This island country in the Indian Ocean off the coast of South-East Africa, officially the Republic of Madagascar (Malagasy: Repoblikan’i Madagasikara; French: République de Madagascar) comprises numerous small islands as well as the large island of Madagascar. There are more than eighteen Malagasy ethnic sub-groups; the Merina of the central highlands is the largest. Traditional beliefs and Christianity or an amalgam of the two are practised by the majority of Madagascar’s population.

The puppet theatre of Madagascar remains largely unexplored, but there is no longer doubt as to its existence. In 1988, Jean Victor Rajosoa wrote: “Puppetry is not new to the country. It existed and had its own form in the traditional culture of the Malagasy people.” Long considered a form of artistic expression imported by the Europeans, several reports now confirm that there are indigenous roots on the Big Island. Some Malagasy legends relate that the old prophet, Rabemanana, knew how to create and animate objects. In the Musée Gadagne in Lyon, France, there are a couple of puppets of the Betsileo (an ethnic group of Madagascar) representing the woodcutter Bara and his wife, recognizable by the lumps in their hairstyles. In Budapest, the Néprajzi Múzeum owns four Malagasy puppets, bought in 1900 at the Paris Universal Exposition. These are made of wood and cloth, decorated with leather, buttons and pearls, with three of these wearing a Merina hairstyle (people from Imerina, central highlands), and the fourth a Betsimisaraka style (the Betsimisaraka are the second largest ethnic group in Madagascar after the Merina).

Children’s Games

In 1965-1966, during a teaching tour, Guy Cagniant found that the children of the Malagasy forest, which is home to the Betsimisaraka, the Tanala, and the Zafimaniry peoples, were familiar with puppets that were a type of marotte. Some were stylized, made of two pieces of bamboo with a clay head, clothed in straw for the women. Others, more elaborate, had a traditional sculpted wooden head (a style that is close to Zafimaniry sculpture), and are dressed in cloth taken from old clothes. The character traits are well defined, and those representing Europeans are recognizable by their colonial helmets or military attire.

Some scholars consider the ancient game of “tomaboho” (“kindriandriana” in the Merina language) as a budding puppet theatre. The game was designed to teach children polite speech and behaviour. At first, this game was made up of round seeds representing women (vavy) and wooden sticks representing men (lahy). Subsequently, these materials were replaced by marbles and coloured glass sticks. A set would be drawn on the ground representing a traditional village. One could play alone, or with others. Each child, animating one of its tomaboho, would make it speak and act in keeping with the norms of current proper behaviour. According to Louis Mollet, “nothing was more pleasant for the old people sitting against the wall than to listen to the little children repeat their teachings using the proper accepted formulae”.

The children also had other toys closely related to puppets, such as sculpted birds with moving heads, wings or tails or that could peck, animated by a sort of pendulum.  Articulated toys of human form, such as dolls, were treated like real persons (carried, rocked, combed, etc.) but were reserved for girls, as there was a saying that if a boy plays with these types of toys he would die young.

Ceremonies and Performances

In fact, in the very developed sacred world of Madagascar, the ceremony of “turning the corpse” is considered a “performance”. The dead body is removed from its tomb, the shroud is changed, and the body is made to dance in a procession with drums and bamboo flutes. Although the animation of the relics cannot be totally compared to that of puppets in the strict sense, it is similar. The technique used to set in motion and to give “life” to an inert body (a doll, statue, cadaver, object) is the basis of the art of the puppet theatre.

Although the Malagasy are known for their manual dexterity and artistic sensibility, according to Raymond Decary (1951), traditional dolls called kiolona are rare. There are however many figures recently created, representing the ethnic origins, functions and trades of the Malagasy people. Veritable secular saints, these statues are set up in groupings suggesting a kind of crèche.

Finally, in his 1997 description of the house of the sculptor Édouard Rajoana, Jean-Loup Pivin remarked, “On the first floor, there are rows of seats around the conjugal bed so as to be able to present puppet shows, or simply shows, for the children”. This presence of a space reserved for “guignol” testifies to the space that it occupies in the universe of the Malagasy theatre.


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