Culture on a string

The Harmony World Puppet Carnival in Bangkok will serve as a stage for 166 troupes from around the world to showcase unique national forms of the performing art

While the epic Ramakien is told through nang talung, the art of shadow puppetry from southern Thailand, a shadow puppet from Hamburg, Germany, will portray a child waking up in the middle of the night.

Germany’s Shadow Theatre Anna Fabuli Hamburg.

When two Thai puppeteers pull the strings of marionettes donning traditional Thai costumes and chada, Thai crowns, for the play Sangthong, the Noisy Oyster Company from the United Kingdom will do the same.

As two puppets — a king and a queen — dressed in traditional Estonian garb appear onstage, Thailand's renowned hand puppets Chao Khun Thong — a bird, Khonloi, a crocodile, and friends — will simultaneously bring laughter and smiles to audiences

The event offers a good chance to admire traditional and contemporary Thai puppetry.

This is almost a once-in-a-lifetime experience, where anyone can enjoy a broad variety of puppetry from all over the world at one festival — the Harmony World Puppet Carnival  — from Saturday until Nov 10.

Amid the splendour of Rattanakosin Island and Sanam Luang, 166 puppet troupes from 80 countries are ready to take part in the world's largest puppet carnival with a variety of performances, such as puppet shows, puppet movies and puppet videos, at 10 theatres and open-air spaces in Bangkok, daily from 10am to 9pm.

The full list of venues includes Sanam Luang, the National Theatre, Wang Na Theatre, Ratchadamnoen Contemporary Art Centre, the National Gallery Bangkok on Chao Fah Road, the National Museum, King Rama III Memorial Park, Sala Chalermkrung Royal Theatre and the Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Anthropology Centre.

Several puppet performances will also be staged at the Fashion Gallery, first floor of Siam Paragon, from Monday until Nov 9.

"The carnival helps add value to culture, allows for cultural exchange and enhances good relations. It is an interesting festival for tourists. This year is a good opportunity for Thailand to use cultural dimensions in promoting the reputation of the Kingdom among tourists and disseminating and conserving tradition," Thailand's Minster of Culture Weera Rojpojanarat said.

According to Nimit Pipithkul, chairman of the Semathai Marionette Arts for Social Foundation, each country has its own form of puppetry with its own charm. This year's festival will feature shows from America, Europe, Africa, Asia and Southeast Asia. This festival is a good opportunity for visitors and puppeteers to admire local, traditional and contemporary Thai puppetry, which can further be divided into royal puppets, theatrical puppets, string puppets (marionettes), hand or glove puppets, shadow puppets and more.

Apart from performances from foreign puppeteers, there will be 50 groups of Thai puppeteers, who will showcase traditional, local and contemporary puppets. Among them are the Fine Arts Department's hoon krabok troupe, the Khru Kai hoon luang troupe, Joe Louis hoon lakhon lek troupe, Wat Khanon nang yai troupe, Wathee Sapsin southern-style nang talung troupe, Chao Khun Thong hand puppet troupe, Chang Fon contemporary puppet troupe and Thaisema Marionette Arts.

A puppet from Canada.

A documentary on Thai puppetry specially produced for the festival and involving 61 of 62 Thai puppeteer groups will be screened. Seven foreign films on puppetry from Denmark, Kazakhstan, Czech Republic, Colombia, Liberia and the US, as well as 20 foreign video programmes will also be shown.

Seminars include "Shakespeare in Puppet Theatre" from Hungary, "Old and Traditional Egyptian Puppets" from Egypt, "Hand Shadow Theatre" from Georgia, "African Puppet Theatre" from Ivory Coast, "Puppet and Life" from Japan, "Puppets on Film" from Iceland and "Puppetry as 21st Century Performance" from the USA, as well as family-orientated "Childcare and Puppets" workshop from Japan.

Major activities include the festival's opening ceremony, at Sanam Luang, on Saturday; the opening ceremony of the Contemporary Thai Puppet and Thai Puppet Exhibition, at Ratchadamnoen Contemporary Art Centre, on Sunday; and the award presentation and closing ceremonies, at the National Theatre, on Nov 10 .

"The opening ceremony on Saturday should not be missed and is very important because a parade featuring all the puppeteers will travel from the Maha Jessadabodin Pavilion to Sanam Luang, resembling that at the opening of the Olympics and creating a historic record. There will be contests for prize money totalling 4 million baht," Prof Apinan Poshyananda, Thailand's permanent secretary of culture, said.

Originally called the World Puppet Festival, the event has been has been organised since 2008, when it was held for the first time in Prague, Czech Republic. Since 2012, the festival has been organised outside the Czech Republic and called the World Puppet Carnival. It was held in Kazakhstan in 2012 and Indonesia in 2013.

The Semathai Marionette Arts for Social Foundation has participated in the festival since 2009, and has received numerous honorary awards. The foundation held talks to secure ownership of the patent which allowed them to organise the Harmony World Puppet Carnival in Thailand, with the objective to promote arts and culture relating to Thai puppetry at an international level.

According to Apinan, the process to compete for ownership of the patent was complex and strenuous, and the forthcoming carnival is the fruit of those labours.

Chattan Kunjara Na Ayudhya, executive director of the Tourism Authority of Thailand's advertising and public relations department, believes the festival will attract many tourists, especially those who expect something new, and repeat visitors who want something more than Loy Krathong festivities. In addition, it will help restore confidence among foreigners in Thailand's ability and capacity to host important events.

Nimit said the festival is an opportunity for all of us to see what harmony is — the harmony of groups of international puppeteers and all kinds of Thai puppetry.

"We are proud to be part of the efforts to conserve national art," he added.

"Puppetry is important and meaningful in various ways. The way puppeteers pull strings and use gestures and expressions is charming and different.

"In Thailand alone, there are so many kinds of puppets. Puppetry reflects creativity, art, performing arts and scriptwriting, all of which we will see at the festival," Apinan concluded. 

Belgium Theatre Grand Merchant.

Ecuador Teatro Club Rama de Plata Quito.

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