With winds of change blowing across Myanmar, political comedy like that of the Moustache Brothers is picking up steam.

On a June night, I find myself at the bustling heart of Mandalay’s cultural district. Young men zoom past on motorbikes. Pop music blares out of a café where locals lounge about, sipping beer and laughing furtively. Like elsewhere in Mandalay, the lively atmosphere is tinged with a seedy, small-town quality. The glances and language barrier mark out the foreigner in a city where tourism is yet to pick up. I’m drawn to a neon sign above a room that may be mistaken for a furniture-shop. The place is unassuming, but the words spell out magic. This is after all home to the Moustache Brothers, Burma’s best known family of political comedians and the plaque promises a rewarding show: “If you have not seen our dancing/you cannot say you have been to Mandalay!”

The Lonely Planet for Myanmar carries a special mention of the Moustache Brothers. Its descriptions have built up my expectations but I fear that like many other “sights” in Mandalay, this too will disappoint. Unlike Yangon, which retains a certain colonial charm and elegance, in Mandalay the wheels of modernisation have steam-rolled their way towards progress, mowing down what survived from the pre and post-war years. Even the famous Glass Palace fails to impress; a fake gold and wood replica stands in the place of a splendid royal structure. And yet, what I witness later that night makes me rethink my earlier judgement of this town. It reminds me that history, memory and culture still live on here, in unlikely alleys.

I enter to find an informal living room converted into a performance space. A makeshift stage is made up of cushions and mattresses. A cheap flowery plastic sheet curtains off the backstage. Painted boards are stacked with an old tape recorder and television-cum-VCD. These form the basic paraphernalia for the show. The walls are decorated with marionettes and photographs of the brothers posing with Aung San Suu Kyi and U.S. envoy Derek Mitchell.

Amid scattered chairs, I join a small group of Anglo-American tourists, to watch an hour-long act based on slapstick comedy, classical and folk dance, masked drama and political and social parody. Lu Maw, a wiry elderly man with a handlebar moustache, takes to the stage. With microphone and placards, Maw, the most articulate of the brothers, regales the audience with accounts and one-liners on a range of topics. Some are personal narratives about their family’s performance legacy, their run-ins with the law and their travels. The rest of the tales are more general — political or historical set pieces, parodying Burmese customs, poverty, censorship and corruption under the military regime. A standard joke is Maw’s description of a visit to Thailand to handle toothache. When the doctor asks him why he could not deal with it at home, he replied mockingly, “Because we are not allowed to open our mouths there!” Elsewhere he talks about why the tsunami never affected Burma. One of the generals turned into a fish and told the approaching wave that there was no more damage left to be done!

Maw’s banter is punctuated with performances by his brothers, sister, wife and sisters-in-law. Par Par Lay and the bare-faced Lu Zaw are more comfortable with physical buffoonery. They demonstrate and lampoon the traditional methods of tying the turban and longyi, kicking pleat folds into the air, imitating the walk of ancient princes and twitching their moustaches. Along with the women, they participate in choreographed costumed sequences that provide glimpses of the different ethnic communities of Myanmar and the character roles of ancient theatre. At the end, the members come together for applause and a request for donations. Foreigners are encouraged to buy t-shirts and puppets, and the brothers suddenly take on the role of salesmen.

Like the humour they uphold, the real-life predicament of the Brothers tingles with bittersweet irony. They are part of a breed of artists, desperately trying to keep alive the tradition of a-nyeint pwe, a form of Burmese folk opera. Instituted by royalty to provide a platform for entertainment and public opinion, post-independence, many artists fell victim to the military dictatorships in Burma. The Brothers too suffered. In 1996, Par Par Lay and Lu Zaw were arrested for a performance at Suu Kyi’s home and imprisoned for five years. While the remaining members kept up the plays, this incident ensured the family was placed under house arrest. In 2007, the authorities again clamped down on the Brothers, jailing and torturing Par Par Lay.

Just for tourists

These days, the Brothers perform only at home, organising shows in English for foreigners. A vibrant, regional tradition has transformed into a ritual exotic attraction. The brothers focus on catering to tourists. The humour is often improvisational. Lu Maw tweaks jokes to match the cultural sensibilities of his viewers. He refers to Jesse James, the Godfather and Barack Obama to please Americans and brings in Shah Rukh Khan and Ratan Tata for the Indians in the crowd. He encourages the viewers to photograph the performances and post these on Facebook and YouTube. The publicity generated brings them international attention and money to support their livelihood.

The Brothers are aware of the winds of change blowing across Burma. Their hopes lie with Suu Kyi. During the show, they run a video of an act they put up in Burmese before The Lady at one of the local gatherings: a performance and environment they wish to revive and relive in the future. But the situation in Myanmar remains uncertain, and the Brothers remind the audience of the lingering feeling of terror even as they laugh it off. In the middle of the performance, Lu Maw suddenly threatens to implicate the audience and escape through the backstage, claiming that the secret police have decided to make a raid. The very next second, he turns back, smiling, admitting it is nothing but a joke. We feel relieved… but for a moment, we are forced to confront the fears and difficulties of living in a world where freedom is still tokenism.