More than a puppet on a string in Thailand
A lone Thai puppeteer singlehandedly revives the demons, monkey gods, and fair ladies of old.
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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.)Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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."