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