The topic Burmese theatre ‘Pwe’, in general, and Burmese marionette theatre ‘Yoke-Thay Pwe’, in particular, is definitely a very interesting one but it is also very complex. Therefore it is difficult to sufficiently deal with it in the form of an article. After all, entire books with hundreds of pages have been written on this topic. OK, then; I try to do my best and you please let me know whether I have succeeded.
In his ‘Brandon’s Guide to Theatre in Asia’, first published in January 1967, James A. Brandon has written: “The description of the Burmese as a happy and smiling person is born on the stage more than one would think possible” and that is very true.
Theatre, ‘Pwe’ has in Burma a tradition that goes back many centuries. Although nowadays especially urban but also rural audience is increasingly turning its attention towards more modern and easier consumable forms of entertainment such as television, cinema, videos and video games, etc. pwe (theatre) is still very much alive except, alas, for one form of pwe. But that is anticipating.
There are several kinds of theatre here in Burma. The most popular perhaps is a mix of dance, music and dramatics called ‘Zat Pwe’. Zat pwe is often preceded by a theatrical form of pwe, called ‘Pya Zat’; here a heroic prince must overcome demons’ and sorcerers’ evildoings.
Another form of pwe is concerned with episodes from everyday life and called ‘Anyein Pwe’. A pure dance theatre performed by both principal dancers and groups is the ‘Yein Pwe’.
Rather rarely seen by foreign visitors/tourists since publicly performed only within the framework of animistic festivals (Mt. Popa, Taungbyon, Magwe, Bago) and otherwise only at private ‘Nat Parties’ is the ‘Nat Pwe’. This is an animistic event in which a Nat Kadaw is functioning as medium between nats (spirits) and people that are believing in supernatural beings and their powers and are communicating with the respective nat through the medium. This, by the way, is the reason for celebrating nat pwes. U Min Kyaw who is also known by the names Ko Gyi Kyaw or Min Kyawzwa is arguably the most liked 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 for people to like him is that he is granting wealth to all of those who believe in him.
An exception to all of the different kinds of pwe is a form of this art that is said to have its origins in India but has over time developed into a uniquely Burmese form of theatre: this is the ‘Yoke-Thay Pwe’ or ‘Marionette Theatre’.
Not of one opinion are historians as to the time when the marionettes/string puppets made their first appearance in Burma. According to one opinion they were first mentioned in a poem written by Rattasara, a Buddhist novice monk in the 15th century. Others say that the yoke-thay pwe has its foundation in the time after King Hsinbyushin’s return to Ava after the conquest of the Thai capital Ayutthaya in 1767 A.D.
Be that as it may, undisputed is that King Hsinbyushin’s son Singu Min (usurper to the throne), who succeeded him called into life at his court a ‘Ministry of the Fine Arts’ in 1776. He appointed ‘Minister for Royal Entertainment’, U Thaw Win, who was now entrusted with the development of a new pwe art form.
It is important to know and to take into account that in Burma’s history and to not a small extent even today the standards of etiquette and moral behaviour did not allow the public exhibition of intimate romantic scenes and that to portray the future Buddha in the ‘Jataka’ tales was considered sacrilegious. For this reason actors refused to play this part. These things posed real problems and the solutions to these were marionettes or puppets. What human beings were not allowed and/or not willing to do in public, wooden figures could do; the ‘Yoke-Thay Pwe’ came into being.
Not undisputed yet widely accepted is that by setting strict guiding principles and rules minister Thaw Win regulated and standardised yoke-thay pwe more than any other kind of pwe. From the stages to the marionettes to their clothing everything was standardised.
A yoke-thay pwe stage called in Burmese ‘chauk khan sin’ has to be 30 feet/9 metres wide and to be made of light-weight teak and bamboo. The backdrop scene against which the stories are played and told has always to be the same: A primeval forest on the right, a throne on the left and a sofa or couch in the centre. According to the guidelines the marionettes are divided into ‘yoke-kyi-sin’, the large marionettes (2.5 to 3 feet/0.75 to 0.9 metre high) and ‘yoke-thay-sin’, the small marionettes, subsequently, up to 2.5 feet/0.75 metre.
All yoke thay pwe troupes had to be registered and the number of string puppets as well as their physical parts were determined to be 28. This number is derived from the traditional Buddhist belief that all and each organism comprises 28 physical parts.
