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
INTRODUCTION

The string puppet is perhaps the most common form of puppetry in India, in common with the rest of the world. Even now, many people understand the puppetry in India as manipulation of string puppets or Kathputli and think of those gorgeous puppets of Rajasthan. In fact, this perception is largely true as string puppets are prevalent in several states of India, namely, Rajasthan, Karnataka, West Bengal, Assam, Orissa, Tripura, Manipur, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala. Another encouraging feature of string puppets is their continued popularity and, indeed, even revival of this form in some states where it had fallen into decline.

Scene from Mahabharata
RAJASTHAN

It is said that puppetry of Rajasthan is more than a thousand years old but there is no written evidence of it. Mainly the Bhat community practises this art termed Kathputli (Kath meaning wood and Putli meaning doll). These people claim that their ancestors had performed for royal families and received great honour and prestige from the rulers of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Punjab. Their legend goes back to the times of the Great King Vikramaditya, of Ujjain whose throne Simhasan Battisi had 32 decorative dolls dancing and doing acrobatic feats. The first Bhat produced a play with 32 puppets on the life and achievements of king Vikramaditya and his progeny performed it for hundreds of years.

Darbar

Much later came Prithiraj Chauhan of Delhi who gave them money to produce a play on his life and achievements. Under the patronage of Amar Singh Rathod of Nagour kingdom, the Bhats produced plays on his reign and heroic death, which are still extant today. The great Moghuls of Delhi loved glamorous and gorgeous entertainment and did not patronise puppets. So the puppeteers had to depend on smaller and inferior landlords who had no money or taste for the art. The Kathputli Bhats were gradually reduced to great penury.

Rajasthan puppets have their own unique speciality. Puppeteers manipulate the puppets with a whistling, squeaking voice and are interpreted by a narrator who also provides the rhythms. The puppets have no legs and movements are free. Their bodies and limbs are made of mango wood and stuffed with cotton. A slight jerk of the string causes the puppets to produce movements of the hands, neck and shoulder. Many puppets hang on one rope: one string tied to the head and other to the waist. The puppeteer makes a loop around his fingers and manipulates the puppet. He takes ghungru (bells) in his hands and plays it according to rhythm. These puppets have a very limited vocabulary, so the movements play a very important part. Puppets are moved towards each other with speed and with swords in their hands in fighting postures. Greetings and salutations are done by bending the puppets and leaving their arms to hang loosely.

In Kathputli the theme is not important. Puppets are generally one and half feet in height and are made in Sawai-Madhopur, Bari and Udaipur. Bhats can make their own puppets. They make the stage by placing two cots together vertically and tying bamboo around them horizontally. A curtain, generally dark in colour, is at the back-stage and a colourful curtain with three arches hangs at the front, called Tiwara or Tajmahal. Most of the puppets are hung on the bamboo at the back-stage. Some puppets, like the acrobats and the wrestlers have legs, but these are not to be manipulated. The dancer Anarkali has four strings. Her limbs are sewn in such a manner that with the slightest jerk several dance-movements can be produced. The Horse rider, Nimbuwala and the Juggler have some intricate movements. A Snake charmer is another attraction of the show. Head of the snake is made of wood and the rest of cloth. The snake charmer is smaller in size than the snake. The announcer is called Kharbar Khan who has a drum tied between his two legs and a stick on his two hands. The puppets are tied with dark strings, which do not show against the dark backdrop, and dim lights are used. Nowadays they use electric lamps.

For the Bhats, puppets are a sort of divinity giving them livelihood, peace, activity and joy. Recently, puppeteers have tried to make the art modern and to introduce different mechanisms for achieving sophisticated manipulation. But they have not been particularly successful.

KARNATAKA

The string puppet play of Karnataka is based on the Yakshagana (folk theatre of Karnataka) style called Gombeatta. The form is believed to have been prevalent in the ninth century, as mentioned in the Puranas. All the ritualistic rigours of the Yakshagana are observed. The string puppets are made of wood. Their costumes are like those worn by the characters from Yakshagana, with the same elaborate make-up, colourful headgear and heavy jewellery.

