Puppetry in India – Types and Key Aspects

Puppetry in India – Types and Key Aspects
Puppets or “Kathputli” is an ancient and popular form of folk entertainment. Egyptians are probably the earliest known puppeteers. String Puppets of wood performing the action of kneading bread is the oldest evidence of puppets in Egypt as early as 2000 BC. Puppetry in India must have originated earlier than 5th century B.C. In the 2nd century the Tamil poet Tiruvalluvar mentioned about `marionettes moved by strings` in his compositions. The mention of the `pavai koothu` in the Tamil epic Silappadhikareita by Ilango Adigal is also very significant regarding the history of puppetry. In Srimad  Bhagvata, the God Almighty has been likened to a puppeteer who with three strings-Sattva, Rajas and Tamas-manipulates all the beings in the created universe.
There are four types of puppets glove, rod, shadow and string. They are differentiated based on the different ways of manipulation of puppets. Below is a short description of the type and the states in India which have these arts:

1. Glove Puppets 

The glove puppets are worn on hands just like a glove. The middle finger and thumb act as hands of the puppet and the index finger acts as the head. Also known as hand puppets these are a small figure having head and arms wearing a long skirt as its dress. One puppeteer can perform with two puppets at a time.
Indian states which are known for these arts.
  • Glove puppets in Kerala are called Pava-kathakali. The puppets are very colorful and created like a kathakali actor who wears heavy and mask-like facial make-up, headgear and colorful costumes. The height of a puppet varies from one foot to two feet. The head and the arms are carved of wood and joined together with thick cloth, cut and stitched into a small bag. The theme for Glove puppet plays in Kerala is based on the episodes from either the Ramayana or the Mahabharata.
  • Kundhei nach are the glove puppets of Orissa. These are made of three wooden pieces consisting of the head and the two hands with holes for inserting fingers. The wooden pieces are joined in a lon flowing costume. The puppeteer plays on the dholak with one hand and manipulates the puppet with the other. The delivery of the dialogues, the movement of the puppet and the beat of the dholak are well synchronized and create a dramatic atmosphere.

2. Rod Puppets

The rod puppets are manipulated by rods of various types and sizes. These puppets have mostly three joints. The heads, supported by the main rod, is joined at the neck and both hands attached to rods are joined at the shoulders. The main holding rod that supports the puppet may be hidden by a robe or costume of the puppet. The action rods are usually connected to the hands of the puppet and manipulated by the puppeteer to show action. The body and hands have a bamboo base covered and plastered with hay and rice husk mixed and moulded into required shape. Due to the absence of legs the puppets are draped in a saree or dhoti as per the character. The puppet movements are highly dramatic.
Indian states which are known for these arts.
  • West Bengal has a rich tradition of rod puppetry called putul nach (dancing dolls). The puppeteers, each holding a puppet, perform from behind a head-high bamboo curtain. They move and dance while manipulating the rods attached to the puppets. The puppets are 1 ½ meter in height built over 2 ½ meter long bamboo. Plays based on Ramayana, Satee Behula legends are enacted through puppets.
  • In Orissa Kathi Kandhe is the art of Rod Puppetry. The Orissa Rod puppets are much smaller in size, usually about twelve to eighteen inches. Stories based on mythology, fantasy and social themes are adopted by the rod puppeteers. The puppeteers squat on the ground behind a screen and manipulate. Again it is more operatic in its verbal contents since impromptu prose dialogues are infrequently used. Most of the dialogues are sung.
  • The traditional Rod puppet of Bihar is known as Yampuri. These puppets are made of wood. These puppets are in one piece and have no joints. Since these puppets have no joints, the manipulation is different from other Rod puppets and requires greater skills.

3. Shadow Puppets

Shadow puppets are flat puppets that are operated against the rear of a tightly stretched white cloth screen. They are cut out of leather, which has been treated to make it translucent. Shadow puppets are pressed against the screen with a strong source of light behind it. The manipulation between the light and the screen make silhouettes or colourful shadows for the viewers who sit in front of the screen. The puppet shapes or cutouts are perforated and split bamboo or cane sticks are attached vertically to the puppet for handling and manipulation. The Shadow puppet theatre is practiced in the states of Andhra Pradesh (Tholu Bommalata), Karnataka (Togalu Gombeyata), Kerala (Tolpavakoothu), Maharashtra (chamadyache Bahulya), Orissa, and Tamil Nadu (Tolpavaikoothu).
Indian states which are known for these arts:
  • Tholu Bommalata, Andhra Pradesh’s shadow theatre has the richest and strongest tradition. Tholu Bommalata, meaning dance of leather puppets (tholu – leather, bommalata – puppet dance). The puppets are brightly colored and are made out of goat skin. These leather puppets are about 5-6 ft. in height and have joints at shoulders, elbows, knees and sometimes also the waist, neck and ankles. They are colored on both sides and throw colored shadows on the screen. Traditionally, vegetable dyes are used for coloring the puppets. The music is dominantly influenced by the classical music of the region and the theme of the puppet plays are drawn from the Ramayana, Mahabharata and Puranas. There are number of families who have adapted this art form to create product  for daily use like production of decorative lampshades, wall hangings etc.
  • In Kanataka the leather or shadow puppets are locally called togalu (leather) gombe-atta (puppet dance) of Karnataka. These puppets are mostly small in size. The puppets however differ in size according to their social status, for instance, large size for kings and religious characters and smaller size for common people or servants. The themes for the puppet plays are drawn from epics and puranic literature and a number of characters like clowns, dancers, etc, which are presented in almost all plays.
  • The Ratnagiri area of Maharashtra has a shadow puppetry art known locally as Chamadyache Bahulya. These shadow puppets have no jointed limbs and are delicately colored with vegetable dyes. Episodes from Ramayana are narrated using folk tunes. This form is also in the brink of extinction.
  • Orissa’s Ravanachhaya shadow puppetry is the most theatrically exciting puppet show. These puppets are smaller in size-the largest not more than two feet have no jointed limbs. The puppets are made of deer skin and are conceived in bold dramatic poses.  Held close to a white cloth screen against an oil-lamp, shadows are distinctly visible to the spectators who sit on the other side. They are not colored, hence throw opaque shadows on the screen. The manipulation requires great dexterity, since there are no joints. Apart from human and animal characters, many props such as trees, mountains, chariots, etc. are also used. Episodes from Ramayana are shown.
  • The shadow puppets in Tamil Nadu are known as Thol Bommalattam (shadow puppetry). The puppets are made of goat skin without any perforations. Stories from Ramayana and Mahabaratha are enacted. There are very few families now performing shadow puppet shows in villages. This poor situation is due to decline in the popularity of puppetry and development of cinema and other modern entertainment in villages.

