Emerging from rice agriculture, water puppetry has become a unique folk art. Each puppet is a work of visual arts and a unique product of fine arts.
Bo Duong hamlet in Hong Phong commune (Ninh Giang, Hai Duong) is one of the cradles of water puppetry in the Eastern land.
Receiving us on a year-end day, Nguyen Van Khoi, Head of Hong Phong Water Puppetry Troupe, cheerfully shared: “We have performed water puppetry for foreign tourists. They liked it so much that they kept going to the back of the water pavilion to see puppets.”
Khoi took us to the house of artisan Vu Van Doan. Doan has already been 78 this year with snowy hair. When we came, he was chiseling a raw teu puppet. Scattered on the ground were many uncompleted puppets.
Under the old artisan’s skillful hands, the blade of his chisel squeezed into each slit to take away unnecessary wood. From an inanimate chunk of wood, a teu puppet with a funny face gradually took shape. The more we contemplated, the more we realized that each puppet was a unique work of art.
“We repair puppets all year round but only create new ones at the end of each year,” said Doan. The reason is that at the year-end, it is dry, trees drain, wood does not shrink, and there is no woodworm, which are convenient for drying. In addition, puppets are made at the year-end to prepare for performances on the occasions of the Lunar New Year and early spring festivals.
While painting puppets, Khoi introduced us making stages. First, wood must be aged fig wood chopped down from October then peeled, dried under the sun, and cut into pieces in accordance with long and short puppet types. Puppets for performances are averagely 30 – 60cm high.
During the making, the shape must be outlined by chiseling with the body made before the head and complicated parts. The hardest part is shaping the face in such a way that puppets are both funny and just in the nature of characters.
After being shaped, puppets must be smoothed with sandpapers and polished with mastic before being painted. The painting of puppets must be done nine times before finishing. Then, eyes, noses, clothing, etc. are drawn. It takes about three months to complete a puppet inclusive of drying.
However, the making of puppets is more sophisticated than what Khoi said. At present, the only two members of Hong Phong Water Puppetry Troupe capable of undertaking this work are Vu Van Doan and Dang Van Phu, both of them are experienced old artisans.
Restored in 1989 with only about 30 pieces at first, Hong Phong Water Puppetry Troupe has so far staged dozens of plays with more than 100 pieces, both traditional and modern. Under skillful hands of artisans, many new puppetry pieces and beautiful puppets have been created, making water puppetry increasingly blossom.
Crystallization of creativity
Newly created puppets
Not only uniqueness and cleverness, each puppet is also the crystallization of passion, study, and creativity of the artisan making it.
We arrived in Thanh Hai (Thanh Ha) when the troupe was repairing puppets. Highly qualified artisans were making and repairing complicated parts while less qualified ones were in charge of limbs, and instrumentalists were painting clothing for puppets, etc.
There are two puppet making artisans in Thanh Hai Water Puppetry Troupe, namely Pham Van Ket and Pham Khac Ninh. The puppet shaping techniques there are similar to those in Hong Phong (Ninh Giang) or Le Loi (Gia Loc). Nonetheless, Thanh Hai’s puppets still have distinctions.
From study and creativity, Thanh Hai folk artists have not only restored traditional pieces of their ancestors but also staged a lot of unique ones, such as cylindrical drum dancing, festival drum beating, trance performance, etc. Especially, the ancestors’ puppet making techniques have been innovated by the artisans to heighten the techniques of performances.
In particular, puppet making artisans in Thanh Hai have figured out how to use industrial paint to paint puppets. This invention has simplified puppet painting and drawing stages which anyone can do as long as they have aesthetic sense.
According to Pham Khac Xoa, Head of Thanh Hai Water Puppetry Troupe, the making of one puppet averagely costs around VND1 million, which is paid by members of the troupe.
|Thanks to its special value, the provincial water puppetry was listed among national intangible cultural heritages as a folk performance art in phase 1 in 2012 by the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism. Silently contributing to the success of each water puppetry turn are puppet making artisans.|
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