Ravana - Gombeyatta

The person conducting the show is known as Bhagavathar. He is a sensitive musician and an imaginative storyteller, giving dramatic expressions to the simple or complex situations through the puppets. The contents are drawn from the epics and the Bhagavat Puran.The Maddale and the Shruti (drone) provide the accompaniment. At times, particularly in the war scenes, there is the beating of the Chende (drum) giving a martial rhythm. Two or three accompanists deliver the dialogue. When the Bhagavathar sings, the puppeteers manipulate the puppets with rhythmic movements and gestures. The conversation in prose starts in the background, after the musical canto stops, thus developing the story as defined in the singing, and the puppets respond by way of movements of hands

The puppet stage consists of a raised platform: roughly 15 x 10 x 6 feet from the ground level. An upright wooden frame, with an opening of 102 x 32 inches, is fixed up in the front. At a distance of 4 feet, a wooden stand 12 feet x 42 inches in height is kept covered with a black cloth, acting as a backdrop. Puppeteers stand behind it, manipulating the puppets. The Bhagavathar and the accompanists stand on one side. The lights are switched off when a demon enters the stage, holding burning torches.

The puppets are made out of lightwood. The faces with headgear, including the neck, are carved artistically and so are the hands and the feet. Rough carving is resorted to for the body and limbs, which are covered by costume. The puppet has joints at the neck, shoulders, elbows, hip and knees. The ankle-joints are covered by jingle-bells. The feet, which are visible to the audience, are properly fashioned and painted.

Normally each puppet is manipulated with six nylon strings. An additional string is added if the puppet holds any instrument like a sword or a burning torch. Strings are attached to Sutrabandhani, used as a control.

The puppet show portrays themes from the epics. The puppets, commonly used, belong to the following categories:

1. Stree Vesha (the female role): Wearing sari in miniature and a choli (blouse) to match, and with traditional hairstyle. The ornaments are made of beads and strips of lightwood suitably coloured.
2. Purusha Vesha (the role of Arjuna): Wearing headgear and dressed with handloom cloth with square bands. The puppet carries bow and arrows.
3. Krishna: The face is coloured in light blue. The headgear, the dress and the jewellery are similar to that of the Purusha Vesha. The puppet carries a Chakra (discus) in one hand.
4. Bannada Vesha (Demon-villain): With elaborate headgear and fierce look. The face is made up with thick eyebrows, broad moustaches drawn to the ears, slightly protruding canine teeth, a bulging nose and fierce eyes.
5. Kireeta Vesha (King): A male character wearing a crown.
6. Hasya (Comedian or servant): A simple puppet without any jewellery with Kulayee (a conical-shaped cap) and with a shawl tied around the waist comprising the dress.
7. Muni (Sage): A simple puppet with the hair on the head formed into a plaited bun. A long beard and whiskers and an orange-coloured dress, holding a stick in one hand and a rudraksha mala in the other.

These puppets vary in size. There are various other puppets, including Hanumana, Garuda, Ganesha, etc.

WEST BENGAL

Called Tarer Putul or Suto Putul (Tar or Suto meaning string and Putul meaning doll), the string puppet engages a few thousand people directly or indirectly in puppetry. The troupes comprise 6 to 12 persons owned by an individual or jointly owned by the puppeteers on partnership basis. The Master (song-teacher) is a professional nowadays, appointed on a paltry monthly salary. Yet they adhere to their art as ever, in spite of little returns.

The troupes are often itinerant, going as far as Orissa, Assam, Tripura and Bihar. For Hindi-speaking areas, they use Hindi and Bhojpuri songs. 2 or 3 groups even have their own tape-recorders so that they can use recorded music and dialogue. They make puppets by Sola pith, each 2 to 2.5 feet high. Puppet groups have their own tents and display painted boards for every play like cinema hoardings. Most of the puppeteers came from the erstwhile the East Pakistan shortly before or after the partition and were allowed to settle down in West Bengal where they re-formed their groups. Generally, female members did not take part earlier in the performance although the situation is changing these days.

Tarer Putul

The story is taken from successful Jatra plays and even from Hindi or Bengali films. The story is edited according to the necessity but the music is often kept the same, after changing suitably the lyrics in the case of Hindi movies. The group along with the tent owns the stage and a printed main curtain is used with 4 to 5 backdrops. The puppets are hung behind the stage. Generally, each group has 30 to 40 puppets including animal puppets, such as, snake, deer, lion and tiger.

There are usually two dancer puppets called Kananbala and Parulbala both of whom perform as a prelude to each show. The puppet stage is 5 x 2 feet. When the performance begins, the musicians render a patriotic song, after which a man appears with a violin in his hand. Named after Uttam Kumar, the popular hero of Bengali films, he announces the name of the play. Songs and dialogues are sung and spoken respectively by the Master who changes his voice according to the character.