The art of puppeteering not only requires to be learned many, many years under the close supervision of a puppet master but moreover to not a small degree talent because a single puppeteer must manipulate 28 separate string puppets/marionettes. Some of these have as many as 60 strings attached to them in order to perform the many different gestures and dances. However, most puppets require mastering an average of only (!) 20 strings. The puppeteer also presents the dialogue of the puppets simultaneously supported only by two stage assistants.
Each of the 28 marionettes derives 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 lady (Ah-May-Oh), h) one clownish assistant (Daw Mo), I) one clownish 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 serpent (Naga), n) one horse (Myin), o) one white elephant (Sin-Phyu), 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 ‘Maid of Honour’ (Ah-Pyo-Daw), v) two senior princes. One with white face, one with red face (Min-Tha-Gyis), w) one Brahman (Byanmar).
An additional and very important figure not so much for the play as for the puppeteer is the x) guardian spirit of the puppeteers (Lamaing-Shin-Ma).
There are also other figures such as the guardian spirit of the trees (Nyaung-gyin) also known as ‘Old man of the Banyan tree’ and the y) page boy (Thu-Nge-Daw).
The costumes of all these figures too, are clearly specified and must be identical to the original.
The leading figures are always Minthamee and Mintha around whom the romantic plot always revolves.
Utmost attention in yoke-thay-pwe is paid to the orchestra and the vocalist as they are of vital importance to it.
a) the double headed drums (Pat-Waing), which are played by the leader, b) a variety of brass gongs (kyi-waing), c) a triangular gong (kyi-se), d) a large circular gong (moung), e) six different double headed drums (hauk-lon-pat), f) a large double headed drum (pat-ma-gyi).
Also part of the orchestra is g) a flute or kind of oboe (hne).
The order of the various scenes is likewise predetermined and the stories played, especially the ‘Ramayana’ and the ‘Jataka’ tales, are usually the same and generally well known. The Ramayana tells the eventful 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 relates in quasi-historical moral fashion to Gautama Buddha’s overcoming of the various sins to earn his ultimate rebirth and Enlightenment.
The song most yoke-thay-pwe performances are opened by is very popular in Burma since generations and always preludes the appearance of the by everyone 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.”
“Maid of Honour, Ma Shat Tay (Clumsy Maid), please come out and dance. Master of the orchestra (Master Ruffin), please, play the music.”
Unfortunately, the yoke-thay pwe that was once awarded a higher status than that of any other form of pwe and that ruled the world of Burmese theatre undisputed, is slowly but surely disappearing. This partly because of the passing away of the old generation of puppet masters, a loss that is, alas, not compensated by the emergence of a sufficient number of new masters and partly because the traditional yoke-thay pwe performances last almost an entire night, thus are very demanding to both puppeteers and audiences. But there is no substitute for this wonderful art of highly entertaining theatre for which reason something must be done in order to avoid its extinction.
Two of the very few people in Burma (Myanmar) who give their very best to keep the art of yok-thay pwe alive – both domestically as well as internationally in cooperation with UNESCO – are the puppeteers Ma Ma Naing and her husband of the ‘Mandalay Marionettes Theatre’ in Mandalay, located on 66th Street, between 26th Street and 27th Street (just around the corner of Mandalay Swan Hotel and Sedona Hotel) where every evening yoke-thay pwe performances at their best take place.
The theatre was founded by two ladies in 1986 and the troupe started its career by performing for the tourists visiting Burma.
The two founders were Ma Ma Naing, daughter of U Thein Naing, the writer of Burmese Puppet Theatre (1966) and Naing Ye Mar. The troupe is supervised by Dr. Tin Maung Kyi, a researcher on Burmese puppets, U Pan Aye and U Shwe Nan Tin, well respected and highly skilled puppet masters. The troupe has won a number of national awards and performed in various foreign countries.
Whoever has the opportunity to visit the theatre should take time by the forelock; do it and immerse in the enchanting world of the Burmese marionette theatre. A highly entertaining evening and an unforgettable experience nowhere outside Burma to get are guaranteed.
All those who have dedicated their lives to perpetuate the art of puppetry and all those who love to enjoy the exiting and very touching yoke-thay pwe performances should in united and tireless efforts call upon ‘La-Maing-Shin-Ma’ not to allow that this wonderful ancient form of entertainment will forever be consigned to the past and vanish. He may have something wonderful in store. Remember, the ways of the celestials are mysterious. After all, his right of existence as guardian spirit of the puppeteers is as much at stake as the existence of those he is to protect.
So, dear La Maing Shin Ma, I suggest you roll up the sleeves and get to work.