An Overview
Multiple functions of Indian Puppetry
Skilled Craft of Indian Puppetry
Inanimate to Animate in Indian Puppetry
Introduction

Puppetry, like other forms of performing arts, is widely accepted in life. Like theatre, puppetry presents live characters on the stage and, through the disappearance of the 'fourth wall', brings them into flesh-and-blood contact with the audience. Puppetry calls for a willing suspension of disbelief --- through symbolic representation of real characters through puppets. The audience is persuaded to accept the icons as representation of reality and, through this representation, gets involved heart and soul!

Religious Source

Puppetry in India is deeply rooted in its religious ethos. Most traditional puppet-shows are embedded in its religious fairs and festivals, narrating stories of the gods and goddesses in order to seek their blessings. When, at the turn of the millennium, the Sri Vijaya empire spread to the South Asian countries like Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia and Sri Lanka, religious messages were carried far and wide with the epic tales and the Puranic legends, forming the staple of puppetry in those countries as indeed for all other performing arts.

Ritual Base

The Indian connection between rituals and puppets are endemic in almost all its states. All puppeteers perform several ritual ceremonies before a puppet-show begins. The pre-show worship of Ganesha and his invocation, followed by performance of Purva Ranga, are all part of rituals to please the gods and to let it be performed on sacred ground. The performance itself is interpreted to rid the locality of its pests and pestilence, and bring peace and prosperity to all members of the audience who have reverentially watched the show.

Royal Patronage

As traditional puppeteers were mostly itinerant people, royal patronage counted a lot for their continued survival and sustenance, as they moved from place to place with their shows. The royalty, in turn, often intervened to use the performances for narrating stories of their own heroism as well as conveying royal edicts and instructions to the common man. Perhaps, puppetry served as an important popular medium in the absence of the mass communications possible today! Many kings of Rajasthan had their tales of chivalry taken to countryside through string puppets. The stories, for instance, of Prithviraj Chauhan and Amar Singh Rathod were woven around puppetry and are popular till today in the villages and towns of Rajasthan. Once such patronage declined, financial conditions of the puppeteers deteriorated rapidly. Absence of patronage --- royal and feudal --- is one single factor for the decadence of a thriving traditional theatre.

Nomadic Spread

The nomadic and gypsy groups in India boosted puppetry. While Maharashtra saw the migration of puppeteers from Gujarat, the grand master of shadow puppets from Maharashtra went to the south and spread the art in that region. The nomadic groups had two streams: literate in Tamil who could quote from the original Ramayana and Mahabharata, and the rest who settled in Bijapur and East Karnataka, not literate in Tamil. These groups belonged to various castes and it was a very impressive spread, thanks to the sustained efforts of the nomadic artists.

Conclusion

There are many other sources of traditional puppet-groups and their repertoires. The religious and ritual origin is evident till today when we find puppeteers, from Indonesia and India, who begin their show with prayers to the gods and look upon their puppets as divine manifestation. They do not allow the good characters to get mingled with the evil ones and, at the end of the show, put back the puppets with great reverence. This sense of dignity, bordering on awe, brings out the touch of divinity in puppetry, which persists still, -- not merely in the racial memory of puppeteers, but also in the living continuity of their art.

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