Yangon (18/06) – Few know that puppetry in Southeast Asia has existed since thousands of years ago in many forms and for various purposes. The marionette style of Burmese puppetry, water puppetry from Vietnam, the ancient Indonesian art of shadow play or “Wayang Kulit” are among the rich cultural heritage of puppetry in the region. As many new media has emerged to win the young people’s heart, the existence of puppetry is now in the brink of extinction. However, a small vanguard of puppet artists are still passionate about keeping this old heritage art alive. In Myanmar’s largest and most commercially important city, Yangon, around 20 puppet artists and musicians from Brunei, Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Singapore, Vietnam, gathered for a week-long workshop to create one ASEAN puppet performance.
“It is the first time that I come to Myanmar. We bring all the puppeteers together from ASEAN countries. We plan to promote an original joint puppet performance because we are trying to keep alive the traditional one. We learn new things through the ASEAN puppetry exchange,” said Nang Yanna, a puppet artist from Cambodia enthusiastically.
The workshop in Yangon is part of a series of exchanges between ASEAN’s puppet artists under the ASEAN Puppets Exchange Programme (APEX). The main goals of the APEX sessions are to promote ASEAN awareness through the art of traditional puppetry while at the same to raise skills and innovation of ASEAN’s puppeteers to be sustainable as they are significant cultural and artistic influencer in their societies which contribute to building the ASEAN identity.
The puppet artist gathering at Yangon (9-16 May 2016) marks the 8th APEX as the puppeteers were preparing a collaborative puppet performance “APEX-Earth.” As implied in the title, the joint story tells about the environmental change occurring in the region.
Before the brainstorming session to develop the One ASEAN story, the workshop participants were first introduced to each puppetry art from different ASEAN countries; the legendary Yoke They (marionette puppet of Burma), the use of Laos puppet for education, a glimpse of Japanese puppetry, Cambodian puppetry, and many more. The interesting part was when the participants had a chance to try manipulating the Yoke They puppet.
“Making Yoke They, we use a specific wood called Yamenay wood. It is the same wood used in royal furniture, like the lion throne in the National Museum. We use this wood because it is light, not as heavy as teak. Teak is also difficult to carve, but both woods last long. Yamenay is heavier than normal wood in Myanmar,” said a veteran puppeteer from Myanmar, Thet Thet Htwe Oo, as he passed two small blocks around for everyone to compare when he was demonstrating the making of Yoke They.
An advanced craftsmanship skill is required in making the Yoke They of Burmese puppet. It takes one hour to complete the head carving. Meanwhile to create one puppet, the puppet maker needs at least 5-7 days. In Myanmar, currently there are only two families making puppets for performance.
After getting to know each other puppetry style, the participants brainstormed on the story for the APEX-earth performance. Facilitated by APEX Lead Coordinator, Terence Tan, puppet artists sat together to craft the story, meanwhile the musicians discussed the music.
“The most important thing we need to be aware that this is the process. We are learning how to work together. It is the first time in history this has been done. No matter how difficulty this work is, something that I am very proud of. I see people enjoying new puppet, growing, learning about new music, the balance of the musicians sounds wonderful. It is a great thing,” said Terence as he wrapped up the brainstorming session.
On 15 May 2016, the APEX-Earth performance took place. More than fifty people watched the performance including puppeteers from India performing in Yangon. The APEX-earth is an important step of the journey towards the One ASEAN puppet show and tour in 2017 to celebrate ASEAN’s 50th Anniversary. The next APEX’s collaborative puppet performance is scheduled to be held in Laos.