A zat pwe

A zat pwe is the most popular of several different types of pwe, a generic Burmese term for traditional theatrical performances encompassing plays, dramas, musical operas and classical dance. The zat pwe combined music,dance and drama into a play with a religious theme and was staged during pagoda festivals and by travelling troupes in rural villages. This view shows a pair of classical dancers, who are supported by a band of musicians playing a variety of percussion and wind instruments which typically make up an outdoor ensemble or hsaing. These include bamboo clappers, cymbals, flutes,and drums. The circular frames in which two musicians sit are drum and gong instruments.

Zat Pwe Duet Dance

All-night performances, which combine melodrama, slapstick, traditional dance,and

even pop music are called "zat pwe" in Burma. These seasonal events are staged in enclosed temporary bamboo theaters and are typically part of annual fund raising activities at pagoda festivals. The performers are traveling troupes, usually several dozen professional male and female dancers, musicians, comedians, and actors. These troupes travel widely throughout the country. The Duet Dance,a standard part of the Zat Pwe, typically starts near 2- or 3-AM, and has a duration of about two hours.Generally the lead actors dance with the lead actresses. The male dancers make a displayç often with highly athletic and inventive elements. The male and female dancers sing in duet and exchange lover's vows.There is often a competitive aspect to see who in the troupe can win the favor of the loudest cheers. During all of this, the orchestra must synchronize to the action occurring on the stage. When done with excellence, this dance can create national fame for the troupe.



A pwe is an all night opera, with dramatic elements, songs and dance. Performances often last several days and nights and are often part of festivals featured on the ritual calendar. According to Countries and Their Cultures: “ Popular performances often combine musicç dance, and drama in a pwe ("show"). These shows take place at fairs, religious festivals, weddings, funerals, and sporting events. They generally are held at night and can go on all night long. A pwe typically includes performances based on legends and Buddhist epics; comedy skits; singing, dancing, and music; and sometimes a puppet show.

Performances by traveling "pwe" group often seem more like a battle of wills than a show. The dancers, actors and clowns in the troupe perform slapstick comedy skits and sing narrative songs that often last until dawn when only a few members of the audience remain. Describing an all-night pwe in Mandalay, Kate Wheeler wrote in the New York Times. “In a theater of lashed-together bamboo...a lover sang in obvious romantic agony to a well-dressed princess who remained half hidden behind a tree. Amid wild, loud, Burmese music,he suddenly draws a saber to stab himself and sank slowly to the ground in a limbo-like move. No one clapped, as if the crowd were far too mesmerized”.
Describing anyeint pwe, a vaudevillian variety show of singing, dancing and comedy skits, in the 1920s, George Orwell wrote: “The music struck up and the pwe-girl began dancing again. Her face was powdered so thickly that it gleamed in the lamplight like a chalk mask with live eyes behind it ... The music changed its tempo, and the girl began to sing in a brassy voice ... (she) turned round and danced with her buttocks protruding towards the audience. Her silk longyi (sarong) gleamed like metal. With hands and elbows still rotating she wagged her posterior from side to side. Then astonishing feat, quite visible through the longyi; she began to wriggle her buttocks independently in time with the music.”


Modern pwe can very loud, with those living near a performance site learning to endure the ruckus or staying up all night whether they want to or not. Steven Martin wrote in Time magazine, “The pwe lasts all night, with the final curtain descending at dawn, but in Orwell's day there was no mountain of speakers on either side of the stage blasting music and voices over a wide radius of neighborhood. From my hotel in Mandalay, I could hear the caco-phony of no less than three of these shows reverberating through the walls. At first I found the amplified strains and alien tongues pleasing to my sense of the exotic, but after two nights of fitful sleep,I began to loathe Mandalay's taste in entertainment.

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Zat Pwe, Burmese Dance-Drama

Zat pwe is the classical form of dance-drama in Myanmar. It often includes sung passages as well. The Buddhist Jataka stories or their adaptations form the most popular literary material for these dramas, hence the name “zat”, which indicates a Jataka. Stories are, however, also derived from Burmese history. Traditionally, these kinds of plays, accompanied by a saing orchestra, dominated by percussion instruments, lasted the whole night.

The art of Myanmar zat-pwe is one of the subtlest and most elusive of arts and trying to explain it is like capturing a moon beam to analyze its power over lovers and poets. Zat-pwe is deeply rooted in the traditions of the country and has many conventions which are not easily understood by a casual spectator. Myanmar's monarchical tradition has given the zat-pwe the glorious music and songs as well as court dramas of great poetic beauty. Most of the zats (stories or plots) are drawn from Buddhist scriptures and from there. the zat artists draw their inspiration and help to interpret to the laymen the Buddhist thought the way of life. (Source: Myanmar Travel Information)