 4. String Puppets

Rajasthan String Puppet
India has a rich and ancient tradition of string puppets or marionettes. String puppets are made of wood, or wire, or cloth stuffed with cotton, rags or saw dust. The puppet is suspended from a hand held control strings that are attached to different parts of the puppet’s body. Marionettes having jointed limbs controlled by strings allow far greater flexibility and are, therefore, the most articulate of the puppets. The puppet is manipulated by operating the control as well as by loosening or pulling the relevant string(s).
The string puppet also known as marionettes has jointed body and limbs that allow movement. Some of the traditional string puppets are very heavy. For the convenience of manipulation and support, two rods are attached to the hands of the puppets.
Indian states which are known for these arts:
  • In Assam string puppet shows locally called putal-nach are prevalent in the plains of Assam. The body and hands of the puppets are made of soft wood. The sizes of the puppets vary from 1 ½ ft to 2 ½ ft. Human figure puppets have movable joints for manipulation. The flowing cloth to cover the bottom portion and hence there is no need of legs. Stories from Indian mythology like Ramayana and Mahabaratha are enacted through the puppets.
  • The string puppets of Karnataka are called Gombeyatta. They are styled and designed like the characters of Yakshagana, the traditional theatre form of the region. The puppets have rounded figures with legs, and joints at shoulders, elbows, hips and knees. The Gombeyatta puppet figures are highly stylized. Five or more strings attached to a puppet figure are tied to a rod-like wooden prop. Some of the more complicated movements of the puppet are manipulated by two to three puppeteers at a time. Episodes enacted in Gombeyatta presents stories based on episodes drawn from epics and puranas. The music that accompanies is dramatic and beautifully blends folk and classical elements. The highly dramatic music is a blend of folk and classical style.
  • Maharashtrian string puppets which is on the verge of extinction is called Kalasutri Bahulya. The Kalasutri puppets are small puppets without legs. They have only two joints at the shoulders and are manipulated using strings that are attached to the head and hands of the puppet. Episodes from Ramayana or other epics of the area are narrated through folk tunes.
  • The string puppets of Orissa are known as Gopalila Kundhei. The string puppets are light wooden half-dolls from head to waist with detachable arms. These puppets have no legs but wear long flowing skirts. They have more joints and are, therefore, more versatile, articulate and easy to manipulate. The puppeteers often hold a wooden prop, triangular in shape, to which strings are attached for manipulation. Earlier a mat made of peacock feathers used to be the only back-drop but now painted draperies are being used. The costumes of Kundhei resemble those worn by actors of the Jatra traditional theatre. The music is drawn from the popular tunes of the region and is sometimes influenced by the music of Odissi dance. String puppetry adopts verse-dramas based on mythology, fantasy and social themes, with plenty of interludes of dance and humorous skits.
  • The traditional marionettes of Rajasthan are known as Kathputli. Carved from a single piece of wood, these puppets are like large dolls that are colorfully dressed. Strings are attached to the head for manipulation. The faces are usually painted yellow, white or any light color. The body up to the waist and hands are made of stuffed rags, cotton or cloth bits. The hands have no joints unlike the other string puppets of India. These puppets wear long trailing skirts and do not have legs. Puppeteers manipulate them with two to five strings which are normally tied to their fingers and not to a prop or a support. Popular legendary stories like Amarsingh Rathore, Maharana Pratap or Rani Padmini are enacted with folk music of Rajasthan.
  • Puppets from Tamil Nadu, known as Bommalattam combine the techniques of both rod and string puppets. Bommalattam puppets are the largest, heaviest and the most articulate of all traditional Indian marionettes. The size may be around 4 – 4 ½ ft. in height and many weigh around 8-10 kg. The joints at the shoulders, hips, knees, ankles and wrists give good movement during the puppet manipulation.  They are made of wood and the strings for manipulation are tied to an iron ring which the puppeteer wears like a crown on his head. String puppet plays are based on episodes from epics and puranic literature.
The presentation of puppet programmes involves the creative efforts of many people working together. With the Modern Cinemas and Television grasping most of the audience Puppetry in India is on the brink of extinction. Many of the puppeteers are taking to other professions. Rajasthani String puppets are available on www.theindiacrafthouse.com on the below links:
Video on Shadow Puppetry:

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