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ART SCENES | EXHIBITIONS | VN CULTURE | ART ASSOCIATIONS | ETHNIC MINORITIES

Old art makes waves (November 26, 2006)


Dunked dolls: A scene from the show Fishing in the delta in the South. — VNS Photo Doan Tung.


When water puppetry began to fade in popularity, artisans fired up their imaginations to bring about a colourful revival of this unique, ancient art. Bach Lien and Minh Anh decide to jump in and find out what it’s all about.

Dolls for all: These puppets are products of Te Tieu Village in Thach That District, Ha Tay Province. — VNS Photo Truong Vi
Soggy bottoms: Chu Luong (fifth from left) and his colleagues say goodbye to their audience at the end of a show.
Catch of the day: Water puppetry has gradually become unfamiliar to many Vietnamese people, even to children, a product of the rapid modernisation infringing on the integrity of Viet Nam’s traditional arts. — VNS Photo Truong Vi
Water Puppetry in Viet Nam

Water puppetry is a traditional art that has been performed among the ethnic groups of Viet Nam for centuries. The unique art originated in the Hong (Red) River Delta during the 10th century. Farmers in the region devised a form of entertainment that utilised the surrounding natural environment. In ancient times, ponds and rice paddies were the stages for these impromptu shows.

It is performed in a chest-deep pool of water, with the water’s surface as a stage. The puppeteers stand in the water behind a curtained backdrop. Water puppets bring wry humour to scenes of farming, fishing, festival events such as buffalo fights, and children’s games of marbles and coin-tossing. Besides village life, scenes include legends and national history.

This art form was initially unique to northern Viet Nam and only found its way to the world stage in recent years as a result of expanding relations with the West. Today, the Thang Long Puppet Troupe is the best-known in Ha Noi.
On entering Chu Luong’s house in suburban Ha Noi, one is likely to be surprised by the multitude of puppets it houses, in diverse and sophisticated designs. In less than a month, Luong’s 1,000th puppet will be born. For four years he has been creating these artworks for his first puppet exhibition, scheduled for January 2007.

Born in a small village known as the cradle of water puppetry in Ha Tay Province’s Thach That District, Luong grew up with puppets. His father, a painter and water puppeteer, taught him how to manufacture puppets and nourished within him a passion for the art.

Following his graduation from the Tay Bac Art College, Luong decided to spend his life working with puppets. He began his career at Ha Noi’s Central Water Puppetry Theatre in 1979 and later moved to the city’s Thang Long Water Puppetry Theatre. After surviving by writing and performing songs in hotels and restaurants, Luong turned his hand to making puppets for a living in 1992, selling them to theatres. By this time, his puppets were becoming more beautiful and occupying an increasingly large space in his house.

Struggle to survive

Luong is among those rare artists breathing new life into water puppetry. Faced with the rapid modernisation that is infringing on the integrity of Viet Nam’s traditional arts, water puppetry has gradually become unfamiliar to many Vietnamese people, even to children.

Many water puppetry groups are facing difficulties in surviving. One of them is Te Tieu puppet group in My Duc District, Ha Tay Province, with its centuries-old tradition of puppetry. Pham Van Be, the troupe chief, is concerned for his 30-member group, which includes many young people. "I often wonder whether they will be able to pursue this career after they get married," Be says.

Nguyen Thanh Trai, chief of the Dong Ngu puppetry group in Thuan Thanh District, in the northern province of Bac Ninh, complains about the ponds in his village which are used for breeding fish. "Each time we perform, we have to ask the village authorities’ permission," Trai explains. Moreover, the troupe has often been forced to refuse requests to perform far from the city because the reward is too low compared with the effort involved.

Luong hopes that his upcoming puppet exhibition will contribute to keeping the art alive and developing it. He wants to bring the beauty of water puppetry into installation art, under the theme of contemporary life.

"The puppets reflect the loves and dreams of the people," Luong says. "They also honour the traditional values of our spiritual life. And they manifest the cultural life of those who practise wet rice civilisation, which has remained a typical part of national life since the times of the Viet people. They also simply tell fairy tales."

According to Luong, imagination and creativity are vital to making water puppetry attractive to audiences. However, the artist is not content to just revive the puppets. He also wants to bring the art form closer to the younger generation via schools in remote areas, giving children the chance to become acquainted with the art of puppetry, while learning about history, culture and life.

Team effort

Luong is not alone in trying his best to preserve the craft; puppetry theatres around the country are also determined to maintain and develop the original art.

One of the Central Water Puppetry Theatre’s initiatives has been the recent formation of the Viet Nam Union of Water Puppetry. According to Vuong Duy Bien, the theatre’s director, the union takes in members who work in water puppetry, and aims to establish relations between artists so they can exchange experiences and help each other in their work. He says it not only encourages artisans to create new shows, but also aims to expand the art form internationally to present the beauty of Viet Nam’s water puppetry to foreign friends both at home and in other countries. Bien says the theatre’s effort to promote international ties is also aimed at catching up with modern trends, while still keeping its own identity.

Moreover, the Central Water Puppetry Theatre has organised new water puppetry shows with innovative versions of the classic art form, including the Vietnamese myth of Thanh Giong, and Aladdin and the Magic lamp. Another imaginative show, Hon Que (The Countryside’s Soul), which was shown this August, contained a series of traditional scenes that had been modified to appeal to young people by incorporating installation art with water puppetry.

"To draw youngsters to traditional art, we have to keep it fresh," says Bien. "We use installation art and music with lyrics composed by Quoc Trung, instead of traditional set designs and opera music." And to change the overall look of the theatre, the number of characters in every scene was doubled or tripled.

As part of the push to present the craft to international friends, Thang Long Water Puppetry Theatre recently organised its biggest-ever show, for the 15 spouses of the APEC leaders during their visit to Ha Noi this month. Twenty puppeteers from the theatre took part in the performance, controlling around 100 characters. The performance included 14 of the best traditional water puppet sequences such as Dragon Dance, Dragon Boat Racing, and Children of the Fairy. Most of these pieces have won prizes in festivals at home and have been performed abroad.

Public education

Along with the efforts of the two theatres, the Viet Nam Museum of Ethnology has organised a number of water puppetry shows in recent years, with the aim of helping visitors understand more about the traditional art form. This year, performances have been carried out by 15 water puppetry groups from the North, including Dao Thuc (from Dong Anh District, in suburban Ha Noi), Te Tieu, Chang Son and Te Tieu (from Ha Tay Province), Dong Ngu (Bac Ninh), Nam Giang and Nghia Hung (Nam Dinh) and Thanh Hai (Hai Duong).

During the third week of each month, from Tuesday to Sunday, visitors to the museum have the opportunity to watch water puppetry shows of all kinds, such as Tilling the land, Setting off firecrackers and unfurling the flag, Three-weapon dance, and Frog catching.

According to the museum’s director, Nguyen Van Huy, water puppetry is one of Viet Nam’s most original and unique forms of cultural heritage, so it should be known nationwide and internationally. The museum has invited artisans from water puppet villages to come and teach the young how to make puppets. And to help preserve the traditional water puppetry groups, the museum this year began organising the programme "The support and preservation of folklore puppetry groups", in which artisans can perform and interact with audiences.

Be, chief of the Te Tieu Village’s troupe, which has often performed at the museum, is still optimistic about the future.

"I still believe my beloved puppets will always perform as long as there are people around who are devoted to the art," Be says. "My children, in their free time, often help me to make puppets. I’ve managed to give them a sense of passion for the art and I believe they will also teach their children as I did." — VNS

Reprinted with permission from Vietnam News Agency

     

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