The instruments like harmonium, tabla, clarinet, flute, cornet, cymbal and violin are used with musicians sitting at the right side of the stage. The Master can memorise 25 to 30 plays at a time. 6 strings manipulate each puppet, although the acrobatic puppet, called Bhanumati, has 18 strings. There are two strings attached to the two hands of the puppet, two to its head and two strings to the back and front sides of the body. One puppeteer manipulates the main puppets and another man assists him. They arrange the puppets sequence-wise on the back-stage for a performance. They call the control Chhat made by bamboo stick.

Sometimes they use a chair or a boat for the set. Puppets can enter from any side. Nowadays they use some light effects on the stage to create storms, water-currents, etc. Mostly, they use primary colours. Puppets have joints made of cloth at their shoulders, elbows and rarely wrists. There is no joint at neck and there are no legs. Only the acrobatic puppet has legs.

The puppets are dressed like the character of Jatra plays. Puppeteers, while manipulating, remain standing and can manipulate two puppets at a time. There are 2 to 3 front-office people who sell the tickets and manage the public. 2 or 3 shows are performed a day starting from the morning and each show lasts for 30 to 45 minutes, with tickets pegged at a low price.

ASSAM

It is not known when the art of puppetry first made its appearance in Assam. The puppet theatre was prevalent before Sankaradeva, the great fifteenth-century savant of Assam, thus taking it back at least to the early fifteenth century. The puppet shows were called Tatak-tatak Natak with a class of showmen, designated by such terms as Tetekiya and Bajikar (magician), who specialised in the art of animating puppets with the help of Yantra (mechanical devices).

Putula Natch

The string puppet of Assam is known as Putala Natch (Putala meaning doll and Natch meaning dance). The puppet theatre is more popular in lower Assam, while fairly competent troupes have been working in Nowgong and other upper Assam districts, including Satras (hermitages).

The puppets are made of solapith or some soft wood by joining together different parts forming the head, torso and limbs with the help of cloth. They cover the head and hand with a paste of clay and cow dung, and colour them. Some puppets have joints in elbows but no legs. The lower portion is normally covered with cloth so that, while manipulated, the figures glide smoothly along the floor of the stage. The size of the puppets varies from 1 foot to 3 feet.

Most of the troupes still perform mythological themes and epic stories. Commonly the same figures serve for more than one role. There are also animal figures of various kinds, and some of them appear as mounts of the gods and goddesses. Stage props like thrones, chariots and boats are used with painted background scenes. Rama and Krishna are painted light blue and their consorts are light yellow or pink, while demons and other evil characters are deep green or blue.

A puppet group consists of at least five persons. The key person is the leader of the chorus called the Bayen, Sutradhar, or Oja. He is the producer, director and co-ordinator of the show. The other two are his helpers or Jogali, or Bhari. The chorus sit in front with Khol (drum) and one or two cymbals. Nachua (manipulator) remains behind the screen.

The stage is small and simple. A frame is put up with a few bamboo posts. Within this frame, a small platform, measuring about 10 to 12 feet in length and 3 to 4 feet in breadth, is raised on one side at a height of about 3 feet from the ground. Three sides of the frame are covered other than the platform side. Upper and lower portions are covered with screens, leaving a space of about 3 to 4 feet open along the length of the platform. At the back of the platform is another screen, normally black, standing about 4 feet, behind which the manipulators stand either on the ground or on a low bench and are not visible. A bamboo stick called Kathi achieves control. A manipulator can easily manipulate two puppets with two hands, but an expert player can handle up to 4 to 5 puppets at a time! The speeches are made in a high-pitched, squeaking sound by a Pyapa (whistle) made of bamboo frame with a leaf or rubber membrane. The leader enters into a conversation with the characters speaking in a shrill voice in a skilful manner.

A traditional show starts with the playing of special rhythmic patterns singing of Vandana (invocation) and other special songs. Then come Kalu-Bhelu or Kalua-Bhelua : two puppets who sweep the stage floor. Often a modern-looking figure, called Chengra or Mastan, not only indulges in horseplay but also passes social comments. Nowadays, even many traditional and semi-traditional troupes are given to the influence of the extremely popular mobile theatre and are starting their shows with short dance-dramas in place of the conventional preliminaries.

Generally, 500 to 700 people come to see a show and audiences like to see mythological plays. Rich persons or management committees of the village-fairs sponsor the shows. They go to other states to perform their plays. Sometimes they have ticket system in fairs. Women generally do not take part. Using folk tunes, they play themes like Rama Banabas, Sita Haran, Bali Badh, Sita Swamvar from Ramayana. Characters enter from the left side and exit from right. Sometimes thrones and chairs are used for the set.