Since elements of opera, ballet and music are woven into the zat-pwe, the whole thing is a wonderful piece created by the teamwork of artists; but the artists themselves are fiercely individualistic, each expressing himself or herself with such freedom that it makes you marvel at the spontaneous coordination that is finally achieved.One Burmese scholar wrote: “Because of its individual style, that is characteristic of Myanmar we cannot look at zat-pwe through colored spectacles of foreign manufacture….a mistake I made. when I viewed it with eyes dimmed by half-baked ideas I had gathered after scanning through ancient Greek dramas, Shakespeare and modern English plays for the purpose of passing an examination. In those days I had so much to say about zat conventions and practices; "There is no classification of tragedy and comedy. It lacks realism. No proper attention is given to the plot. The scenes are long and drawn-out. There is no unity of time or space. There's the nha-par-thwar scene, with one mintha and six or eight minthamis singing and dancing; it's hardly decent. because it is like flinging the mintha's Cassanova activities in the public's face. As for lun-khan why should there be ngo-gyins (wailing songs) enough to make us a nation of pessimists? … et cetera. et cetera. Yes. there was a time when I said all these and much more."

“Today, I take back all the things I had said and I feel both humble and happy in the realization that I had been blind to the beauties of the zat-pwe which I recently discovered after thirty years of turning my impertinent back upon the traditional Myanmar entertainment. Today. zat-pwe is still misinterpreted and much injustice is being done to it in futile attempts to evict decadent influences that are as natural as weeds in a flower garden. One cannot be too careful not to injure the blooms in pruning away the undesirable under-growths.

Ingo Stoevesandt wrote in his blog on The Music of Southeast Asia: All performances feature two lead actors: The "mintha" (prince) and the "minthamee" (princess). Their customs and requisites were traditionally very simple, but this changed during the 19th century, when the center of each play was the weeping song "ngo chin" of the mintha. Religious themes also play a big role in several folk traditions: The "Nebathkin" groups ("little story tellers") were inherited by monks during the Pagan period. Actors move around in vehicles and stop their movement on a gong signal, thus depicting the stories of Buddha’s life. Most of the travelling drum ensembles ("yi") share at least one dancer, a characteristic found in traditional Burmese dance and music. In the old daysç a ring of oxcarts functioned as the stageç with the actors masks hung on polesç while the actors and musicians perform in the center of the audience.


Nha-Par-Thwar Scene in Zat Pwe

The Nha-par-thwar scene a famous scene in zat pwe performance in the old days used to be a duet of dancing and singing by the mintha (hero) and minthami (heroine). Later, probably to meet the demands of the audience, new attractions were introduced such as one mintha with many minthamis in the scene. The dancing and singing of each minthami in nha-par-thwar scene symbolize different facets of feminine charm, with the mintha responding with varying moods to each act by the minthamis. A skilled mintha not only has dance and sing a duet, he also has to display subtle artistry in responding to the infinite variety of provocations by his minthamis.

The Burmese scholar wrote: “The nha-par-thwar scene in the hands of a consummate artist blossoms forth as a thing of beauty, but when a lesser performer enacts it, it becomes nothing but a vulgar sham a Cassanova shamelessly flaunting his amours and bringing out the worst side of man's baser instincts. Ngo-gyins (wailing songs) used to worry me a lot: "There are too many of them in zat-pwes enough to drive the whole country mad; we shall become a nation of pessimists . . ." Now I realise all that kind of high and mighty talk is nothing but a pose. a wiser-than-thou attitude acquired through having a smattering of education; for when Daw Ah Mar's book on the three great minthas, Aung-ba-la, Po Sein and Sein-ga-done came out complete with texts of ngogyins sung by the great three I found myself warbling the half-forgotten tunes of my younger days to the astonishment of my family. Only then did I remember how I had enjoyed them both at zat-pwe and on the discs played on the trusty gramophone, fitted with a fluted horn.
“I have discovered that ngo-gyin is not a dolorous wailing song as scholars suggests. Zat-pwe being partly operatic, most of the dialogue is wholly or party sung to music of the orchestra, the ngo-gyin is somewhat, if not wholly, similar to the arias of the western operas. Ngo-gyins are sung both as soliloquies and also in dialogue and they are sung to express lyrical emotion. The histrionic and singing art of ngo-gyin deserves a comprehensive treatment with reference to texts sung by great artists.

“One of the many mistakes I made in assessing zat-pwe is that I deplored the lack of realism. which I now realise is a stupid thing; for. who wants realism in the fantastic world of make believe created by dance. song and music? If I was not prepared to be transported into a realm of] suspension of disbelief I should not have gone to a zat-pwe in the first place. I should rather be left to wallow in the slime of realities that life has to offer in abundance. Zat-pwe is thoroughly Myanmar, very much in keeping with the national character. I hope I shall never stop enjoying its beauties that custom cannot stale. I hope I shall never be such a dull piece of goods that the stirring music of nat-chin, the music of the nat-ka-daw dance, which usually opens a zat-pwe, fails to make my heart beat to its tune. I pray that I may never have a soul so dead that the dance of the belus. zawgyis. and nagas fails to fill me with a sense of wonder and insight into human aspirations symbolized by these mythical creatures. 


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