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More than a puppet on a string in Thailand

A lone Thai puppeteer singlehandedly revives the demons, monkey gods, and fair ladies of old.

By Tibor KrauszContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / April 19, 2007



Bangkok

With his three handlers in tow, Hanuman is pursuing Benjakai, the fair niece of the Demon King, with amorous zeal. In his golden diadem and finely sequined vest, the white monkey god strikes a fine figure. Still, she will have none of his relentless advances.

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Frustrated, the baboon-featured deity scratches himself in simian bewilderment – then decides to try his fortune elsewhere. Off the stage he bounces. The next thing you know, he's monkeying around the audience: one minute shadowboxing with boys, the next patting the bald pate of an American tourist.

But it's the women this charmer is really after: Accosting a young Polish tourist, Hanuman snuggles up to her, strokes her hair, woos her in come-hither pantomime. He then snatches her purse and takes off with it.

For a kiss on his lacquered white cheek, Hanuman signals from the stage, she can redeem her bag. As she's leaning close to do just that, he whips his head around naughtily for a kiss on the lips.

By now the 200-some spectators are doubled over in laughter.

Every night here at the Traditional Thai Puppet Theater in Bangkok's Night Bazaar, traditional puppets come alive – some even run playful riot.

That Hanuman and his kind cavort at all these days – and are not simply forlorn, tattered exhibits in museums – can be attributed to Sakorn Yangkheowsod, reverently known as "the Bringer of Life to Small Puppets," but also known by his old stage name, Joe Louis.

The elderly Master Sakorn has been credited by scholars and honored by government cultural authorities for single-handedly reviving Thai classical puppetry after a half century of neglect.

***

Puppets have a long, honorable history in Thailand. On festive occasions at the palace of old Siamese kings, lavish "royal puppets" – operated via an intricate system of cords inside the puppet connected to brass rings on the puppeteer's fingers – performed scenes from ancient myths, mimicking dance steps and gestures from traditional Thai opera. At village temple fairs, commoners were entertained by a humbler variety of buffalo-hide shadow puppets and bamboo-stick types.

In 1864, King Mongkut – immortalized in the West as the mercurial monarch in "The King and I" – celebrated the discovery of a rare white elephant with an extravagant puppet show overseen by the Royal Ministry of Puppetry. During the king's funeral, puppet performances lasted for three days and nights.

Yet with modernity came calamity for Thai puppets. In the early 20th century, as the monarchy's role in culture diminished and new entertainments like motion pictures arrived, the art of classical puppetry began to wane.

Then a curse finished it off. A curse, yes – or so Thai folklore has it. Before his death in 1929, Master Krea Sapphatawanit – who created a new type of puppet by modernizing ancient "royal puppets" – issued a curse on anyone who dared emulate him. He then gave some of his most cherished creations to his wife and threw the rest in a river.

Master Krea wanted classical puppetry to die with him, and it almost did, what with the depth of superstition among the last few trained puppeteers. Fearful of the old man's curse, they steered clear of the art, neither making new puppets nor training new puppeteers.

Not so Master Sakorn, an actor-comedian calling himself Joe Louis (after a mispronunciation of his nickname "Liew" and in honor of the famed world heavyweight champ). A onetime child-actor in Master Krea's original traveling troupe, he couldn't turn his back on his old playthings.

"I've always loved puppets. They're so beautiful," says Master Sakorn, whose ageless elfin features and undiminished love of puppets remind you of Geppetto with the soul of a mischievous Pinocchio. "It gives me great joy to see them come to life in the hands of expert puppeteers."

After inheriting the dead master's surviving masterpieces from his widow, Yankheowsod began crafting his own from lightwood, papier-mâché, and fine textiles.

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