U Pan Ayé is happy. Again the show was almost sold out. Since his country released new reforms tourists are coming steadily. And this is good for the 83-years-old Master puppeteer. Since 1990 U Pan Ayé is performing in the small theatre in Mandalay, a town in Northern Myanmar (Burma). “I was a young boy, 13 years old, when I first watched a performance with marionettes in my village”, he remembers. He got fascinated by the old art and decided to become a puppeteer. “With 16 I got lessons by the most famous puppeteer of the country”, he admits, still very proud. Years passed and U Pan Ayé is today the oldest existing Master puppeteer of Burma.
Youg-the pwe is the name of the popular Myanmar marionette theatre. It presents colourful puppets in a spectacle that many aesthetes consider the most expressive of all the Myanmar arts. As with dance-drama, the genre’s “golden age” began with the Mandalay kingdoms of the late 18th century and ran through to the advent of cinema in the 1930s.
The people of Burma have great respect for an expert puppeteer. Some marionettes may be manipulated by a dozen or more strings. The marionette master’s standard repertoire requires a troupe of 28 puppets including kings, a queen, prince and princess, a regent, an old man and woman, clowns, good and bad evils, and so on. The show is accompanied by an orchestra.
The tiny stage of the Mandalay theatre holds something special. Also here colourful marionettes expressively recreate tales based on the Buddhist Jataka and Yamazat (Ramayana), with occasional bursts of visual humour. Sometimes a sub-curtain is lifted so that you can admire the skill of the puppeteers’ hand movements. “Our troupe travels and performs internationally”, says Manager Ko Thet Myo. Japan, Germany, France, Mexico, Spain, Thailand – the list of the countries is long.
His mother founded in 1989 the theatre. It is still the only place in Mandalay where puppeteers perform. He never had problems with the government. “All what we do is traditional performances, we don’t get involved in politics.” He looks to U Pan Aye: “And with him we found our Master puppeteer.”