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.
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!
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.
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!