Puppets have been used in many different ways around the world. Some cultures include them in ceremonies, rituals and much more. For example, in India, puppets are used to tell stories of their gods and heroes. The Greeks and Romans placed clay of ivory figurines in children’s tombs. These are only some of the many traditions that puppets have been part of from different cultures around the world.
- Burma (Myanmar)
- The Story of Ramayana
- Indonesia: Wayang Kulit
- Italy: Commedia dell'Arte
- Vietnam: Water Puppets
A Burmese puppet play is like a ballet - a story told with music and dances. The themes of the puppet plays were drawn from historic legends, the ten great lives and the 550 Birth stories of Lord Buddha.
Dancing puppets have the most strings: the basic ones are the five attached to the "H"-shaped handlebar which is held in the palm of the left hand. Two are for the forehead, two for the shoulders and one for the spine; the others are looped over the fingers of the right hand of the puppeteer with one long string connecting each of the fingers, the elbows, the knees, the heels and the toes.
Photo by Nick Mangafas
The Story of Ramayana
Ramayana (ra-may-are-na) is about the adventures of Rama, the hero of this story. It is one of the greatest legends told in Hindu history.
Ramayana was written by an Indian sage, Valmiki in approximately 300 B.C. and it was quite often acted out with puppets. The story of Ramayana was also written down in 18 books and 24,000 verses therefore, puppets were the perfect tool for those who could not read. Here is the story of Ramayana…
Rama was born into the royal family, and next in line to the throne of India, but step-mother banished him from the kingdom for fourteen years. During this time, his wife, Sita, was kidnapped by Ravan, the King of Lanka, he was also a demon! With the help of his brother, Lakshamn and an army of monkey warriors, Rama rescued his much-loved wife.
The Ramayana puppets were rod-shadow puppets. Their shadow is projected onto a screen and moved with rods attached to their joints. The scenery was also a projected shadow.
These intricate puppets were made mainly of thin leather and were highly decorated. And the projector-screen stage is a transparent material, pulled taught.
The Ramayana story may have been originally from India, but had spread and is highly celebrated in many Aisin countries, including Cambodia; Indonesia; Burma (Myanmar); Bali and Thailand
Photo by Nick Mangafas
Indonesia: Wayang Kulit
All puppet theatres in Indonesia are called Wayang, which means shadow. Wayang Kulit is a traditional shadow play which is performed at temples and religious meetings. Wayang Kulit shows are shown at temples and religious meeting because the purpose of Wayang Kulit is to invite the old spirits down to earth to make people cheerful.
The main characters in Wayang Kulit are “Mahabarat, Arjuna, Bima, Yudistira and Krishna. The evil characters Hanuman, Duryodana, Karna, Ramayana, and the couple Rama and Sita.” In every story there is a love scene or a miserable scene. In every play there are chases, arrow shooting and a battle. At the end of every shadow play a tree is planted in the middle of the stage and all the good characters gather round as the tree is planted.
Wayang Kulit puppets are operated by one experienced puppeteer. Wayang Kulit puppets have no joints so the puppeteer can not bend them at the elbows, the waist or the knees. Wayang Kulit puppets are made out of leather, their shadows are projected on to a screen so that audience can be entertained.
Wayang Kulit performances usually go for 3-4 hours. Wayang Kulit performances have lots of spiritual meaning in the Indonesian culture and religion.
Photo by Nick Mangafas
Italy: Commedia dell'Arte
In the 15th century performers and puppeteers were inspired by an Ancient Roman pantomime to create theatrical entertainment, which is now widely known as Commedia dell’Arte. They invented a range of comical characters who wore beautiful, bright costumes and masks who would sometimes parade down streets.
The puppets are usually marionettes but can also be glove puppets. The most famous of these characters are Arlecchino and Columbina (also known as Columbine).
Some of the other characters are Il Capitano (the captain) – a big mouthed, cowardly soldier, Il Dottore (the doctor) – a pompous and fraudulent doctor, Brighella- a cowardly villain that would do anything for money, Pantalone- a mean, miserly, rich retired Venetian merchant, and Pulcinella- a dwarfish, hunchback with a crooked nose.
Pulcinella inspired the English puppets Punch and Judy. Commedia dell’Arte was originally performed during Carnevale mainly in the streets on temporary stages.
Vietnam: Water Puppets
The farmers from the Red River Delta in northern Vietnam invented Vietnamese water puppets also known as mua roi nuoc. During the flood season in Vietnam the farmers became bored and invented water puppets to entertain themselves.
Over the years different villages have developed their own styles and plays. The play were often about battles or events that has happened in the village or in Vietnam (e.g. the Vietnamese war)
Originally the plays were done on a stage that was built in ponds, with musicians on the side of the pond, there are various backgrounds behind the puppets like a temple.