Officially the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao: Sathalanalat Paxathipatai Paxaxon Lao), this small nation in South East Asia has often existed under the influence of neighbouring states – Myanmar (Burma), Vietnam, Cambodia, and especially Thailand where about three times as many Lao speakers reside as the five million in Laos itself.
Puppetry has often adapted their models but Lao language and music characterize forms that appeal to the mass audience. This article will focus on traditional puppet practices in three major categories: body figures associated with festival celebrations; palace traditions following Khmer-Thai court models, and popular traditions of shadow puppetry.
Festivals and Celebrations
Large figures of a male (Pu Nyeu or Nheu) and female (Nya Nyeu or Nheu) along with lion figures (singkeo singkham) are paraded in the area of Luang Pabang for the Pu Mai (New Year) festival each April. The body puppets with large wooden heads and raffia costumes are said to represent a mythical couple at the beginning of the kingdom of Luang Pabang who cut down an enormous gourd plant, releasing the animals, people, plants and gems within. The couple’s act resulted in their own deaths, but gave birth to the kingdom which was ruled over by the son of a god who descended from heaven. The archetypal male and female figures are incorporated in a procession where a beautiful young woman called the Nang Sang Khan is chosen to represent one of the seven daughters of the god Kabilaphom, a four-headed god-king who was decapitated. To prevent calamity, young women who represent his daughters must parade the god-king’s head once a year. During the annual festival the Pu Nyeu and Nya Nyeu are given offerings at the Sieng Tong Temple.
The procession extends over the last day of the old year and the first day of the New Year. The lion figures that accompany them are iconically related to the Chinese and Vietnamese lion and the barong figures of Indonesia while the rough-hewn male and female body puppets are analogous to male and female figures found in Indonesian ondel-ondel and barong landang. Across the region such figures of lion and a couple are related to the beginning of the year. The pair may represent the ancestors and the lion, the playful yet powerful animal energy. These figures have the function of exorcising evil and bringing fertility.
Rocket and Kites
Rockets and kites can be considered within the broad definition of puppetry. They are manipulated objects that take on a life of their own. In Laos, both are traditionally associated with human attempts to communicate with the god of rain. Myth says that an enlightened toad (Phraya Khan Khak), who was an incarnation of the Buddha, roused the ire of the god of rain (Phaya Thaen), who attacked the toad, but was eventually subdued by him. In the peace agreement between them, it was decided that when men send rockets into the sky to solicit rain, the god must respond, and frogs will sing in these showers remembering the Toad king.
Rockets are brightly coloured, and have a phallic shape. Some are decorated with naga (snake/dragon), an image associated with water and fertility. Lao celebrate the rocket festival (Bun Bang Fai) annually as beautiful rockets exploding into the heavens announce the need for rain. When it is time for the end of the rainy season, kites and the sounds of the flute announce to Phaya Thaen that showers should stop. These brightly coloured rockets and kites, some bearing anthropomorphic images, are launched by humans who via these manipulated objects and their associated sounds, capture the attention of the heavens as they entertain humans at festival times.
Little is known of the older history of puppetry in Laos, but it is likely that the art was a part of aristocratic performance from at least 1352 CE when Prince Fa Ngum, king of Lan Xang (“Million Elephants”), is supposed to have introduced court performance including the Ramayana, the story of Prince Rama, and jataka, tales of the previous incarnations of the Buddha. In all neighbouring countries, these stories are routinely portrayed in puppet traditions, so it is likely that Laos followed suit. However, the first clear references to puppetry in Laos came after the area was brought under the influence of the Thai monarchy in l778. During this period, Thai nang yai, with its large opaque shadow figures, and Thai khon, mask dance (see Thailand), were imported into the Lao courts as was the female court dance.
The best artists were trained in Bangkok and the Thai model, complete with phipat orchestra, was carefully emulated. Such court arts were enervated during the French colonial occupation beginning in l893. By the 20th century, fragmentary court dance and mask performance remained as well as ipok – a form which corresponds to Thai hun krabok rod puppets. The South East Asian war disrupted all performance. The monarchy ended in l975 as Laos became a socialist State. Modest revivals of mask episodes or ipok (revived in l998 for performances at temples in Luang Pabang) can be found in tourist displays, but these arts that are associated with South East Asian kingship have largely been in the last quarter of the 20th century seen as anachronisms to be purged from the modern egalitarian State.
Nang daloong – a comic form related to nang talung of Thailand and the ayang (nang sbek touch) of Cambodia – uses small opaque shadow puppets made of leather with a central rod and sticks attached to each hand. The performances are presented outside at night on a white screen. This shadow theatre appeared as early as l926, when amateurs began performing the Thai version of the Ramayana (Ramakien, “Glory of Rama”) to the accompaniment of xylophones, finger cymbals, and drums. At the beginning of the 21st century, troupes performed Lao tales as well as stories from the Thai repertoire, incorporating kaen (pan pipe) playing and the mawlum style singing of the area to win local audiences. Amplified music played on Western instruments is now found as well. Although the form may ultimately derive from wayang traditions of Malaysia and Indonesia, multiple manipulators have replaced the single puppet master of Indo-Malay genres and ritual is absent.