The ceiling lights didn’t dim, they were swiftly extinguished, so that only the velvet curtained stage before us was illuminated. The crowd – all seven of us – were hushed as a tape deck clicked on. A crackling, poncy Queen’s English voice piped up, explaining the intricacies of traditional Myanmar puppetry with platitudes like “The puppet master must dance to the music in his mind” and “the puppets must move as though they are humans”.
Suddenly, the voice ended and a moment’s silence ensued before a terrifying jolting and clashing – what passed for traditional music – welcomed us into the puppet master’s world.
Aung the Puppet Master
We were sitting in the front room of Aung the Puppet Master’s house. The room was smaller than a garage, with two rows of wooden pews positioned before a stage the size of a generous flat screen TV. Wooden marionettes of horses, elephants, monks and men with terrifying faces hung from the walls and ceiling.
Aung had a kindly face, wiry frame, and an infectious enthusiasm that made us keen to enjoy his performance for his benefit. He welcomed us in, bid us sit and poured us cups of green tea before the show.
After a tiresome day, be it bargaining for souvenirs at the five-day market on an Inle Lake boat tour or cycling through the countryside, a bit of modest entertainment is sorely wanted. Of course, you can lie back in bed and watch one of the many downloaded movies on your laptop. Or you can experience the truly fun – and bizarre – Aung Puppet Show.
At the hefty price of 3000 kyat (just $3), we chose to indulge in this cultural experience, which is why we found ourselves beside a Burmese family waiting for the performance to begin. The headache-inducing music signalled for the curtain to be raised with a sudden jolt. Behind was a wooden marionette prancing oddly before a tastefully-rendered landscape background. Aung’s shadow hovered above the marionette, dancing energetically to the calamitous music.
The puppets were impressive, but the music unfathomable, with each instrument – harp, xylophone, flutes, brass gongs, drums, cymbals – seemingly competing for attention, each with their own tune and unwilling to cooperate. I was almost relieved to hear the British woman’s soft voice come on to introduce the next dance.
Aung’s half-hour performance featured eight characters from traditional fables. There was a princess and a prince, a horse and an ape, an ogre, a comedian, a magician, and a sportsman.
Once you adjust to the musical assault, it is easy to appreciate Aung’s skill. He deftly had the magician do somersaults without complicating the strings at all while the sportsman (from the local Chinlon sport, think a volleyball-soccer blend) balanced a ball from left knee to head to shoulder to right knee. The prince alone had fifteen strings.
After the eighth marionette, the music stopped, the prince was whipped behind the background, and a sweating Aung cried “finished!”
The performance itself was interesting to watch, but I was doubly glad to have visited after speaking to Aung. Youq-the-pwe, or Myanmar marionette theatre, was a dying art. Its golden age ran through to the advent of cinema, at which point moving pictures fascinated locals more than moving puppets.
Aung was a fourth-generation puppet master with 28 years of practice. His children showed little interest in learning the art. His grandfather’s portrait hung from the top of the stage, peering down at Aung’s petty crowd. After we told him it was nice to see locals taking an interest, with a glance at the loitering Burmese family, Aung waved his hand dismissively. “Oh they are my friends,” he said.
But he was not discouraged by the lack of audience. In fact, he was optimistic. Between 2007 and 2011, he told us, few tourists visited Nyaungshwe.
“It was a very bad time,” he lamented.
Now, more and more people are coming. And for the first time I realised that, while it’s all well and good to enjoy a country relatively unmarred by the tourist trade, I hoped that tourism would penetrate Myanmar deeper. In such a scenario, I liked to imagine, Aung’s tiny front-room theatre would have to sell standing-room only tickets.
Aung’s Puppet Show is signposted throughout town – his “theatre” is easy to find if you follow the signs. He has performances every evening at 7.00pm and 8.30pm. At just 3,000 kyats, or $3, I highly recommend it.
Also check out this blog article for more information on Aung’s art and a convincing argument for why you shouldn’t miss it. Or read more of my Burmese travel experiences at ARoamerTherapy today.