Aquatic puppetry entertains President Mukherjee in Vietnam

By Vikas Datta,

Hanoi : Arriving in Vietnam on a four-day state visit, President Pranab Mukherjee did not immediately engage in statecraft with his hosts having arranged an entertaining diversion for him — a show of famed Water Puppets featuring water-spouting dragons, harvesting and other scenes of pastoral life as well as re-enaction of legends.

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Accorded a guard of honour as he alighted here Sunday, the president after a brief stop at his hotel, reached the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre in the picturesque Old Quarter area for a special show showcasing 14 original items out of the 400-plus repertoire of this ancient Vietnamese art.

President Mukherjee, and the delegation which comprises Petroleum and Natural Gas Minister Dharmendra Pradhan and six MPs including Supriya Sule of the NCP, Pervesh Verma of the BJP and K.V. Thomas of the Congress, sat entranced through the more than hour long show, which featured classic turns like “Dragon’s Dance”, “Catching frogs”, “Chasing the fox that tries to catch ducks”. “Eight Fairies’ Dance” and “Buffalo-boy playing the flute” – which bore an uncanny resemblance to another famous young cowherd in Indian mythology.

Water Puppetry, or “Mua roi nuoc (puppets that dance on water)” differs from the traditional form insofar the puppets, made of wood and then lacquered, are not manipulated from above by strings, or from below like the glove variety but by an apparently more difficult manner from under water, with the set itself a pool of waist deep water.

The puppeteers – more than half of which were women in Sunday’s performance – themselves are hidden behind a bamboo screen of the pagoda which forms the backdrop, while a traditional Vietnamese orchestra, comprising percussion (drums, wooden bells, gongs and cymbals), woodwind (horns and flutes) and strings (monochord), provides background music accompaniment as well as singers to recite the story.

Originating in Vietnam’s Red River Delta in the 11th century when villagers turned to such pastimes to entertain each other in the flooded paddy fields, the key motifs are thus based on seasonal rhythms of rural life – activities like sowing and harvesting, fishing and protection of livestock and other animals.

Frequently, legends and folks beliefs also form inspirations – like “Xa thuong” featuring hymns of the cult of Holy Mothers, or “Le Loi returning the sword” about a local resistance leader who successfully fought off foreign invaders in the 15th century with the aid of a celestial sword, subsequently taken back by Kim Quay or the golden tortoise god as Le Loi was boating on a Hanoi lake, or those featuring the frolics of fairies or creatures like dragons, the phoenix, unicorns and the tortoise.

All these three – especially the legendary creatures whose engaging and endearing frolics singly and then jointly – formed a part of Sunday’s show whose art director was eminent artist Nguyen Hong Tuan.

President Mukherjee earlier said he was keen to see the art.

In an informal chat with media persons on the presidential plane on way to Hanoi, he said he was quite familiar with the traditional Bengali puppetry but was yet to see this variant based and performed on a water setting.

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at [email protected])