Puppets in the 18th century royal court of Myanmar
Full show notes: https://www.thejaymo.net/2020/11/20/301-2046-conduits-to-a-king/
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Conduits To A King
On last week’s episode of Come Internet With Me I was joined by the Host of obscure theory podcast Hermitix. James, or rather Meta Nomad and I searched ventriloquist dummies. During our hour of interneting. We tried (unsuccessfully) to get to the bottom of the differences between Marionettes, Puppets, and Ventriloquists dummies. In one article we found there was a single paragraph that mentioned the following:
In 15th century Myanmar (Burma), marionettes troupes were employed by the king to highlight and correct the misbehaviors of family members, and save them embarrassment. Ordinary citizens also used the dolls as vehicles to respectfully express their dissatisfaction with the king and his Court.Differences between Marionettes, Puppets, and Ventriloquists Figures (Dummies)
Now I can’t read something like that and not investigate. So I’ve spent the last few days reading about Burmiese marionette theater. Or Yoke thé – which translates as Miniatures.
The Burmese marionette tradition traces its earliest performances back to the 1400s. The blog we found was a little free with its details. It in fact the the 1700s. Under the reign of Singu Min 1756-1782 – who by the way was deposed by his cousin and executed by his uncle at the age of 25.
Two years before in 1780, Min was introduced to Marionette theatre by his Minister of Royal Entertainment, U Thaw. From then on it became an important part of royal court life during the Konbaung dynasty. Which only ended with the invasion and colonisation by the British in 1885. As an aside, I also read about the 23 ton Singu Min Bell or Maha Gandha, which means “Great Sound” commissioned by the same short lived king.
The British stole it from the Shwedagon temple during the first Anglo-Burmese War. However, the ship that was carrying the bell to Calcutta sank in Yangon River. After several unsuccessful attempts to salvage the bell, British gave up.
Then, a group of Burmese people successfully raised the bell with hundreds of bamboo poles tied underneath the bell. The air trapped in the poles helped to float the bell to the surface at high tide.
Anyhoo back to the Marionetes. I studied Indonesian shadow puppetry way back at university. Similarly to the story cycles of Wayang Kulit Burmese Marionette theatre has a fixed number of characters or figures in the case of U Thaw’s theatre: 27.
There are four categories of drama that this collection of characters perform: Historical dramas, Religious stories and fables, modern drama and birth-stories of the Buddha.
The marionettes are about 50 centimetres high with 18 or 19 wires and require great deal of dexterity from the puppeteer.
The performances are accompanied by live music.
As an indication of the importance attached to puppetry by the royal court. The Konbaung dynasty created the “Ministry of the Royal Stage”
A full company of puppeteers is more than 10 people.
With three types of performers in the troupe:
- Those who only sing
- Those who only manipulate the marionettes
- Those who sing as well as manipulate
The artists held fixed shares as their salary, depending on their role. But they weren’t paid in cash money, instead they were paid in precious gifts and objects.
The “Great Royal Stage” with a troupe personally selected by the King. The ‘Lesser Royal Stage”, with its puppeteers selected by the by the queen or crown prince. The “Crown Princess’s Stage”, and finally the “Royal Court Stage” which played for the courtiers.
Only the “Great Royal Stage” was allowed to be accompanied by two orchestras, placed to the left and right side of the stage. Each of the other stages only had one.
The marionettes were so popular that formal folks dance theatre borrowed dances from the puppets stage. Even today the talent of a dancer is judged by their ability to imitate the movements of a marionette.
Performances of the puppets served as political conduits between the ruler and their subjects. Puppet troupes traveled from town to town and brought news of the capital and other places. They were also used as a way to express opinions to the king.
Sometimes they would use a play to make a subject’s plight known to the ruler. Once a soldier died, and his wife was forced by the commander of his regiment to serve in his place. and accompany the troupe wherever it had to go. The name of the unfortunate widow was made known to the king by means of a pun.
Then the king inquired about the matter and ordered that the woman be sent home immediately.
All puppeteers think of their puppets as live entities. Without this belief it would be difficult to make them truly ‘alive’ on stage. Before they are used, a ceremony offering food to the patron Goddess of performing Arts must be held. With this ritual the puppets are ‘brought to life’. When the strings are unraveled, the puppet must immediately be made to move as if she is breathing.
Now as you can imagine I find all this fascinating. I do wish my friend Eriol was still alive. To discuss all this and the importance of puppet theatre spreading the gospel. “Marionette” means “Mary doll after all.
I also mentioned puppet theatre recently in Episode 20-35, They are it seems, fully beginning to capture my imagination. So more on puppets likely soon.
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The above is the original script I wrote for the episode. It may differ from what ended up in audio due to time constraints.