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Some Important Anatomical Aspects of Myanmar Marionettes by Dr. Tin Maung Kyi

This is mainly based on a paper. The Anatomy of Myanmar (Burmese) Puppets written by me. The paper is Burmese and read in Rangoon (now Yangon) in 1986. It was translated into English by a Burmese writer and published in Guardian Magazine, in 1992. The paper is the result of a practical experience of half a decade long in which I made curving of wood puppets with my own hands. And from here I want to mention my thanks to those master puppeteers, who helped me in doing that and to all ladies and gentlemen here allowing me to present this paper.
Generally, a Myanmar wood marionette is made up of 17 (a clown), 18 (a prince), or 19 (a princess) pieces. (See fig.1)

A clown
Head , & neck piece
Body in one piece
Crab eye joint-2
A pair of arms in 6 pieces
A pair of legs in 6 pieces

A prince
Head & neck piece
Body in 2 pieces

A pair of arms in 6 pieces
A pair of legs in 8 pieces

A princess
Head & neck piece
Body in 2 pieces'

A pair of arms 6pieces
A pair of legs-8pieces
A transverse stick.

A normal position

A good marionette hung on a wall always looks up. A good marionette in dancing always faces to the audience. When this is held in a dancing position, it bends forward at the hip and its face is looking directly to the audience are found to be 42, 50 and 55 in three marionettes. (See fig.2)

An example

Here important aspects of the anatomy of a princess marionette will be presented as it is found to cover others as well, with few differences that will be mentioned where necessary.

The neck

Formerly the neck joint was finished by a neck piece, with a hole in the centre, allowing a thick string connecting the head and shoulder. But the joint allowed a free rotation and displacement of the neck piece. (See fig.3&4)


Something free rotation of the head made ugly with its face turning to the back. When the head turns back, it stays there ugly like a strangled neck until the puppeteer manually correct it.
But now-a-days, the single hole in the neck piece is replaced by a pair of strings servers a spring-back mechanism. If the head is turned to the right or left, it automatically returns facing forward. The puppeteer needs not correct it. The advantage is that an ugliness can be prevented now. (See fig.5)

The waist is similar to that of a wasp. The connecting strings between the upper and lower torso are tightly collected into a slender handle. This allows a very sensitive agile and almost frictionless movements in the waist in dancing. (Figure 6) We call it a waspjoint.

The knee joint

There should always be a normal or natural bend whenever the knee is bent-that is the knee should flex pointing backward, it is really an ugly sight. To avoid this unsightly change, a hidden string mechanism is provided. (See fig.7)
A hidden string from the foot runs up behind the knee and connects with the buttock. Let us call it a knee control string. It controls the knee from behind making it to bend naturally.

Beautiful feet. In princess marionette, the toes pointing laterally is quite a beautiful posture in dancing. This is easily accomplished by connecting the knee control string to a shorter one running loosely on the lateral side of the foot. By adjusting the control string, the toes can be made pointing laterally.
This shorter string is important in that it is where a string that moves the heel (the foot) is attached.

A perfect cover. A these strings are hidden under cover of the skirt and the simple mechanism is hardly detected.

An old attempt

The knee joint bending in the ugly direction was quite undesirable in the past. A pair of strings pulling the top of the legs (Tibia) to the waist is also an effective mechanism. Close to it is another mechanism controlling the toes to point laterally. Both mechanisms are cleverly concealed by a decoration called 'Ano'. (Figure 8) Ano is a small decorative piece of cloth hanging down from the jacket.

Mystery of a transverse stick

There is a transverse stick hidden between the thighs just above the knees. It particularly in dancing female puppets like a princess figure. Example are found in puppets of private and museum collections both in Myanmar country and abroad. (See fig.9)
Speculations have been made among Myanmar puppet lovers as to its function. Simply most are of the opinion that it keeps both knees in firm position and prevents them from awfully parting wide, this being an impolite manner to the public.
If this speculation is right it can be easily accomplished by trying and holding both knees with a strong string or a wire, and not with a stick as in this specimen.
A string naturally draws the thighs closer together. But a stick, as found here, keeps the thighs away from each other.
There is a popular rule that a Myanmar marionette should imitate a human dance and vice versa. So to find the answer, we have to look at a human dance. During dancing, a lady dancer would practically spread her knees with an intention to spread her skirt tense, tight and taut. But her skirt being held firm by safety pins, limits the knee from going too far. (See the figure 9)
So both spreading knees and skirt can be supposed to be a mechanical device to increase efficiency of knee movements, which essentially helps the heels constantly kicking train of cloth which had to be dragged along. This tradition was still found in classical entangling her dancing feet. While the dancer would be busy making beautiful hand movements, she has to pay a constant attention to her feet as well.
This tradition is followed and found in the princess marionette. A hidden stick between the thighs is a device to spread the skirt at knee level, which is an essential feature imitating to the human dance.

A Formula for the height is important because an observant eye can detect a disproportion of it. A well proportioned puppet is good to look at.
The height of puppet was determined by its head. The head circumference was determined by a hand-span. It is measure between thumb and tip of middle finger, which is roughly by a hand-span. It is a measure between thumb and tip of middle finger, which is roughly equivalent to about 9 inches. Inspite of its inaccuracy compared with modern standard of measurement, it was a workable mean in the past. Even now, puppet makers in Myanmar still stick to this tradition. The formula is-

A hand span plus 4 fingers is the circumference of a head. The head length from the top to chin is the standard unit. Seven and a half times of this is the height of the puppet from top to toe.
In Jurisprudence, a branch of medicine concerning with the crime, there are many formulas to reconstruct a height of medicine concerning with the crime, there are many formulas to reconstruct a height of the dead from a piece of limb bone.
The formula used by the Myanmar puppeteers since ancient times is an independent development, which may even be a useful contribution to medical science.

Discovery of the Formula

This formula was discovered in post war period by Shwe Bo U Tin Maung, and U Mya Thwin, the late master puppeteers, in a remote village, Ayadaw, in Upper Burma, where it had remained there ever since 1878. To everyone surprise, it belongs to Princess Salin. Her father, King Mindon offered a puppet troupe to entertain her. Soon after her father died, a court intrigue sent the puppeteers into hiding. The master puppeteer took along with him puppets in a big crate. It remained there ever since 1878 . The discovery was an important contribution to keep the creates in their original splendor he personally removed the glass and planed the gilt away.

The shoulder join in clown

The shoulder joint of princess puppet was made entirely of a bandage of clothes filling up the gap between the shoulder and the arm. Initially the bandage was tightly around the strings that connect the joint, so stiff that arms are kept abducted horizontally. It seems that the joint is not going to work. But on bending down the arms, the bandage acts as a ball and socket joint.
Contrary to this, the shoulder joint of clown puppets are not filled up with bandage but left free except a single strings. But few of the clown puppets in upper Burma are extra-ordinary ones.
The shoulder tip and the upper arm are joined by a piece of wood, shaped similar to an eye of a crab. Hence the name crab-eye joint. Actually it was a ball and socket joint allowing a more freedom of movement .. This type is not found anywhere else except in upper Burma. Apparently, this type was prevalent in the past, as evident by the discovery of a similar one among the puppets in the royal chest.


This is a summary of some anatomical aspects of Myanmar marionettes that have improved in the course of its development and we will be added to perfer.


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