A time-honoured practice
Puppeteer Nguyen Thanh Lai, head of the Luy Lau Water Puppetry Troupe, said that his troupe is fully booked all year round, particularly during the New Year celebration. His house is full of wooden marionettes in different shapes of buffalos, horses and Teu – the narrator of every water puppetry play, among others.
A miniature water puppetry stage is being set up in a corner of his garden in order to serve locals and tour groups to the village.
According to Lai, what makes Dong Ngu water puppetry unique is that the marionettes are not controlled by bamboo poles as usual but through strings instead, allowing the marionettes to reach closer to the audiences and perform more poses during the performance.
It requires a lot of hard work and practice by the puppeteers to bring life into the marionettes. They also have to learn how to create narrative voices for the characters in the play.
The plays are accompanied by traditional musical instruments, including drums, horns, dan nguyet (Vietnamese two chord guitar), and dan tranh (16-chord zither), as well as beautiful Quan Ho (love duet singing) melodies.
There are few historical records on the establishment of water puppetry in the village, but it is said that the craft was first practiced at the end of the Ly dynasty (1010-1225) and has undergone many centuries.
80-year-old puppeteer Duong Van Giao still remembers vivid memories from during the 1950s and 1960s when the village’s water peppery troupe used to deliver performances at traditional festivals, which always received thunderous applause from the audience.
Then the wartime came, the troupe had to dissolve due to a lot of difficulties in people’s livelihoods. Puppeteers returned to working fields to earn their living, forcing the practice of water puppetry to gradually fall into oblivion.
It wasn’t until the early 1990s when the local’s living conditions were improved that the villagers joined hands to revive their ancestors’ practice.
Preservation for further development
Artisan Nguyen Dang Dung, head of Dong Ngu Folk Water Puppetry Troupe, said that the villagers encountered numerous challenges in their first efforts to restore and preserve the practice in the late 1980s.
Thanks to their whole-hearted efforts, the practice has been revived with the establishment of two troupes: Dong Ngu and Luy Lau, which have delivered performances to audience across the country.
Veteran puppeteer Duong Van Giao noted with pleasure that the safeguarding and development of water puppetry in Dong Ngu have received a lot of attention from younger villagers, encouraging aged artisans such as him to hand down their experiences to younger successors.
Despite being nearly 80, Giao still joins performance tours nationwide, saying that rapturous applause from the audience brings a great source of power and encouragement for him.
According to artisan Nguyen Dang Dung, more than 200 ancient plays of Dong Ngu water puppetry have been restaged and the performers’ incomes have been improved. Many tour agencies have pinned Dong Ngu on their tour programme, attracting great appreciation among visitors both at home and abroad.
Meanwhile, members of Luy Lau troupe established a mobile stage so that they can deliver performances inside and outside Bac Ninh province. The troupe has also received an offer from a business in Quang Ninh province to deliver regular performances in the province, helping to generate a stable source of income for performers.
More hearteningly, the Bac Ninh provincial People’s Committee recently approved a VND17 billion (US$734,000) project on preserving and promoting the cultural values of Dong Ngu water puppetry. Implemented from 2018 to 2020, the project is also designed to support the setting up and upgrading of performing spaces, theatres, and a sound system in the village.
Thanks to the efforts made by local puppeteers and support from the local authorities, the road to a brighter future of Dong Ngu village’s unique form of water puppetry is wide open.