well known to the outside world. However, patrons of Khmer arts and culture are aware that theatrical performances were at the heart of the Suvarnabhumi region since ancient times.
Traditional puppets played a main role too. They were called sabek thom and were made from leather. Sometimes created as tall as five meters, the mannequins were sculpted into images of hermits, giants, heroes and heroines, or the monkey Hanuman from the ancient Hindu epic Ramayana.
Sabek Thom therefore involves an outstanding ability on behalf of the puppeteer to act and dance—something we in Thailand recognize as khon, the classical Siamese mask play.
Sabek Thom is usually displayed on a stage, but sometimes it is played behind a screen using clever lighting and shadows. It is mostly performed at royal ceremonies and big festivals or celebrations. It is regarded a sacred art form, one which is deeply integrated into Khmer beliefs and traditions.
Cambodians also have small puppets called sabek touch, also made of leather and molded into figurines of people, animals, monks or characters from folklore.
Similar to southern Thai shadow plays, Sabek Thom recants folk tales, epics and local jokes, while Sabek Touch represents folk art. Both involve three to six puppeteers with a Khmer orchestra of timpani, bongos, flute, gongs and an xylophone. There is also a narrator in the performances.
At the ASEAN Enchanted Puppets show, “SovannaPhum” will be the Cambodian representative. Led by Mr. Mann Kosal, this group is outstanding in performing Sabek Thom, Sabek Touch and other Khmer forms of puppetry.
The Elegant Dramatic Works of ‘The People of the Water’
'Water' is an important element in Vietnamese culture, most especially where puppets are concerned, no doubt because it is associated with their life-style, believing as they do that their ancestors were the descendants of an ocean dragon.
Vietnamese water puppetry has gone through difficult times and circumstances in the years past. Originally it was popular with both the court and the people, including the merchants who lived on the banks of the Red River, but when war broke out and during the struggle against the French colonists, the Vietnamese style of puppetry was replaced by its Western counterpart, most specifically that of Czechoslovakia. However, following the Vietnam War, it reappeared, and performances in Poland and France in the 80s attracted international attention. An International Puppetry Festival held in Hanoi strengthened this come-back, the exquisite craftsmanship of the puppets and their spectacular costumes eliciting admiration.
At this festival The National Puppetry Theatre led by Mr.Voung Duy Bien represented Vietnam, his famous puppet team once more earning plaudits.
The Charm of Vietnamese Water puppetry
As noted, water plays an important part in the stage dramas, acting itself as a main character, and being featured decoratively on the stage curtain and as coverings for the various puppetry implements and stage mechanisms.
The Krabong Laos Troupe
South East Asian puppetry has similarities in its various national manifestations. The countries bordering the Mekong River, for example - Laos, Thailand, Burma and Cambodia – all have puppetry features in common, whether of the externals - style and accoutrements – or of themes and stories.
Laos has two main types of puppet play. The first is the traditional Ipok or Tukkata puppetry associated with Luang Prabang and its surroundings. The puppets here look similar to those of Thailand, though with less detail in execution. In the past, the performances were usually put on at the royal court, and were mostly based on the Ramayana epic and popular folk tales. Where the Ipok performance is concerned, the objective is not only to provide entertainment but is actually ceremonial, serving as an act of homage to the spirits of the ancestors. At present, only a few puppeteers trained to perform at the palace survive, and represent the last remaining generation. This is why the government has stepped in to do what it can to preserve and promote this important element of the Lao cultural heritage.
The second type of puppetry is that of the Lao National Puppet Troupes of Vientiane. Here the style is contemporary and eclectic, the traditional puppetry embracing that of France, Bulgaria etc. One example of this style of the art is provided by the Krabong Laos Troupe, led by Mr. Leuthmany Insisiengmay, PO Box 122 Vientiane Lao P.D.R. Tel 856-21 212457 Mobile 856-20 5621881 ,Home: 856-21- 252042
It was this troupe that was chosen by the Laos Ministry of Culture to perform at the ASEAN Enchanting Puppet Festival. The charm and identity of this troupe resides in the creation of costumes and puppets from local and natural materials, and the dazzling, lively performances they give rise to – harmonizing as they do with the traditional art of mime with Asian and European musical themes.
The Charm of Laos Puppetry
It is astonishing that these troupes are able to use such normal and humble materials to create such animated and life-like puppets. Who would have thought that mere loincloths, brooms, old paper and dry leaves could be transformed into – for example – a huge and lively elephant with its mahout on its back?
Monkey Puppets in the Lion City
Singapore is a country that has adapted immensely under the influence of Westerners and other foreign migrants. British, Portuguese, Chinese and Malays have all joined the melting pot that is the Lion City.
It’s no surprise then that Singaporean puppetry comprises a kaleidoscope of cultures. One prominent art form is the Chinese marionettes with performances based on Chinese opera. One well-known play is the “Journey to the West” (or “Journey of the Monkey King”). Later on, European marionettes also became popular in Singapore.
The Paper Monkey Theatre is the Singaporean representative at the ASEAN Enchanting Puppets Festival this February. Founded in 2008, the group is led by a playwright and puppeteer named Benjamin Ho. His idea is to use stagecraft as an open arena serving both children and adults, and give them a chance to learn more about themselves as well as cultures around the globe.
Paper Monkey Theatre is outstanding in its fusion of performing arts between human players and puppets. The puppet characters are also flexible depending on the plays. Sometimes the group uses paper puppets with the shadow-play techniques. Hand puppets, marionettes and others are also featured. Mostly, the group performs tales for children focusing on nature and the environment.
Malaysian Wayang Kulit and contemporary puppets by the Acx Production
The art of Wayang Kulit, or shadow puppet is differs according to the area it comes from. In Malaysia, Wayang Kulit varies depending on which culture it is close to. In the area close to Thailand, Wayag Kulit is very similar to Thai Nang Talung in terms of appearance, music and story. In the south of Malaysia, the puppets are very much like those of Indonesia.
For Malaysian, Wayang Kulit plays the same role as in Thailand and Indonesia. It serves as a performance for sacred ceremonies as well as for entertainment in the community. Nowadays, the numbers of Wayang Kulit performers are decreasing and the stories are changing to accordance with the current situation. So the original Wayang Kulit is very rare to find.
Apart from the traditional and applied Wayang Kulit shows, there are also many contemporary puppet groups in Malaysia. The Acx Production is one of them that merges a contemporary style of puppet show with theatre art. The uniqueness is the combination of puppets and humans in the show, as well as the various kinds of puppets such as hand puppet, mask puppets, together with dancing and singing.