Having experienced a myriad of puppetry forms in the short two years that I have come to Penang, I can’t help but join the artists celebrating this day! In fact, it takes me back to a very cool puppet show that I had the pleasure of watching recently. It was a unique collaboration of puppetry forms from ASEAN countries and Japan, organised by the ASEAN Puppet Exchange or APEX. The venue was the historic MBPP Townhall in George Town, a century-old colonial era structure that has showcased many cultural events over the decades.
For an art form that has evolved over 4,000 years, this seemed to be the perfect venue. However, the show was in no way steeped in rigid tradition. The organisers cleverly brought together seasoned artists, weaved in contemporary characters, and also brought in contemporary musicians! The hour-long show featured Sbek Thom (Cambodia), Teochew Iron Rod puppets (Penang), Yoke The (Myanmar), fish puppets, Japanese puppets, Naga and many other forms, accompanied by live music on the guitar and traditional instruments.
What’s more, early visitors were treated to a meet-and-greet with the stars themselves – the puppets! The puppeteers introduced us to their ‘friends’, teasing us in turn, or handing over the puppets to visitors to get a feel of what it’s like to be a puppet-master. Some of the puppets had highly intricate features and costumes, and needed more than 1 puppeteer to bring it to life!
With this delightful introduction to the puppets, we headed to auditorium for the main show. The 26 artists performed together for the first time, incorporating elements of Malaysian/ Indonesian wayang kulit – shadow puppetry. The puppetmasters and puppetmistresses performed with all the enthusiasm of five-year-olds, and all the skills of wizened storytellers. It was truly a joy to behold.
The method of showcase was simple, yet genius – different puppetry forms were used to narrate and dramatise various parts of a heart-warming story about a child who inherits puppet-making skills from his parents. However, as the boy enters his teens, he gets lured in by the bright city life and abandons puppetry. He soon gets commercial success, but realises that true happiness cannot be found with money alone.All the artists came together on the stage for the final celebration. The integration was so seamless that I only realised the ingenuity of what I had seen after the puppeteers took a bow. The show made me marvel about the genesis of this seemingly simple art form and its spread to various parts of the world. An earlier version of the APEX website mentioned:
Puppetry has existed in Asia for approximately 4000 years and continues to thrive in South-east Asia in many forms and for various purposes. The art form’s resilience and versatility allows artists to educate and entertain audiences of all ages in numerous environments such as schools, hospitals, villages, and theatres, by re-engineering and presenting natural or upcycled materials in an imaginative and engaging way. Puppetry employs skills such as craftsmanship, visual art, staging, literature, song, and performance, and therefore appeals to many people of various interests and aptitudes.
I was suprised to know that quite a few puppetry forms have been listed as ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’ by UNESCO, including wayang theater. With its stories passed over many generations and its history as a traditional form of entertainment (especially in some rural areas of Southeast Asia), I wholeheartedly agree that it is, indeed, our shared heritage.
Like the APEX website mentions, puppetry seems simple, but is actually quite complex. From my interactions with puppeteers, I can tell you that it is a fine art to ensure the puppet’s movements are smooth and coordinated. I can only imagine the skill it takes to do it for a full-length show, that, too, with voiceovers and in some cases, acting.
I also found it fascinating that there are actually puppetry forms in which the puppeteer is on display, as much as the puppet itself. Traditionally, the art form distances the puppet from the puppetmaster, probably to create a more immersive experience. This is done either by creating a small stage, where the puppeteer can hide out of sight, like in Potehi, or traditional Rajasthan puppetry, or putting up a large curtain (wayang kulit) or with the puppeteer hiding inside enormous costumes (Snuff Puppets). The puppeteer(s), in every case, is hidden from view.
But in puppetry forms I have come across more recently, the artist is as much a part of the performance as the puppet. For instance, in the APEX performance, the Japanese artist used a white bundle of cloth as a puppet depicting a baby. Her movements depicting the miracle of birth made her as much a part of the performance as the puppet. George Town Festival 2017, the flagship cultural showcase of Penang, showcased The Cell (this video at 00:34) with a similar concept.What I found really fascinating was the mix of old and new that is being used to rejuvenate this art form. Several puppetry forms use ancient tales like the Ramayana for wayang kulit, and the Journey of the Monk and the Monkey King for Potehi, that have been handed down over many generations. But, with changing times, stories too evolve, as do their creators and patrons. In a bid to appeal to more contemporary audiences, puppeteers are shortening stories, adding new characters and injecting drama and humour into their tales. For instance, Star Wars and Justice League characters have been incorporated in various recent showcases.
It is heartening to note that though the artform seems to be on a decline, with general interest in traditional artforms waning, there is a concerted effort being made by many, keen on reconnecting with their culture, to actively promote and even experiment commercially with puppetry to ensure its survival.
The APEX website also mentions:
…puppetry remains an important and sustainable art form in South-east Asia, as a presentation of its peoples’ heritages, an experimental platform for contemporary cultures and stories, and for the personal and social development of its communities.
Puppetry is both basic and simple storytelling, yet traditional and avant garde with historicity and room for modern technology all at once.