Puppetmistress part 3

My next introduction to puppets was at the amazing George Town Festival, 2016. The month-long international art and culture festival had some great live shows and exhibitions on offer, alongside two genres of puppetry – glove puppets Potehi and the ginormous Snuff Puppets. Much like the Teochew opera, till recently, Potehi was performed for the Gods in temples, but is now being revived for contemporary audience.

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It was heartening to see young people taking an active interest in reviving this art form. Most of the members of the Ombak Ombak Studio were in their twenties. The actual performance involved a 10 ft X 5 ft window (approx) with colourful screens acting as backgrounds and artists crouching out of sight behind the window, and extending their hands encased in the glove puppets in the window. They were also mouthing dialogues via headsets. Music is an integral part of this artform, and a band of musicians performed live folk music on the side with traditional instruments.

At the GTF performance, Ombak-Ombak studio performed The Adventures of the Monkey King – a beloved tale of a monk’s journey to the West looking for Buddhist scriptures. During his long and arduous journey, the monk is attacked and kidnapped, and thereafter saved by the Monkey King. While the puppeteers spoke in Hokkein, English subtitles were projected on the black portion of the screen too.

The costumes were magnificent, and the overall experience was very immersive. At the end, when the puppeteers came out from the booth, all bathed in sweat, I couldn’t help but marvel at their stamina, courage and skill!

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From palm-sized puppets to giants! From the Liliputan world of Potehi, I moved to the giant Snuff Puppets. Snuff Puppets is an Australian puppet group that uses the artform to break rigid moral boundaries with tongue-in-cheek mega-sized puppets that shock and awe visitors. For creative and wacky use of art to challenge social mores, you have to check out their website!

The team came to Penang for the festival and collaborated with local artists for a more local flavor of their art form. The result was a cute and funny story called Love Stinks, based loosely on Malaysian folk tales, about a farmer, his wife and two tropical fruits, a durian and a mangosteen.

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The durian is in love with the mangosteen, but his stink keeps her away (durians do really stink)! The farmer’s wife has a propensity to fall under evil spells, and during one such disaster, the durian brings her back to her senses with his stink, thus saving the day and winning over his love. The puppets were more than twice the normal human size and animated by real people! When the artists shucked off the costume, they were drenched in sweat – obviously by the arduous task of puppeteering in a giant costume!

Puppetry looks like child’s play, but it actually involves a lot of hard work, just like any other performance art. As the world goes more digital (and my eyesight weakens), I think puppetry is a legit entertainment that provides avenues for storytelling, creativity and good, old-fashioned fun!

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Puppetmistress part 2

My second tryst with the world of puppetry was more traditional in nature. During one of our jaunts to UNESCO World Heritage Site George Town, my husband and I came across this puppet museum nestled in a corner of Armenian Street. It was called Teochew Opera House and had an entry fee of just RM5. Intrigued, we stepped in to find this:

The shophouse in which the opera house was located was worth a visit by itself! It was narrow and long, reaching across two streets and had a beautiful sun-lit courtyard right in the middle! A very helpful guide showed us around, telling us interesting details about the puppets, their costumes, performing traditions and how the artform had made its way to Penang all the way from China by a feisty opera performer. Her daughter and granddaughter were mainly responsible for keeping the tradition alive with live performances in Penang.
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The artform is called Teochew puppetry, as Teochew stands for iron rods; the puppets are made of wood and fitted with three iron rods for control (two hands and one at the back). This gives the puppeteer better control over the puppets. The heads are made of clay, while the body is made of wood. The costumes are made of silk and the paint used for their faces is organic.
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Many of the stories in the performances revolve around the the hero, the heroine, the court jester and a chief strategist. There are also many supporting characters in different roles. I was thrilled to see the beautiful, silk costumes and funky headgears for the different characters.
Our guide told us that traditionally, the artform would be performed in temples to appease the Gods. The puppet show would be held first so that any evil spirits lurking nearby would be absorbed by them. This would then be followed by the opera performed by trained actors and actresses. I could not catch a live show, but managed to practice some puppetry and cosplay myself!
Music also plays a key role in the live performances. These are the instruments used in a typical performance:
On the left is the Malaysian version of the zither. The gongs pictured on the right are used to signify different situations in the play like ambush, celebration, arrival of a new character etc. Fascinating stuff!
With tourism increasing in Penang, demand for Teochew puppetry is also on the rise. In fact, our guide told us that in certain seasons, the puppet opera is performed exclusively in temples due to high demand and no shows are scheduled at the opera house we were visiting. That’s a good sign, right? Hope I see a live performance soon!