The Art of Asian Puppetry

Gathered inside The Black Box, an arts complex in the Mall of Medini, Johor Baru, the audience waited with bated breath to catch a rare live performance of Japanese Bunraku and Teochew “iron-rod” puppets in an Asian Traditional Puppet Exchange, which was being staged here for the first time.

The bunraku puppet is skillfully manipulated
by three puppeteers while the lead puppeteer
is identified by his special pair of slippers
This cross-cultural exchange, which took place recently, was an initiative of Johor Baru: International Festival City in collaboration with the Japan Foundation, Kuala Lumpur.  It brought together Malaysia’s Kim Giak Low Choon Teochew Puppet Troupe and Japan’s Ningyojoruri Bunrakuza to present an elaborate showcase complete with workshop and demonstration of puppetry techniques.

Headlined, Red, Hot, Furious Love: The programme lineup featured Teochew puppets performing excerpts from The Love of the Celestial Fox with an intermission before the Bunraku puppets performed excerpts from The Red-Hot Love of a Greengrocer’s Daughter

Teochew Puppetry

The art of Teochew iron-rod puppetry originated in the Central Plains of China as shadow puppets.  Made of dried leather strips and controlled by three long iron rods attached to the arms and torso, these were only two-dimensional shadow puppets.

A scene from The Love of the Celestial Fox
performed by Teochew iron-rod puppets
During the Southern Song period (circa 1127 – 1279) refugees fleeing from economic instability and barbaric invasions, brought the art to the Teochew region in Guandong.  This art-form then adopted many aspects of the rich operatic traditions here.

Since the Qing dynasty (17th century), these shadow puppets experimented with removing the white screen (usually paper) between the audience and the puppets to improve the show’s visual impact.  So the puppets became visible to the audience.

With better audience dynamics, the puppets were improved to maximize this advantage.  Later the puppets became three-dimensional, first by using hay for the bodies before graduating to more robust wooden bodies.

Throughout its evolution, the puppets have retained their traditional method of control since its shadow puppet era, using three iron rods.  This unique feature earned the Teochew puppets its classification as iron-rod puppets.

Kim Giak Low Choon Troupe

Helmed by Ling Goh, fourth generation opera thespian and curator of the Penang Teochew Puppet and Opera House, the troupe is one of the last of its kind in the country.  In 2008, they were the proud recipient of the Penang Intangible Cultural Heritage Award.

Ling Goh modified the stage into a semi-circle to
improve their Teochew puppet presentation
In the 19th century, economic hardship in China drove immigrants to seek better fortunes abroad and many Teochew arrived in Singapore, the Riau Islands and Malaysia.  Among them was Goh’s great-grandfather who brought his opera troupe from Teochew province to Singapore.  The Lao Sai Yong Feng Opera Troupe became the first opera troop in South East Asia.

They travelled and performed across Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia before settling in Penang.  While Goh’s grandfather inherited the opera troupe, her parents mainly performed puppet shows.  As their focus shifted to puppetry, the troupe was renamed Lao Rong Xiu Chun Puppet Troupe.

Ling Goh [2nd from Left] with her team of puppeteers
in the Kim Gaik Low Choon Teochew Puppet Troupe
Goh and her siblings, who grew up in this artistic environment, had a natural interest in this art-form and she started to perform puppet opera at the tender age of seven.  Working with her brother, Goh Lih Shan, to promote the art of Teochew puppetry, their troupe was renamed, Kim Gaik Low Choon Teochew Puppet Troupe and they opened the Penang Teochew Puppet and Opera House at Armenian Street.

Goh says their performances remain true to authentic Teochew puppet shows but to improve their presentation, she modified the stage into a semi-circle.  The latest addition to their shows are English subtitles projected onto a screen to improve the viewing pleasure of non-Chinese audiences.

Ling Goh demonstrating how a Teochew puppet is
controlled by three iron rods
It’s fascinating to watch the troupe perform their respective parts, manipulating the iron-rod puppets, playing musical instruments, speaking animatedly and singing various roles, to bring to life the dramatic story of The Love of the Celestial Fox.

