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little storytellers Passed down from generation to generation, stories of epic battles and folklore are kept alive by puppet shows around the region Words Maria Visconti


have forever entranced audiences by telling stories and reenacting sacred texts, while educating and entertaining at the same time. Puppets have been found buried in ancient Chinese tombs and appear in different regions in different forms. Big or small, carved out of wood or made from leather or cloth, puppets can be operated by hand, rods or strings. The puppeteers might be visible or invisible or may take to the stage

together with their puppets — as at the traditional Joe Louis Theatre in Bangkok — or hidden while the puppets take to water as is the case for the Golden Dragon Theatre puppets in Vietnam. What they all have in common though, is the ability to capture an audience’s imagination and transport them to another world. The one-dimensional shadow puppets (wayang kulit) of Bali, tooled out of leather and held up by a wooden handle, project shadows onto

a screen illuminated from behind by a coconut oil lamp. The belief is that humans only see the world as a mere reflection of the real thing. The puppets’ stylised heads and bodies are made of one piece while the mobile arms are moved by rods. Their appearance, while unrealistic, makes them easily identifiable to the audience. The dalang or master puppeteer, who sings all the lines and operates all the characters while sitting behind

december 2009/january 2010

Photo: Photolibrary

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culture puppets

Hindu epics come to life with the help of these Balinese leather puppets and a light source


Photo: Photolibrary

culture puppets

Thai puppets take to the stage with their puppeteers; BELOW: Burmese puppets are made from special wood and wear ornate costumes

the screen, holds a high status in the community. It is believed that the dalang brings the puppets to life during a performance by channelling their spirit. He also controls the gamelan, which provides the music. The puppets symbolically wait for their turn resting on a banana tree trunk representing earth. The stories told are well known to the Ida Bagus Putra Baruna, puppeteer running Oka Kartini Gallery in Bali As long as the Balinese stick to their traditions and ceremonies, puppets will not only survive but thrive. Presently, puppets are performing at traditional ceremonies, and many are also learning English to perform for the tourists. Many big hotels ask us to perform at their premises. Good puppeteers can make a good living out of this art form.

locals and come from the Hindu epics of the Mahabharata, the Ramayana and Rangda the witch. The wayang kulit truly encapsulate the spirit of Indonesia and continue to be an intrinsic part of everyday life and the central point of important celebrations. In Myanmar, puppets are fashioned from selected cuts of wood, each character requiring a specific type. The attention to detail is so great that puppets even have genitals — never seen by the public — under their heavily ornate costumes. Operated by multiple strings from above by puppeteers standing behind a screen, they enact stories based on the life of Buddha. The lines are sung by unseen performers standing behind the stage, while the puppeteers manipulate the characters from above and are partially visible to the audience. Burmese puppets are made to look realistic and are expected to move like humans. There is a special number where a puppet representing an angel shares the stage with a petite girl, seemingly operated by strings. They take turns imitating each other’s moves in an entrancing performance. It is believed that during a play such as this, the vocalist, the puppeteer, the human dancer and the puppet all

merge into the spirit of Lamaing Shin Mat, the ancient female tree spirit, protector of puppetry. Thailand has an interesting variation on puppeteers as they themselves take to the stage while manipulating their puppets by central and axial rods. The Joe Louis Theatre in Bangkok has revived the art of the hun lakhon lek (small puppets), which requires the puppeteers themselves to be Khon dancers (the classical dance of Thailand based on the Ramayana stories). These puppets wear lavish costumes and take to the stage with such presence, audiences quickly forget the puppeteers clad in black holding the puppets above their shoulders. Even when they mingle with the spectators at the interval, adults and children alike invariably address the character approaching them, genuinely forgetting there is a dancer manipulating the puppet. december 2009/january 2010


culture puppets

FIND IT Oka Kartini Gianyar Jalan Raya Ubud, Bali, Indonesia, tel: +62 (361) 975 193, Amusement Zone Kan Taw Mingalar Garden, Shwedagon Pagoda (south entrance), Yangon, Myanmar

FROM TOP: Vietnamese puppets are controlled under water; Cambodian sbek toch puppets tell everyday stories; Taiwan’s puppets love fight scenes

Photo: Ph



The mua roi nuoc (water puppets) of Vietnam set themselves apart by performing in the element that most deeply shaped Vietnam’s way of life: water. The stage is a pool with a backdrop that keeps the puppeteers out of sight. They operate the diverse characters — farm animals such as water buffaloes and horses carved out of wood and lacquered — by bamboo rods and strings hidden under water. The effect is mesmerising. The depictions of farm life, rice paddies and uncooperative buffaloes, come to life with a splash. Most stories are folk tales while a few include mythological themes and characters. In Taiwan, the magical Lin Liu Hsin Puppet Theatre Museum is home to one of the world’s largest collections of Asian puppets with an emphasis on Taiwanese bu dai xi (glove or hand puppets) performances. Puppeteers manoeuvre glove puppets on ornate wooden stages to present historical and martial arts stories, including acrobatic stunts and plate-juggling tricks. Hong Kong and Singapore follow the Chinese tradition of glove puppets and are seeing a revival of the art.

Cambodia’s Khmer shadow puppets come in two categories. The sbek thom is the most ancient, dating from the Angkor Wat times. It can almost be said that they are not “real” puppets, because they’re more like intricately carved and framed pictures (representing characters from the Hindu epics) with no movable parts, each held by dancers who are themselves visible and adopt a complementary body language to the character they hold up. In 2005, sbek thom was recognised by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. Performances are considered sacred and carried out on specific dates such as the Khmer New Year. The sbek toch, however, are almost identical to their Javanese and Balinese shadow ancestors, but tend to tell folkloric tales based on everyday life. They are also used to instruct children and adults on important health issues. 68

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Photo: Photolibrary

Htwe Oo Myanmar Puppet Theatre Asia Plaza Hotel, Ruby Hall, 277 Bogyoke Aung San Rd, Kyauktada Township, Yangon, Myanmar, tel: +95 (1) 391 070, htweoomyanmar. com Joe Louis Theatre Suam Lum Night Bazaar, 1875 Rama IV Rd, Lumpini, Pathumwan, Bangkok, Thailand, tel: +66 (2) 252 9683, thaipuppet. com

Sovanna Phum Theatre 111 St 360 (cnr of St 105), Phnom Penh, Cambodia, tel: +855 (23) 221 932, Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre 55 Bis Nguyen Thi Minh Khai St, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, tel: +84 (8) 8272 2653, goldendragon HowIs.asp Lin Liu-Hsin Puppet Theatre Museum 79 Xining North Rd, Taipei, tel: +886 (2) 2556 8909,

There has always been an aura of respect surrounding Asian marionettes. To this day, puppets are never touched with the feet (considered an insult) and characters that are natural enemies are never stored together. The advent of TV has seriously compromised the future of puppet troupes, but Asian puppets have found an adoring foreign following. Thanks to the patronage of visitors, the art is seeing a healthy revival and puppets are even venturing abroad to showcase their country’s culture. For all your travel choices, visit


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