Although it cannot be established when puppets were first used in Burma, evidence of their existence was first recorded in 1444. During the next 300 years the art gradually matured, presentation becoming of a sufficiently high standard for this form of entertainment to be included as part of the court reception for visiting embassies.
In 1776 itinerant puppet troupes were brought under the control of an official who laid down regulations and engaged outstanding groups to perform at court on a regular basis. Rules had to be rigorously followed by these troupes and those living in the environs of the capital. Subsequently, the art of the puppeteer grew rapidly in stature and was acknowledged to surpass that of the live theatre. Until the 1870s many of the puppets were worked with very few strings and acted merely as a focal point for the vocalist. Audiences came to listen rather than see a performance.
With the fall of Lower Burma to the British following the wars of 1824 and 1852, some of the traditions which were a product of the old feudal laws began to be discarded. Upper Burma was annexed in 1885 and with the removal of the court, central authority ceased. Competition in the theatrical professions intensified and to provide novelty in the puppet theatre more strings were added to puppets and manipulatory skills increased further.
The traditional marionette show is considered to have been at its best between 1820 and 1885, experimentation with new ideas only beginning from the late 1890s. By the 1930s, despite the inclusion of new acts, it could not compete with other forms of entertainment. Although there was a brief revival from the late 1940s, it is doubtful whether a specialised art form such as this can ever regain its 19th century popularity.
The following are the most common and widely-used figures:
Characters with red faces always play the role of the villain.
The themes of the puppet plays were drawn from the ten great lives and the 550 birth stories of Lord Buddha (the Jataka), as well as from history and legend.