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Farmers breathe new life into puppetry art

Update: June, 05/2016 - 09:00
Ancient art: Farmers perform puppet shows in a pond of the village. Photo Lâm Khánh
Viet Nam News

By Lâm Khánh

Located 30km from the northern port city of Hải Phòng, Bảo Hà Village in Vĩnh Bảo District has been well-known for its carved wooden statues for 700 years.

Thanks to its reputation, the art of water puppetry appeared and developed here very early in the 18th century. The village made a name for itself with several traditional puppetry shows that touched generations of audiences.

However, as time went on, only two to three puppetry shows were being held annually in the village due to the modest budget, poor infrastructure and difficult lives of the artists - local farmers. It soon seemed that this traditional art had been forgotten.

In 2000, Đào Minh Tuân, head of the commune’s culture department, created a puppetry club called Minh Tân. Thanks to the club, the puppetry art was restored.

He and his friends made wooden puppets and learned to play musical instruments. The club now gathers 25 members, most of them local farmers.  Their great passion for the art encouraged them to work together to preserve it.

“What has helped the club stay active until now is the love for this art of the local inhabitants,” Tuân said. “Each time they take part in a puppetry show, they have to stop their daily work. When they work as a carpenter or mason, they can earn VNĐ200,000 (US$9) to VNĐ300,000 ($13) per day.

But when they perform, they can earn only VNĐ50,000 to 100,000 per show. However, they are eager to quit their jobs for a day to take part in puppet shows.”

At 76 years old, Đỗ Văn Hoan was excited to go to Hà Nội a few months ago to perform water puppetry at the Việt Nam Museum of Ethnology.

“I feel that I become younger during each trip to Hà Nội for the performances,” he said. “Though I am a little tired due to the long trip from Hà Nội to Hải Phòng by car, I am glad that I can bring joy to other people. I am ready to go everywhere people appreciate our shows.”

Many young people are members of the Minh Tân puppetry club. At 15 years old, Nguyễn Văn Hưởng has performed puppetry for three years throughout the Northern regions of the country. Like other local people, he grew up with those puppets and started to love this traditional art during his childhood. 

Renewing the folk art

To make this art more attractive to local people and tourists, the Minh Tân puppetry club has pushed efforts to renew the old puppet shows with light and sound effects and music to enliven the shows and embellish the puppets.

Tuân said puppetry shows failed to attract people for dozens of years because local inhabitants and artists performed the same popular shows over and over.

“We then thought of creating new puppet shows that are inspired by modern life to bring more emotions and nice surprises to audiences,” he said.

Tuân has also learned about string puppetry from Malaysia and India, techniques that have been incorporated into the puppetry shows of his village.  

However, to maintain the club’s regular activities, farmer artists have faced many financial difficulties.

To create a new series of puppets for new shows, they have to pay VNĐ130 million (US$5,800). To renew the pool of water for the show stage and equip it with a lighting system and music, they need VNĐ400 - 500 million.

However, Tuân and his friends have tried hard to overcome all difficulties. To save money for performances, they began to make wooden puppets themselves, lacquer them and learn to play musical instruments.

At the end of the day, after finishing the farm work, the club’s members gather together to practise for the new show.

The pond behind his house was transformed into the water stage for the puppet performance.

The Minh Tân club performs four to five shows per month at this pond. Many tourists from inside and outside the country have arrived here to watch the original puppet shows performed by talented farmers.  

Tuân, 56, inherited the skills to make wooden puppets from his ancestors – a skill set that has been passed down in the village for over 500 years. He earns his living by making wooden puppets.

The sale of traditional wooden puppets from Bảo Hà and puppet performances are famous attractions for local and international tourists.

The traditional art of puppetry and the statue-making craft has enabled the village to become a tourist destination as part of the successful Rural Tour run by local operators.

Visitors to the village are amazed by the ancient statues and local puppet shows, and they love to visit workshops that produce puppets or a wide range of statues.

The village turned a new page when it was recently added to a tourist itinerary called the Countryside Tour.

Tour guides bring visitors to the village temple, and then the local farmers stage puppet shows using wooden puppets handcrafted in the village. The shows are staged in the village’s large courtyard where visitors sit, drink tea and eat roasted sweet potatoes. — VNS

Raising buffalo: Đào Minh Tuấn shows a wooden puppet at his workshop in the village.
An artisan carves sculptures at a workshop in Bảo Hà village. File Photo
Puppets displayed at a local workshop. File Photo

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