Myanmar’s population, cultures and languages are diverse, with the Bama or Burmans, making up 68% of the population, forming the majority ethnic and linguistic group. Theravada Buddhism is the predominant religion of the Burmans. Myanmar also has a pre-Buddhist Animist tradition that worships a pantheon of spirits, each referred to as a “Nat.” Nat worship is often incorporated into Buddhist practice in Myanmar, as is illustrated within the context of zat pwe, where performers make offerings first to the Buddha to cultivate mindfulness, and then to a Nat who, when propitiated, will bless them with a successful performance. The zat pwe takes place within the context of religious ceremonies. They are sometimes sponsored by donors in the community who wish to gain merit by hiring troupes for Buddhist Pagoda festivals.
Zat in Burmese refers to the jatakas, the 550 stories from India of the Buddha’s earlier incarnations that serve to instruct moral behavior. Zat in Burmese also refers to a troupe of performers and an all-night outdoor variety show performance (pwe). The culture, history and artistic languages of zat are known as zat thabin: the world of zat theater which reflects the culture of Myanmar, past and present.
The zat pwe format was modeled on marionette theater (yok thay pwe) and became the human expression of marionettes dramatizing the jataka tales. Marionettes were the dramatic characters narrating the Buddhist jatakas in both the royal court, as well as among subjects. In the late 18th century, the court issued edicts about high and low drama: high drama was the telling of jatakas with music by marionettes, whereas human dancers were relegated to low drama.
As zat thabin actors and dancers took on the characters from marionette jataka dramas, some of the movements of the marionettes were exaggerated through human imitation, and embellished by elegant royal court dance classical movements of great early 20th century dancers such as Aung Bala, Sein Gadon and Po Sein. Audiences were enraptured by the intimately familiar marionette movements and tempos: the stylized gestures imitating the jerkiness of puppets; stiff hands; the human “marionette” crashing to the floor at a coda; and female dancers kicking a trailing white train with their feet. The close relationship in movement styles between classical Myanmar dance and the long tradition of marionettes in Myanmar have merited much commentary over centuries
Passage quoted from Asia Society