Pulling the Strings

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Traditional Burmese marionette puppetry, a string-puppet-based performance art called yoke thay, dates back to the 15th century. Peaking in the 19th century, this art form once entertained kings and queens, but went underground for decades in the 20th century under the shadow of the repressive governments.

Whether performed in palaces or to the public, these flamboyant puppets—which can take the forms of humans, animals, or mythical beings—never fail to captivate audiences. Since the 1980s, a group of women in Mandalay, Myanmar’s former royal capital, have been reclaiming the joy and magic of puppetry.

“Puppet masters have been traditionally male,” says Ma Ma Naing, who is in her 50s and has been a puppet master herself for over 30 years. Naing grew up in a theatrical family, and marionette puppets were an integral part of her upbringing and education. She founded the Mandalay Marionettes Theatre in the 1980s to keep this tradition alive while reforming its age-old gender structures.

We followed these women as they travelled in villages in the outskirts of Mandalay, staging performances for rural children. The tiny subculture of female puppet masters aren’t only challenging gender roles in this art tradition; they’re also bringing health and hygiene awareness to rural children through these enchanting puppets.

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Ma Ma Naing sits in the garden of the rural school in Mandalay province, as her colleagues prepare the mobile puppet stage for the day’s performance.

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May Zin Thant Thant, 25, untangles the strings of her puppet at the school she’s about to perform in.

Thant Thant recently graduated with a bachelor’s degree in zoology, but has been training to be a puppet master under Ma Ma Naing for the past two years.

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Pupils sits on the ground in front of the mobile puppet stage set in a large classroom, bewitched by the puppets.

The last royal capital of the Burmese kingdom, Mandalay is home to UNESCO World Heritage sites and great architecture. However, many of the surrounding villages experience this geography differently. Although Myanmar saw stable economic growth over the last decade, a third of its population still lives in poverty, according to The World Bank. These figures are even more intense in rural communities, where 70% of the population is poor, often without access to basic services such as sanitation, education, or electricity.

Historically at an important crossroad for regional trade activities, Mandalay has also been a so-called hot spot for human trafficking. Naing says girls from poor villages are particularly vulnerable to falling victim to human trafficking.

Employing an entertainment-education technique, the puppets provides children with potentially life-changing information about hygiene, health, and human trafficking issues.

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Han Su Yin, 29, displays a puppet in the school garden. A businesswoman from Mandalay, Su Yin owns a beauty salon where she offers hair, makeup, and nail treatments. But she says her real love is performance art and puppets. She relishes the opportunity to use her passion for a good cause.

“We put a smile on children’s faces. They might forget what they learn from the books, but they won’t forget what puppets teach them,” Su Yin explains. “Sometimes there are human trafficking or domestic abuse survivors in the audience. It’s rewarding to entertain such people.”

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Puppets in the form of mythical spirit creatures called nats dance on the stage against a painted forest background as traditional Burmese music blasts from boomboxes.

These puppets are performing a scene from the Indian epic Ramayana, which is a commonly staged story in Myanmar performance and literary arts.

“Showing children only the informative stuff might not be as engaging,” laughs Naing, who designs these shows. “It’s also a good opportunity to teach them about our rich mythologies and culture.”

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Puppets on the stage sit in a hospital room, in a scene where the children are taught about health issues such as the importance of handwashing, the dangers of smoking, and HIV.

Every year, thousands of children in the country catch illnesses that could be prevented with information and instructions. Around 260,000 people live with HIV in Myanmar; many come from impoverished backgrounds.

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Han Su Yin makes another puppet dance as her young audience roars and cheers.

Naing explains both that Su Yin and Thant Thant have gained confidence and blossomed since they started learning the art of marionette puppetry.

“Among the women [I met] not only from Asia but also from all over the world, Myanmar women are the most modest and the shyest of all,” Naing says.

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Han Su Yin and May Zin Thant Thant manipulate the puppets backstage.

Puppetry took Naing and her company all around the world from Japan to Mexico. She’s determined to keep at it and train many more women to spread positive messages about health to rural communities.

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Two pupils, who just finished watching the puppet show, stand in front of a blackboard. They’re ready to return to their classrooms after an enchanting performance. The other children in the room squeal with delight and clap energetically. Su Yin and Thant Thant beam and bow with a pride they cannot hide, as the Mandalay Puppet Theatre members dismantle the mobile stage to get back home.

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