One group has 80 to 90 puppets, with each puppet used for many characters. Sutradhar, joker, dancer, dholak player and kartal player are present in all plays. They keep the puppets in back-stage in a sequence. They have one puppet Tadaka (demon) whose neck can be long. They keep each puppet in the bamboo box and hang it on a pole. Occasionally, troupes take up stories from Mahabharata, Bhagavata and historical episodes like Sati Behula, Sati Jaimati, etc. Modern troupes perform all kinds of themes including old classics, romances and fantasies.

The art is hardly ever a purely family business. They are at best semi-professionals who earn a little extra cash, now and then, from their performances. It is true that normally the economic status of the puppeteers has been rather low. They are invited to perform on such occasions as village fairs and in festivals and also rarely on occasions like marriage ceremonies. The winter season, when the farmer-artists are free from their agricultural chores, is the best time for the puppet shows.

ORISSA

String puppetry is mainly centred in North Orissa. All puppeteers are Ahir Gopal by caste (cowherds) and believe that they have migrated from Vrindaban. They have no land and are economically poor agricultural labour, running small shops as the sole means of livelihood.

Modern industrial products are slowly replacing traditional materials and ingredients used in making puppets. Generally, puppets are 9 inches to 2 feet high, made of wood and are given a layer of chalk powder on the face and painted. One manipulator handles all puppets and one man helps him or her. Two narrators and two musicians are in a group. Pakhawaj, Manjira and harmonium are used. Control is made of bamboo and triangular in shape, called Chakri. Puppets have only 3 strings, two on both hands and one string on head. The string puppet of Orissa is called Gopalila Kundhei (Gopalila meaning story of Radha and Krishna and Kundhei meaning puppet) as they depict the story of Radha Krishna.

Krishna, Sakhi Kundhei

Duration of the show is half an hour to 45 minutes. They use many songs, sometimes more than 25 in a play. There is a back curtain made by peacock feathers called Mayur Bata. Puppets have no legs. They take design of the puppets from relief work of Orissa temples. They undress the puppets and keep them in a tin box. The stage is 4 x 2 x 3 feet high. Eight bamboo poles are posted on 4 sides of the stage. Black thread is used for puppets, having joints on shoulder and elbow. There is no written script at all and stories are taken from traditional Jatra play.

The puppet groups are usually a family affair. The show starts with the playing of Mridanga in front of the stage to attract audience. The female narrator sits behind the stage to lend the voice for all female characters, while the male narrator impersonates all male voices sitting in front of the stage. The songs are from the rich folk tradition of Orissa. The puppets from south Orissa are not as popular as their counterparts from north Orissa. These puppets have legs.

TRIPURA

String puppets are called Putul Natch. Tripura puppeteers are not socially suppressed in economic status. The origin of puppetry in Tripura is directly ascribed to West Bengal and Bangladesh. Puppets are made from the timber of local trees. Pasteboard, clay, stuffed cloth and papier - mache are also used.

Banner, Putul Natch

Apart from the mythological theme, the puppeteers of Tripua show a chain of cartoon-like tales of a folk character, called Mona (dear chap), in a series of News. The latter are tales describing various misfortunes and misadventures of Mona during fishing, hunting, rowing, etc. These enjoyed high popularity in the past. Such spontaneous characterisation of essentially folk origin is rare elsewhere. The puppet troupes in Tripura have scroll-like banners on which characters of the puppets of the team are drawn. In the banner, Vaijayantimala (a popular film star of Hindi cinema) puppet is almost always drawn on a larger scale than the rest.

Putul Natch

The group usually has 10 puppeteers, including 4 musicians. They are generally paid on per-show basis and perform about 60 shows per year. They speak Bengali in the show and 200 to 250 persons come to a performance. Audiences like to see mythological plays. Clubs, rich men and organisers of fairs sponsor the shows, which travel all over Tripura. Ticket-rates are kept low. The groups have their own tents. Duration of the play is about half-an-hour to 1 hour, without any intermission. Sometimes, they perform 5 shows in a day. The musicians sit before the stage, using harmonium, Khol, flute, bells and Sarinda (String instrument). They begin the show with Nam Kirtan (names of the gods), before the concert starts. Usually they show 2 to 3 news in a show. Women do not take part and men speak the dialogue of women. There are 8 to 25 songs in a performance. One man sings all the songs, using the tunes of Kirtan and folk songs. Two people speak for all characters.

