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 , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

He made the movements of puppets even more lifelike through an ingenious innovation: aluminum coils wired to cords for manipulating the puppet's hollowed-out neck, head, and mouth. (Hands, wrists, arms, and legs are controlled externally with rods.)

The puppet master then began training his nine children in the arcane art of classical puppetry, staging performances for passersby in his poor neighborhood outside Bangkok.

Sakorn's family troupe debuted in 1985 – but not before Sakorn had first sought Master Krea's permission during an appeasement ceremony. Even today, before every daily show appointed performers kneel at a spirit shrine erected on stage to the dead puppeteer, murmuring pleas for his support.

Soon patronage by the country's venerated royal family catapulted Sakorn to national fame. In 1996, King Bhumibol Adulyadej named him a "National Artist," a singular honor accorded to keepers of hallowed tradition.

Then in 2000 his house burned down with all the puppets in it.

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Fire officials attributed the blaze to an electrical short circuit. Sakorn insists it was Krea's revenge. (His misfortune served as inspiration for a Thai horror movie in which a dead puppeteer's curse destroys anyone who handles his puppets.)

"We were all devastated [by the fire]," recalls Surin Yangkheowsod, the seventh of Sakorn's nine children who now manages the Traditional Thai Puppet Theater – also known as the Joe Louis Puppet Theater – on behalf of the retired and ailing patriarch. "Except Father. He gave us all his savings – 2,000 baht [about $50] – and told us to go buy materials for remaking the puppets."

They owed it to him to start again from scratch, Surin adds. "We feel it's our entire family's obligation to continue Father's passion and legacy," he says.

"We" means not only the patriarch's nine sons and daughters, but also his in-laws and 18 grandchildren. All the relatives train in traditional Thai opera, masked dance, hand-held puppetry, and popular theater.

The synthesis of these disciplines is a modern twist on tradition in which uniformly dressed puppeteers – as many as three manipulating a single 45-inch puppet – are in full view as part of the act. They dance synchronously in a graceful ballet to the undulating tempo of a 10-man orchestra of vocals, xylophones, flutes, cymbals, drums, and gongs. (Impromptu comedy routines after shows are a further innovation designed to enliven performances.)

Yet for all those skills that go into manipulating them, puppets are allowed to steal the show – as they should. For their handlers, they're no mere wood and textile contraptions. According to animistic beliefs held by many Thais, puppets like these are imbued with their own spirit. No puppeteer will touch them before first humbly seeking their permission by bowing low while pressing palms together in a traditional wai.

"What's fascinating about the [Joe Louis] theater," says Mitsuko Yamashita, a Japanese art historian who wrote her thesis on the theater, "is that it reaches out to modern audiences while keeping the traditions. Over the past three years, I've seen puppets and puppeteers grow in their art together."

Sakorn's real achievement, Ms. Yamashita and others say, is not simply having revived classical puppetry but having endeared it to the masses.

"In Buriram [a province in the country's impoverished northeast region], boys even sold their shoes so they could afford the 30 baht entrance fee [less than a dollar]," Surin says. "We bought them new shoes and promised to bring back the puppets soon."

Internationally, too, the theater is gaining recognition. Last year the Thai troupe won in the Best Cultural Performance category at the World Festival of Puppet Art in Prague, Czech Republic.

"I am old now, and my wish," says Sakorn as he fondles the puppet of the demon Rahoo, "is that when I die, my puppets won't die with me."

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