Theatre

Water puppetry, all the way from Vietnam

A scene from the water puppetry show by Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre in Thrissur

A scene from the water puppetry show by Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre in Thrissur   | Photo Credit: K K NAJEEB

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Vietnam-based Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre had the audience in thrall with their splendid water puppetry show in Thrissur

For a few hours for two nights, the Actor Murali Open Theatre of the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi turned into a magical land. A watery landscape shimmered under a towering pagoda swathed in red; fire-spitting dragons splashed around; magical fairies glided down the water; colourful ducks waded; a fisherman tried for a large catch; a squirrel ran up and down a tree; a cunning fox endeavoured to snatch the ducks while a young man on a buffalo skipped over the glassy surface, playing a flute.

It was, in fact, a live water puppet show from Vietnam, which was staged in Thrissur. The Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre performance, part of the recent 11th International Theatre Festival of Kerala (ITFoK), was a show-stealer. A grand backdrop, beautiful music and deftly manipulated puppets were enough to mesmerise the audience.

However, the most touching part of the show was when the group leader referred to the Kerala floods while introducing the show and shared their own experiences of floods, a recurring phenomena in Vietnam.

Water puppetry itself was born in water-logged paddy fields of Vietnam. It was begun by farmers searching for some means of entertainment during the water-logged season. Water puppetry has a long history that goes back to over a 1,000 years.

A scene from the water puppetry show by Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre in Thrissur

A scene from the water puppetry show by Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre in Thrissur   | Photo Credit: K K NAJEEB

The wooden puppets, made of fig wood, which appear to float so lightly over the water and move around deftly, are actually quite heavy, sometimes weighing up to 15 kg each. The puppets are made of fig wood that is not damaged by water. The carved puppets are treated with lacquer for water-proofing and then details are painted on the puppets. As performances moved on from the water-logged paddy fields to towns and cities, naturally pools had to be built to stage the shows. As the groups started touring internationally, portable pools were designed. The groups usually travel with all their paraphernalia, including the portable pool and backdrops.

The manipulation of these puppets is perhaps the toughest of its kind. The puppeteers stand in waist-deep water behind a split-bamboo curtain and manipulate the puppets using a mechanism of bamboo rods and strings. Usually, a live orchestra accompanies the traditional music with drums, wooden bells, symbols, horns, Dan Lau, a mono-chord instrument, gongs and bamboo flutes.

A scene from the water puppetry show by Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre in Thrissur

A scene from the water puppetry show by Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre in Thrissur   | Photo Credit: Renu Ramanath

However, the water puppet show does not have any particular story or structure. The groups still perform the diverse fragments that must have originated centuries ago. The themes are generally simple, related to the daily life of farmers. They illustrate how the farmers work in paddy fields and their daily activities such as rearing ducks, catching frogs and engaging in boat races. Elements from the Vietnamese spiritual world like dragons or fairies also abound in the show. However, the group has been creating some modern-day adaptations like water puppets ballet.

The Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre, based in Hanoi, is one of the most important water puppetry groups in Vietnam, running live shows throughout the year, besides doing international tours. This was the group’s second Indian trip and the first one to Kerala. The main team members are Van Luong Chu, Thi Huong Le, Hoang Bao Khanh Nguyen, Thuy Duong Vo, Thi Thanh Huong Nguyen, Duc Duy Pham, Bich Thuy Cong, Van Quan Ngo, Quoc Toan La, Duy Tan Bui, Linh Son Vu and Ngoc Linh Tran.

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Printable version | Jan 25, 2020 8:43:09 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/theatre/vietnam-based-thang-long-water-puppet-theatre-had-the-audience-in-thrall-with-their-splendid-water-puppetry-show-in-thrissur/article26201474.ece

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