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Saturday, 20 December 2014

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The Myanmar Times

Expert proposes foundation to ‘save’ marionette theatre

Members of the Htwe Oo Myanmar marionette troupe in action earlier this year. (Kaung Htet / The Myanmar Times / April 11, 2012)Members of the Htwe Oo Myanmar marionette troupe in action earlier this year. (Kaung Htet / The Myanmar Times / April 11, 2012)

Following the resumption of regular daily performances, the founder of Yangon-based marionette troupe Htwe Oo Myanmar has unveiled a plan to establish a foundation to secure the art form’s long-term survival.

Troupe director U Khin Maung Htwe said the purpose of establishing the “Myanmar Puppet Foundation” would be to both preserve and develop this renowned part of Myanmar traditional culture.

“I want all practitioners to be organised and assist in the establishment of a foundation that represents Myanmar marionette society and works for its development both here and abroad,” he said.

He said he would invite all practitioners in the country to a meeting in October to discuss the establishment of the foundation.

Although U Khin Maung Htwe is keen to see his plan realised, he’s unsure whether others stakeholders in the field will share his vision.

“If my suggestion is rejected, I will found my own ‘Htwe Oo Puppet Foundation’ privately. We need an association of some sort to maintain this art properly. It will be a not-for-profit founddation with the aim of keeping this art form alive – if we don’t do this, puppetry could disappear,” he said.

U Khin Maung Htwe’s proposal has found some support in the cultural community, with well-known author Chit San Win saying such a foundation was “desperately needed”.

“There hasn’t been an organisation dedicated to representing or working for the welfare of Myanmar marionette theatre. It is useless to just say, ‘We need to maintain this art form’ without having an organisation to carry out these activities,” he said.

Chit San Win was one of a group of writers who took action in the 1970s to revive marionette theatre, which had been in decline for decades because of competition from modern forms of entertainment.

The writers gathered marionette artists and put on performances at pagoda festivals and, in the process, reinvigorated not only marionette theatre but the wood carving industry that relies on it.

While marionette theatre survived that period of decline, its future appears far from certain. Troupes rely on foreign tourists for the majority of their income.

“It is our responsibility to seek out ways to prevent professional marionette theatre from fading away. In the past ... we just worked hard to save the art form on an individual basis but it is time to work together,” Chit San Win said.

“If we could set up a place to serve as an information centre and gathering point for artists from all over the country we could help connect experienced artists with the younger generation of puppeteers,” he added.

U Khin Maung Htwe said he feared that in 50 to 100 years outsiders would come to think that marionette theatre originated in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand.

When he visited the city in 2009 to teach a puppetry training course he said he saw marionette puppets for sale “everywhere” but noted that there were no performances on offer.

“They can imitate the art with the puppets but they can’t recreate elements such as the saing waing (traditional orchestra) and singers,” he said. “Nevertheless, if we don’t do something soon, I’m worried that in Myanmar we will end up just selling marionette souvenirs in pagoda stairways and markets, like in Thailand.”

The Myanmar marionette theatre is thought to have its origins in the Bagan era but no concrete references to puppetry have been found in documents from the 11th to 13th centuries, Chit San Win said.

The terms “puppeteer” and “puppet dances” feature in Inwa-era (1364-1555) documents, however, and most Myanmar scholars agree that the Konbaung dynasty (1752-1885) was the heyday of marionette theatre.

As well as being a form of entertainment, marionette theatre acted as a mobile education centre. Troupes toured the country educating and spreading information. In the colonial period, marionette theatre also took on a decidedly political slant, Chit San Win said.

“The British colonial administration neither discouraged nor encouraged Myanmar puppetry, in case either action reinforced anti-imperialist sentiment,” he said, before adding: “We can certainly say that Myanmar puppetry has a proud history.”

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