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2006/73/1 String puppet (marionette), the king, a prince or senior minister, wood / cotton / velvet / sequins / beads, made in Burma (Myanmar), 1880-1900. Click to enlarge.

Burmese string puppet, late 1800s

Made c. 1900
Because of its height and richly ornamented dress, this Burmese string puppet or marionette can be identified as one of the more important characters in the traditional repertoire - most likely the king, a prince or a senior minister. The multiple strings attached to the puppet suggest it was made in the late 1800s. Prior to the 1870s, very few strings were used as the puppets served mainly as a focus for storytelling. However, following the annexation of Burma by the British in 1885 and the end of centralised court authority, theatrical competition intensified and more strings were added to provide novelty. Sadly, by the 1930s, puppetry could no longer compete with other popular forms of Burmese entertainment. Today, the tradition is still carried on by a small number of troupes who preserve the ancient Burmese courtly way of life on the stage.

Puppet plays have been a part of Burmese performing arts since at least the mid 1400s, maturing during the next 300 years to a standard high enough for inclusion in court entertainment. In 1776, puppet troupes came under official control; regulations were laid down, outstanding groups performed at court on a regular basis and the art of the puppeteer grew significantly in stature. The plays were always performed at night and served different purposes. For the ordinary Burmese they were a source of news and gossip; in the court context however, plays could serve as permissable mouthpieces for the people, a way to send important messages to the king. These messages could not be too frank or direct however, but members of the court were adept at deciphering them.

Puppet making in Burma is carried out by men within strict guidelines. The wood used is 'yamane' or Gmelina arborea, which is light, pale in colour, durable and regarded as auspicious. Traditionally, a full set of 28 puppets, including both humans and animals, should be carved from a single yamane tree. The yamane log was floated in water and the part above the water-line provided wood for male figures, while the submerged part was used for female puppets. The thickest parts of the body are usually hollowed out to make them lighter and easier to manipulate. Modern puppet making is largely done for the tourist trade using inferior materials.

A strict ratio was set down for male puppets while female puppets were made according to a traditional Buddhist notion of the female form. Each puppet has specially crafted joints attached by double strings with soft rags wrapped around them, over which a cotton cloth is sewn. In order to give mobility to the head, a round piece of wood, in the shape of a throat, is placed between the head and the shoulders and attached through with strings. Traditionally, the face was given seven layers of paint made of the finest talc, roasted tamarind seed and water, applied with a white chicken feather. The wrists have dovetail joints and the pelvic joints are connected with stronger strings, while the upward curve of the toes is said to lend a sense of speed to the feet.

Christina Sumner, Curator Design & Society
May 2006

Reference:
Noel F. Singer, 'Burmese puppets', Images of Asia series, Oxford University Press, 1992

Summary

Object No.

2006/73/1

Object Statement

String puppet (marionette), the king, a prince or senior minister, wood / cotton / velvet / sequins / beads, made in Burma (Myanmar), 1880-1900

Physical Description

String puppet (marionette), the king, a prince or senior minister, wood / cotton / velvet / sequins / beads, made in Burma (Myanmar), 1880-1900

The puppet is fully articulated with face and long tapering hands carved from wood and painted. He is richly dressed in traditional Burmese court attire, with a longyi (wrap around skirt) of purple and green cotton with characteristic wavy and zigzag vertical banding in applied braid and sequins. He wears leggings beneath the longyi and has a heavily ornamented jacket, 'apron' and sequinned shoes. The wooden face is beautifully painted with a benevolent expression, while the pagoda-shaped crown, which is carved in one piece with the head, probably helps date the puppet to the latter half of the 1800s. The red strings of the puppet are attached to parts of its body and to an H-shaped wooden frame for manipulation.

Dimensions

Height

690 mm

Width

300 mm

Depth

120 mm

Production

Made

c. 1900

Notes

Because of the height of this puppet, and the richness of its elaborate dress, it may be identified as one of the more important characters - most likely the king, a prince or a senior minister.

The art of puppet making in Burma is an ancient one, carried out by men within strict guidelines. The wood used is 'yamane', or Gmelina arborea, which is light, pale in colour, durable and regarded as auspicious. Traditionally, it was required that a full set of 28 puppets, including both humans and animals, should be carved from a single yamane tree. The log was floated in water and the part above the water-line provided the wood for the male figures, while the submerged part was used for the female figures. The thickest parts of the body are usually hollowed out to make them lighter and easier to manipulate.

A strict ratio in poetic form is set down for the anatomy of the male puppets while the female form is made according to a traditional Buddhist concept of the female form. All puppets must have genitals. Each puppet is made with especially crafted joints attached 5 cm apart with double strings with soft rags wrapped around them, over which a cotton cloth is sewn. The wrists have dovetail joints and the pelvic joints are connected, without the use of rags, with stronger strings. The upward curve of the toes is said to lend a sense of speed to the feet. In order to give mobility to the head, a round piece of wood, in the shape of a throat, is place between the head and the shoulders and attached through with strings.

Traditionally, the face was given seven layers of paint made of the finest talc, roasted tamarind seed and water applied with a white chicken feather.

History

Notes

This fine example of Burmese puppetry was collected in Burma by the donor, Maureen Maloney.

Burmese puppet plays have been part of the Burmese performing arts repertoire since at least the 1400s. During the next 300 years, the the art gradually matured and presentation developed to a standard high enough for inclusion in court entertainment for visiting embassies. In 1776, itinerant puppet troupes were brought under official control; regulations were laid down, outstanding groups performed at court on a regular basis and the art of the puppeteer consequently grew in stature. Until the 1870s, very few strings were used however as the puppets served mainly to provide a focus for the stories told by the puppeteer. Following annexation of Burma by the British in 1885 and removal of the court's central authority, theatrical competition intensified and more strings were added to provide novelty. The number of strings attached to this puppet suggest it was made in the late 1800s.

The plays served different purposes and were always performed at night. For the ordinary Burmese they were a source of information - news and gossip - as the troupe moved from place to place. In the court however, sponsored plays could serve as permissable mouthpieces for the people, a way to send important messages to the king and court. It was also allowable for the Minister of Theatre to invite the court to a special puppet play if there was something important to be conveyed. These messages could not be too frank or direct, but members of the court were adept at deciphering them.

By the 1930s, puppetry could not compete with other forms of Burmese entertainment; a late 1940s revival was not enough for the art to regain its former popularity. Today the tradition is still carried on by a small number of troupes who preserve the ancient Burmese courtly way of life on the stage. Modern puppet making is largely done for the tourist trade using inferior materials.

Source

Credit Line

Gift of Maureen Maloney, 2006

Acquisition Date

17 May 2006

Cite this Object

Harvard

Burmese string puppet, late 1800s 2020, Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, accessed 31 May 2020, <https://ma.as/359907>

Wikipedia

{{cite web |url=https://ma.as/359907 |title=Burmese string puppet, late 1800s |author=Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences |access-date=31 May 2020 |publisher=Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, Australia}}

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