NAM DINH - When the performance ends, Pham Van Me carefully cleans his puppets one by one, making sure that they will shine in the next show. Only when he is completely satisfied does he put them back into storage.
It is this precision and care that has made Me, from Rach Village in the northern province of Nam Dinh, one of the most famous and respected puppeteers in Viet Nam.
Thousands of puppets have been made in his village workshop and successfully sold both in this country and abroad, where his products are particularly popular.
It all began in 1994 when he established a troupe of nine artists to perform the village's traditional art at theatres throughout the whole province. The shows proved popular and word spread further afield, with the artists being invited to bring the show to countries from Thailand to Canada.
"It was a great chance for us to promote Rach Village's unique water puppetry and the Vietnamese traditional art in general to our international friends," he reminisces.
The village, which was formerly known as Ban Thach, has been a centre of water puppetry for more than ten centuries.
The popularity of the art form dwindled in the middle of the 20th Century before being reignited by artisans such as Me.
In more recent years, the preservation and development of the style of water puppetry traditionally favoured in the Red River Delta has been stepped up in the region, where the people are known for their artistry (besides making puppets, they are also known for producing fine traditional crafts such as statues, lacquered paintings and wood carvings)
The Rach villagers are known for the skill and creativity they display in their work, a reputation that has enhanced their fame.
While other traditional craft making practices have somehow faded away, the art of making puppets continues to be maintained and developed. Rach villagers make puppt using the wood from jack fruit and fig trees and then paint them with natural colours to make the puppets durable and beautiful despite the length of time they spend submerged in water, Me explains. But, he argues, there is more to it than merely skill and some patience.
"Being a skilful sculptor alone is not enough to make beautiful puppets. You must have a strong attachment to each puppet and pour soul into it."
The plays of Me troupe often reflect the daily activities of farmers in wet rice cultivation regions, such as rice transplanting, water scooping, fishing, weaving, wrestling, and buffalo fighting. Other shows tell the stories of battles and heroes such as Dinh Bo Linh, the founder of einh Dynasty (968-980) and Tran Hung Dao who three times defeated the Yuan invaders.
In the past, water puppetry was usually organised in the village pond. In 1987, the residents built a thuy dinh (water palace) stage near the communal house to stage performances of the art at festivals to entertain people and worship the gods.
Before and after every performance, villagers had to hold a ceremony with many offerings to pray for a smooth show. Nowadays, artisans can make small and mobile water palace stages to travel and perform in neighbouring regions.
Artists in the old days didnt teach the art to their daughters because they were afraid that when the girls got married, they would reveal the trick to their families-in-law.
Luckily times have changed and old artists try to transfer as much of their knowledge of water puppetry as possible to their descendants in order to keep the tradition alive.
In recent years, these artists have even organised training course for young people and during off-season periods members of the troupe often share their experiences and create new plays reflecting the life of the people during the process of renovation in rural areas.
The Rach Village troupe now keeps thousands of puppets and can perform over 40 stories. Most of the figures were passed down from the previous generation, but some have had artistic additions to keep them up-to-date.
At present, the troupe has 20 members, with Phan Vaon Nieom the oldest at the age of 83.
They have an accompanying orchestra containing five members who play drum, flute, gong, and dan nhi (a two-chord fiddle).
Despite many from the village and the wider region increasingly turning their backs
on tradition in favour of moving to the big cities for work and the opportunities of a modern life, a number of dedicated artists persevere. Their efforts mean that the regions unique water puppetry isn't going to go anywhere just yet. - VNS