Passionate about passing down the art to future generations, Goh is pleased that her niece and nephew have shown keen interest and are actively participating with the troupe to gain more skills and experience.  Their opera house which holds workshops, has attracted interest from opera enthusiasts who wish to train with her.  

She’s also thrilled that the exposure the troupe is receiving through performing at art festivals and to non-Chinese speaking audiences, has garnered fresh interest in this traditional art-form.

Bunraku Puppetry

In bunraku, the second and third puppeteers are dressed
completely in black to render them invisible against
a dark background
Ningyo Joruri Bunraku puppet theatre, a blend of sung narrative, shamisen music and puppet drama, ranks with noh and kabuki as one of Japan’s foremost stage arts.  This theatrical form emerged during the early Edo period when puppetry was coupled with joruri, a popular 15th century narrative genre.

Bunraku, a 300-year old dramatic art-form, is designated by the Japanese government as an Intangible Cultural Property and by UNESCO as a World Intangible Cultural Heritage.  This art-form involves three puppeteers or ningyotsukai, dressed in black to render them invisible against a dark background, to manipulate a single large puppet. 

The spell-binding appeal of bunraku centers on the skills of the puppeteers manipulating lavishly costumed large puppets to the vocals of a single chanter or tayu who expresses the dialogue and emotions for all characters in a script.  Meanwhile a shamisen player enhances the mood through his three-stringed lute.

The lead puppeteer skillfully manipulates
the bunraku puppet's head to change its
facial expressions
One of the main features of the bunraku puppet is its wooden head which is hollowed out and fitted with a mechanism made of bamboo for the lead puppeteer to manipulate.  His skillful hands would transform the puppet’s facial expressions through its eyebrows and eyeballs movements!

The plots for bunraku are derived from two main sources: historical plays set in feudal times (jidaimono) and contemporary dramas that explore the conflict between affairs of the heart and social obligation (sewamono).  The aesthetic qualities and dramatic content of the plays continue to appeal to modern audiences and Bunraku continues to attract young performers.

Ninyojoruri Bunrakuza Troupe

This performance in JB marked the fourth time this troupe has visited Malaysia to share the art of Bunraku here.  In 2013, it presented South East Asia’s first full-scale bunraku performance in Kuala Lumpur.

In bunraku, the chanter or tayu [Left] provides all the vocals
while the shamisen player [Right] enhances the mood
with his three-stringed lute
The following year, it returned to Kuala Lumpur for a joint puppetry demonstration with a wayang kulit troupe led by Kamarulbahri Hussin.

Bunraku made its debut performance in Penang during the inaugural Butterworth Fringe Festival in 2015 and shared the stage with local practitioners of Potehi glove puppetry.

Before coming to JB for this cross-cultural show, the Osaka-based troupe performed in New Delhi, India, and continued their tour to Manila in the Philippines.    

Cultural Exchange

Handcrafted from wood, clay and paper, Goh said their Teochew puppets have increased in height from 20 cm (8 inches) to 45 cm (18 inches) so that audiences can enjoy a better view.  Demonstrating how they’re manipulated, she explains that Teochew puppets use left-hand control to support the puppet’s weight while the iron rods serve to move the puppet’s hands.

Members of the Teochew puppets troupe trying their hand
at manipulating a bunraku puppet under the guidance of
the Japanese puppeteers
After bunraku chanter, Yoshihodayu Toyotake, impressed the audience with his demonstration of a range of emotions that were enhanced by music from the shamisen player, he encouraged audience participation in expressing various emotions like laughter and tears.

Lead puppeteer, Minoshiro Yoshida, and two other puppeteers demonstrated various synchronized movements to manipulate a single bunraku puppet and explained that the lead puppeteer was identified by his special pair of slippers.

For the cultural exchange, puppeteers from the two troupes had the opportunity to learn more about each other’s craft as they switched roles to try performing with puppets belonging to the other troupe.

It was indeed an eye-opening performance and I was thrilled to learn so much about these arts of puppetry as well as discover that in bunraku, three puppeteers would manipulate a single puppet while in Teochew puppetry, a puppet is manipulated by one puppeteer using three iron rods.

A version of this was published in The New Sunday Times, Life & Times on 16 October 2016

No comments:

Post a Comment