Burmese puppetry, called Yoke The, is a high art and ancient tradition. The marionettes were beloved from the King and court down to the rural peasants, and through the plays, lessons of morals, Gods and Goddesses, spirits, and comedic royal court scandals, amongst other things were discussed.
Some puppeteers, enacting certain key characters such as the Hermit – a character representative of goodness and holiness, and the Sorcerer/Alchemist, who represents knowledge and cleverness, are given the greatest importance, with the eldest puppeters enacting these complex roles. There are four central characters generally:
“The king of the gods is Thagyarmin, the Burmese name for the deity called Sakka by Indian Buddhists and Indra by Hindus. (The rest of India’s heavenly gods – called devas – have been replaced by the Burmese with native gods called Nats.) For buddhists, a god is a powerful being still of lower rank than one who becomes a Buddha or Bodhisattva. The figure here called an ogre is more accurately termed a demon – Yaksha in Sanskrit. But with it’s great strength and habit of eating people, it comes closer to the ogre in western fairy mythology. The sorcerer – zawgyi, in Burmese – is a survivor from pre-Buddhist Burma. The zawgyi practices alchemy to attain immortal life, along with lesser attainments such as the power of flight. An almost exact parallel is in the Chinese popular concept of the Taoist “Immortal”. The Dance of the Zawgyi is one of the most popular portions of the puppeteers’ pre-play warm up. Finally, the hermit is a seeker who lived in solitude and strives for spiritual advancement. Though he is more characteristic of the Hindu tradition – which many Buddhist fables draw on – the puppet is costumed as a Buddhist monk. As with the puppet theater, most of Burmese society and culture is steeped in the dominant Buddhist faith.”
– www.aaronshep.com, “The Four Puppets: A Tale of Burma”
Certain characters are considered “good” or “bad”, the former enters the stage on the right side and the latter on the left. They are elaborately dressed, and feature human hair, wooden bodies, and their wooden faces, hands, and feet were painted with a white talc and tamirand paste. They are treated as living entities and cared for with tenderness: “To make these wooden dolls seem alive it isn’t only the skill of the puppeteer that is at stake but the rhetoric of the singer who is hidden behind the screen and the leader of the orchestra ranged in front: the three must share a close rapport which breathes life into their small charges. The marionettes are never referred to as “it” and puppeteers will never allow anyone to unravel the strings and handle them. As soon as the strings are unraveled the puppets must be handled expertly so they seem to breathe – even off stage. Special “nat” ceremonies are held to duplicate the goddess of performing arts and breathe life into the marionettes.”
i went to the famous marionette show in Mandalay and it was fantastic. The music, costuming, singing, and quality of the marionettes was so impressive. (Videos on my YouTube page)