How one fam­ily is help­ing to save Myan­mar’s pup­petry tra­di­tion.

One artist and his fam­ily are help­ing to save Myan­mar’s pup­petry tra­di­tion.


Lights dimmed, the mar­i­onettes in their del­i­cate se­quined cos­tumes come alive, danc­ing and swirling, trans­port­ing en­rap­tured view­ers to a world of mys­ti­cal be­ings, an­i­mals, and royal char­ac­ters. Burmese pup­pet shows typ­i­cally run from sun­set to sun­rise, but here at Htwe Oo Myan­mar, a small the­ater based out of a first-floor apart­ment in Yan­gon’s Ahlone town­ship, the Jataka tales of Bud­dha’s past lives are con­densed into an an­i­mated 45-minute per­for­mance.

As a child, Khin Maung Htwe (U Htwe) of­ten ac­com­pa­nied his mother to tra­di­tional all­night pup­pet shows. His love for Myan­mar pup­petry would even­tu­ally spur him to quit a well­pay­ing job on con­tainer ships to pur­sue his dream of run­ning a mar­i­onette the­ater. He started Htwe Oo Myan­mar in Yan­gon in 2006, and has since been on a mis­sion to re­vive this tra­di­tional per­form­ing art. Myan­mar pup­petry, or yoke thé, dates back to the 15th cen­tury when it was used to en­ter­tain the royal courts. Its pop­u­lar­ity de­clined with the ad­vent of cinema and tele­vi­sion, and mar­i­onette per­for­mances even­tu­ally fell out of fa­vor with the au­thor­i­ties. Ac­cord­ing to U Htwe, the pre­vi­ous gov­ern­ment—widely re­garded as a pup­pet of the mil­i­tary junta—did not sup­port the craft as it dis­liked the word “pup­pet,” and even banned the term in news­pa­pers.

In the North Okkalapa town­ship, an hour’s drive from down­town Yan­gon, U Htwe in­tro­duces me to a brother and sis­ter whom he pro­claims as the best pup­pet-mak­ers in the coun­try. Mar­i­onette pup­petry here is typ­i­cally a fam­ily trade—the skills are passed from one gen­er­a­tion to the next. In this case, the pup­pet-mak­ing duo are con­tin­u­ing the legacy of their late fa­ther, a yoke thé mas­ter. The sis­ter stitches the elab­o­rate out­fits and the brother sculpts the wooden body parts; his wife per­forms with Htwe Oo Myan­mar.

U Htwe sees him­self as a bridge con­nect­ing the few re­main­ing old prac­ti­tion­ers and the coun­try’s young gen­er­a­tion. He works with two oc­to­ge­nar­ian pup­pet masters when­ever his troupe per­forms at home and at ma­jor shows in Bangkok, Sin­ga­pore, and even Western Europe. Sadly, the recog­ni­tion gained over­seas hasn’t trans­lated to a greater ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the art form in Myan­mar it­self. Few young peo­ple are in­ter­ested in pup­petry as it does not pro­vide a sta­ble in­come and is con­sid­ered un­fash­ion­able.

U Htwe is try­ing to change this with his own fam­ily; he proudly tells me his 12-yearold son is the coun­try’s youngest pup­peteer, while his wife and daugh­ter also per­form dur­ing the nightly shows held at the makeshift the­ater in­side their liv­ing room. But U Htwe’s am­bi­tions are greater than run­ning a pri­vate yoke thé venue. “I have a very big dream,” he says. “I want to cre­ate a pup­petry mu­seum and cen­ter in Myan­mar be­cause there is none here … [to pre­serve it] for my son and daugh­ter, for their gen­er­a­tion.”

Pup­petry ex­pert Khin Maung Htwe. Left: A mar­i­onette of Taw Belu, the “jungle ogre.”

Ad­dress Book Htwe Oo Myan­mar 1/F, No. 12 Yama St., Ahlone town­ship, Yan­gon, Myan­mar; 95/9512-7271; htweoomyan­mar .com

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