The theater is like none you have ever seen. Giants, musical instruments in hand, look down on the actors who are preparing to begin their performance. Behind the scenes, invisible powers are pulling all the strings. The stage is set, but not for long – as soon as the performance begins it rolls and breaks. However, there is no earthquake – the stage is made of water, the ‘actors’ are puppets, the giants are human musicians and the invisible gods are puppeteers. This is the unique and intriguing art of water puppetry.
From the waters they came
The exact time of its inception is not known, but the art of water puppetry emerged in Vietnam nearly a millennium ago from the northern part of the country. At that time – in villages scattered around the delta of the Red River, near the capital Hanoi – villagers rested and relaxed for a period after the rice harvest. Rice is grown in fields that are necessarily kept flooded throughout the process, so the river delta is an ideal environment for cultivating it. Farmers began entertaining themselves and others in ponds and dykes in the area. They used the water as a stage on which to play out puppet shows.
The shows became popular in many villages in the area. Some people started guilds to try and protect the secrets of their puppet making and puppeteering, as they attempted to outperform neighbouring villages.
As the popularity of the art form grew, so did its complexity. The villagers built structures that were similar in appearance to houses on stilts to augment the water-stage and to hide the puppeteers from their audiences. The puppets were attached to long poles and strings so that the puppeteers could manipulate them from under the water to rove around the stage. Shows added musicians and singers to provide accompaniment for, and interaction with, the puppets.
Eventually, theaters with specially constructed water stages were built to accommodate the unique style of entertainment. The government recognised the cultural importance of the art and funded some of the enterprises.
They were given life
The puppets themselves range from a foot long to more than three feet and are mainly wooden in general. Traditionally, the puppet maker whittles the shape of the puppet from the wood of the fig tree. They then paint the puppet and cover it with several layers of lacquer, which protects the wood from water damage.
The puppet maker also creates various moving parts so that the puppet can be manipulated by the puppeteer during the performances via various strings, pulleys and joints. The mechanics of the puppets can be quite complex, with the makers able to make joints as small as the wrists movable in human-shaped puppets. There are sometimes even such marvels as snapping fish and fire-breathing dragons.
And so they danced
The shows are generally made up of various shorter tales that cover topics ranging from scenes of daily life to fantastic myths and legends. Musicians and singers at the side of the stage give musical accompaniment to the stories that are being played out on the water and help to narrate the stories. They often interact with the puppets, giving them encouragement or chastising them. Shows are also likely to contain exciting pyrotechnic displays. The lights sparkling on the water give the shows an extra charm.
Water puppetry, around the world and back again
These days, water puppetry is performed around the world, but perhaps the most famous place to see it is in the Thang Long Theater in Hanoi. Near where the art itself began, this theater has multiple performances daily that showcase the talents of the finest water puppeteers. The shows are enthralling and thoroughly entertaining, but they also give a great insight into Vietnamese history, culture and art.