An Overview
Multiple functions of Indian Puppetry
Skilled Craft of Indian Puppetry
Inanimate to Animate in Indian Puppetry
Legend & Geneis of Indian Puppets
Categories of Puppets

India has a long tradition of rod puppets and its impact had spread far and wide. According to Bill Baird in his book The Art of the Puppet, "Bengal had created a rod puppet style which I believe moved eastward with Hinduism and became the Wayang Golek (Java), performed with three-dimensional wooden figures that are manipulated with rods". Rod puppets are, however, seen in India only in the States of West Bengal, Orissa and Jharkhand.

Dancer, Putul Nautch, West Bengal

The tradition of rod puppet in Bengal goes back to the end of fourteenth century and known as a Putul Natch (Puppet dance), with an emphasis on operatic singing and performance of a Jatra (folk play). The dancing and the acting elements of the performance are hinged on the traditions of Ramayana, Mahabharata and Puranas.

Rama & Laxman, West Bengal

The southern region of West Bengal has prevalence of rod puppets, known as Danger Putul (wooden doll). The puppet troupes are found scattered over the villages. In winter season, the puppet troupes are away from home showing their art at numerous village fairs. Most of the puppeteers are farmers, having little or no land. There are families that have been engaged in it for four generations. Puppeteers are mostly Hindus with a sprinkling of Muslims. There is no strong religious bias or orthodoxy displayed by them. All the troupes shows extreme reverence to the puppets which are often kept in places, considered sacred. The level of education among puppeteers is generally low.

The rod puppet of West Bengal is made of wood and clay. The body is painted on wood, but they give a clay-and-cloth layer on the face and paint on it. Drawings are strongly related to the style of pat painting, using primary colours. They use oil colours and varnish. Puppets have holes in both their hands to insert bow, arrow, etc., in the hole. For a single puppet-body there are several heads, so that replacing only the head and costumes can change the character of the puppet.

The head is mounted on a rod, inserted through the body. Usually puppets have no joint on their left hand, but the right arm has a joint at elbow. The dancer-puppet has joints at the wrists and waist as well. The Krishna puppet has only the right leg. The other puppets do not have legs at all. Each troupe marshals 20 to 25 puppet bodies and 2 to 3 times that number of heads. There are animal heads as well. Some puppeteers use animal masks, such as, monkey or lion.

The stage is made of bamboo-poles and cloth, and is 6.5 x 3.25 metre and the height is 3.5 metres. It is covered on all four sides and the roof, except at the front where there is an opening at a height of 1.5 metre, is covered with a main curtain. The backdrop is a painted scene and so is the side wing. The backdrops are several in numbers depicting, say, a palace, a river, a forest or a crematorium, and are changed according to the theme.

Painted Backdrop of Putul Natch, West Bengal

The troupes perform a ritual song in their temporary abode, before coming to the stage. The lighting is done by petromax or electricity. A concert is played to attract the crowd. The prior act is a performance by Krishna and Balaram puppets to the accompaniment of a song, followed by a dance sequence or by acrobatic performances. Plays are mostly myths and legends, now replaced by the operatic plays. The song-and-dance sequences are often changed so as to mimic favourite film-or-theatre actors. Historical and social dramas are also performed, mostly taken from the popular Jatra).

The puppet is put into a Kenre (bamboo-holder) tied to the waist of the puppeteer. The head is held by one of his hands, while his other hand manipulates the arms of the puppet by chords. The manipulator handles the puppets, on one-to-one basis, according to the spoken dialogue. The man who manipulates the dancer-puppet ties ghunghroo (bells) in his anklets and dances with the puppet. The puppets are about a metre high and the weight varies between 5 and 15 kilos.

Teams comprise 15 to 18 persons each. There is one main singer and 2 to 3 for chorus. The play lasts for about 3 hours. Sur Master (main singer) sings by himself and often composes the tunes. When they hold shows in fairs, they make the play last 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Generally, the owner of the group acts as a manager. The costumes, make-up and jewellery are imitative of Jatra. The puppets are kept in wooden boxes, with bodies kept in basket, with costumes and ornaments kept separately. Harmonium, clarinet, cornet, nagara, cymbal, flute, Kansi (brass plate struck by a wooden stick) and sometimes violin are used to the accompaniment of folk songs and tunes of popular Bengali modern songs.

Generally, new puppets are not made for new production, only the costume is changed according to the play. The actors who speak the dialogues use microphone these days and can prepare a new play within 2 days. Puppets enter from left side of the stage and exit from the same side. Musicians and actors are seated on the right side of the stage.


Rod puppets are called Kathi Kundhei. The puppet, made of Sola pith, is fastened to the rod and is manipulated from below with the help of chords. Beside the head movement, hands and often legs are moved. The rod puppets are 12 to 18 inches long. The manipulator kneels down behind a curtain, holding the puppets above him for the performance. Most dialogues are rendered through music, which is a blend of folk and classical tunes. The show invariably starts with Stuti (ritual music) that goes to show the religious association of the puppetry. The themes are built around the epics and fairy tales, though social stories are often resorted to these days.


In Chhotanagpur region, there is a rod puppet tradition generally practised by the tribes. It is manipulated from below by chord. The show lasts for 15 to 20 minutes. Puppets are made of wood and are a foot high. Faces have a layer of clay and clothes, duly coloured. The stage is 5 feet from the ground and 7.5 x 7.5 feet in length and breadth. Coarse clothes cover three sides, with the front side covered up to 5 feet. Kerosene lamps are used. Musicians sit outside the stage and use Shehnai, Robka (like Nagara), Dhol and Manjira. Musicians play folk tunes and puppets dance with the tune, with 2 to 4 puppets used per dance. The ticketed shows are generally performed in fairs. Songs are composed in the tribal languages.


Rod puppets troupes in West Bengal and Orissa are slowly facing extinction. Many of the puppeteers supplement their income with other forms of occupation, e.g., agriculture, weaving and fishing. The puppeteers are not willing to teach their art to their children for the fear that they would not be able to make a living out of it. Thus, this traditional art is moving towards oblivion. In Jharkhand, the tribal rod puppets have never been much in evidence and are seen only in remote areas during the fairs.

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