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Mention the name yoke thé to anyone in Burma and you’ll likely see their eyes light up. Then, perhaps after enthusing about the wonders of this ancient art form for a minute or two, their eyes might glaze over as they sadly try to remember the last time they were treated to a show of Burmese puppetry.
Seeped in a history that dates back hundreds if not thousands of years, yoke thé was once the preserve of Burma’s royalty, and the king’s favourite puppeteers were the celebrities of their day.
Nowadays it is rare to see a yoke thé show advertised, though that may well be changing as an influx in foreign tourists ensures that these magnificent marionettes are brought back to life at culture shows across the country.
Intricately hand-made, hand-painted and embroidered with jewels and sequins, each puppet is a labour of love. Puppet-masters learn the craft young, and they need dexterity of fingers to deftly tweak each arm, each knee, the heads, the hands and even the eyelashes of these charming little dolls.
First-time visitors to a Burmese puppet show may sense something of a Bollywood theme, but in fact most of the tales being told on the stage recount proverbs told by the Buddha or are scenes from Hindu mythology.
Spectators will learn to anticipate several recurring characters – the monkey, the hermit, the wizard and the village idiot.
Of course, endless love stories about princes and princesses are enduringly popular. The romantic wooing of a fair maiden, the poor girl who dreams of a dashing prince, the devilish villain who seduces through deceit – all these themes resonate in both Hindi epics and Western fairy tales as they do in puppet shows throughout Southeast Asia.
Performed mainly as operas, with poems and ballads as accompaniment, the tragedy and passion of the yoke thé performers might leave you teary-eyed.
Then perhaps next time, when someone asked you if you have ever seen yoke thé, you too may get that glazy look in your eyes.