The Magic of Myanmar Zat-Pwe

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Myanmar zat pwes have not lost their hold on us in spite of the invasion of movies and other forms of entertainment. One essential feature in the Myanmar zat-pwe is that we do not look for realism on the Myanmar stage. The dance, song and music build a fantastic world of make believe.

That is why the zat-pwe cannot be appreciated when one tends to be rational.
The purpose of zat-pwe is to entertain and to convey a few truths for us to live by. Most of the stories enacted are from the Buddha's birth stories whose moral values are universally recognized.
Nuggets of wisdom
Decades ago, people from rural areas owed their education to monasteries and zat-pwe in that order. Many of the great artistes of the Myanmar stage learned literature in monasteries and they gave the audience nuggets of wisdom through their songs and lines spoken on the stage.
Stage characters
Like all dramatic arts, the Myanmar stage has its own stock in trade characters like belu (ogre), zawgyi (demi-god with miraculous powers), nat (celestial being), naga (sea dragon) and yathe (hermit). There are also dramatic situations that help to symbolise certain abstracts ideas.
Belu, naga, zawgyi and nat are colourful characters that are sheer delight to the audience. The belu dance is a poetic composition of grace, ruthless virility and elusive swiftness, the one that fills the audience with awe and admiration. The zawgyi dance is colourful, thrilling, and full of gusto and bounce.
One does not naturally pause to think if there is such a creature as belu or zawgyi. One does not put poetry under a microscope.These mythical dances are to be enjoyed, not to be rationalised.
Many of the dramatic stories are not credible; for instance, the story of the,princess born out of a lotus bud. It is neither rational nor scientific; but who wants to be that, when we are watching the beautiful princess come out of the lotus bud singing:
At the soft tender caress of zephyr
The padonma lotus petals unfold;
And I, the goddess maid, come forth.

The princess born out of a lotus bud symbolises the flawless virtue of the princess and her ethereal beauty. The whole scene with all the dance and music is a hymn to womanhood.
Virtue versus sin
One of the popular scenes in Myanmar zat is the seduction of the virtuous woman by either a belu or a zawgyi. In Rama zat, the princess is left alone in the forest with a line drawn around her; she must not go beyond, the line drawn on the ground. Then the belu comes in the guise of a holy man and tells the princess he will not accept her offerings unless she comes out of the bounds. It is presumed that the belu cannot cross the line drawn on the ground and take her away.
To the rational mind, it sounds ridiculous that a belu cannot cross the line drawn on the ground. But then, the line symbolises the bound of propriety that a virtuous wife should not overstep. When the princess goes beyond that bound, she exposes herself to the evil machinations of the belu.
Zat-pwe; medium of education
This is meant to be a warning to women. In the days of our grandmother there were few books to read, no women's magazines, no lonely hearts column. Zat-pwes were the medium of their education.
It isa stroke of genius that the villain who tempts the virtuous heroine is either a belu or a zawgyi. The drama of conflict is between virtue (personified by the heroine) and sin (personified by the belu or zawgyi). Sin is not represented in a repulsive form, in which case, it might be easier for the heroine to resist, but it will weaken the dramatic force.
When sin is personified in the attractive figure of either a belu or zawgyi, conflict becomes more intense. In representing sin as colourful characters the dramatics must have been carried away by their own emotions. When Milton presented Satan he could not help adding colourful strokes that came very near glorifying the villain. It is human to be attracted by the glamour of sin, as moths are by the glare of light.
Sin appears on the stage virile, graceful, ruthless, and full of dignity like belu, or sometimes colourful, mysterious, playful and teasing like the zawgyi. The resistance of the virtuous woman against such an antagonist heightens the drama.
Mythical beings: no play complete without them
One of the mythical characters that seems to be most unsatisfactory is the nat without whom no play is complete, even though he does not seem to do anything at all. His function is, however, as indispensable in Myanmar drama as the Chorus is in Greek drama. They are commentators, not emotionally involved in the plot.
The play moves on, its characters loving, hating, laughing, weeping, everyone tossed by the waves of passion, but there has to be a character who is like a rock even though everyone around him has gone berserk. Such a character in Greek plays is the Chorus, usually represented as Father Time.
Our nats and hermits serve the same function as the Chorus, but they are more attractive. Unlike the Chorus they do not stand apart from the plot. They participlate in the plot but do not interfere with it.
the nat or hermit that some special message or moral lesson is conveyed to us.
It is complete suspension of disbelief, sheer delight in music and songs we seek in a zat pwe. All this and moral lessons too!
Dramatic conventions
The example of the part played by the nat or a hermit can be illustrated by a stock dramatic plot. A baby prince is left in a burial ground, because there is a war going on between his father and another king. The baby is picked up by a poor goat-herd and brought up as his own son Since the next scene must show the baby as sixteen-year-old, something has to be done to bridge the passage of time. So in between the two scenes, a hermit or a nat comes out and comments on the evils of war and greed and soliloquises on the fate of the young prince in the house of a poor goat-herd; to make things easy for him, the nat or the hermit bathes the baby in a magic pond. And lo! and behold! a young prince rises out of the pond with appropriate music and songs uttering declamations.
Deus ex machina
We ask why should this hermit or the nat with such miraculous powers appear only after things have gone too bad? Where was he when all the war and killing took place? Why can't he prevent the horrid war that deprives the baby of his parents? But then we forget that if the nat or the hermit could prevent that war there would be no plot, no zat at all.
We come to see the pwe not to ask questions but to enjoy. And it is often through the lines spoken by the nat or hermit that some special message or moral lesson is conveyed to us.
It is complete suspension of disbelief, sheer delight in music and songs we seek in a zat pwe. All this and moral lessons too!




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