They perform the stories of Sita Haran, Sita Udhar, Harish Chandra, Nouka Bilas, Sita Banabas, Ram Ravan Yudh and Sati Behula. A maximum of 3 persons manipulate at a time, with one person manipulating one puppet. The whole stage is 10 feet long, 7 feet broad and 3 feet high. They use 2 drop-scenes, which are 5 x 3 feet. They have a boat as stage-prop, make by bamboo and use electric lights and microphone nowadays. They perform puja while starting a new play. Generally one group has 30 to 35 puppets. Sometimes, they make puppet faces by clay and hands by hard board. They have puppets of birds, deer, crocodile, lion, etc. Puppets are 10 inches to 2 feet high. The dancer puppet comes to perform in all plays.

They keep puppets sequence-wise and on the backside of the stage. Generally, puppets have 7 strings: 2 strings on two hands, 2 in waist, one string on head, one in front and one on the backside. Puppets have joints at elbow. Generally, they use yellowish green, orange, yellow, blue and light pink colours. They call control Tekathi that is made of bamboo. They keep puppets in wooden and tin boxes.

MANIPUR

Manipuris are Vaishnavites, with a strong sense of traditional religious rituals. Their Vaisnava cult dates back to the seventeenth century when the then king of Manipur came to Nabadweep in West Bengal and became an ardent disciple of Sri Gauranga (the great Vaishnava saint of the fifteenth century). Along with Vaishnavism, string puppetry came to Manipur, though only in the last century.

Puppet dance has a separate name of its own: Laithibi Jagoi (Laithibi meaning doll and Jagoi meaning dance). String puppetry, resembling human or divine figures, is performed at Rasleela, whereas puppet-shows with animal and demonic forms are performed during Gostha Leela. A platform 2.5 to 3 metres high is erected temporarily, upon which the puppeteers sit. A black screen is hung from the floor of the platform reaching the ground. The puppets are lowered to the ground and manipulated with the aid of black strings, which become invisible against the black backdrop.

Laithibi Jagoi

The spectators sit on the ground and as there is another curtain placed in front of the puppeteers, the spectators cannot see them. Operating the puppets from such a height impedes the puppeteers to get a good view of the puppets and often they have to rely on their practice and intuition.

Laithibi Jagoi
MAHARASHTRA

Both shadow and string puppets came from the Rajasthan-Gujrat area to Maharashtra and were given patronage by the rulers of Sawant-Wadi. The string puppet is called Kalasutri Bahuliya (Kalasutri meaning string and Bahulia meaning puppet), with very few families practising this art. Tabla, Turture and cymbal are played as instruments. At the beginning of the show, rice, flowers and coconut are offered and Ganesh comes on his rat. The rat proceeds to take the coconut. The brahmin comes next and offers puja and arati. Then come two women, Sali and Mali and dance before Ganesh. Next comes Saraswati (goddess of knowledge), to dance with Ganesh. At the end, Shiva comes on his Nandi (bull) and performs Tandava dance. This whole sequence is called Purbaranga. Then they show one rich person whose entire wealth has been stolen by a thief, to add some comic relief.

They perform from Ramayana, but the story begins only from the birth of Rama and ends with the killing of Ravana. Puppets are small, but beautifully carved from wood, wearing turban and ornaments. There are joints on shoulder and knees, and no string attached on legs. They have two strings on head, one string on the back and two strings on hands. Two artists render the songs and speak the dialogue. There is only one musician to provide support.

Maharashtra Demon
ANDHRA PRADESH

The string puppet of Andhra Pradesh is called Keelubommalatta (Keelu meaning string and bommalatta meaning doll's dance). The marionettes are normally made of wood. The torso is of a single piece, but shoulders and hips are made separately. The body is sometimes made of loosely stuffed cloth. Generally, there are no legs. The puppeteer manipulates by body movements to animate the puppet tied to a ring placed over his head. While doing so, he makes a variety of loud sounds, even as the dialogue and music keep on going, to emphasise the uniqueness of the puppet. The operators are hidden behind a curtain about 3.5 to 4 feet high. Craftsmen specially trained in this art paint hair, face and hands. Some puppets are operated by two head-strings attached to a single triangular control.

Bommalatta

Painting of the puppets is done with vegetable colours. Only the face, palms and feet are coloured. On the stage, the operators stand directly behind the puppets leaving the stage wings free for the passage of the puppets.

KERALA

The string puppet tradition, earlier confined to Ernakulam district, is called Nool Pavakoothu (Nool meaning string and Pavakoothu meaning doll's dance). At the temple festival at Tripunithura, string puppet plays were regularly presented every year, till 55 years ago. There were puppets of two kinds. One set of puppets was used to present stories taken from folklore and the other set of puppets were use in presenting scenes from the classical works, especially the Ramayana and Mahabharata.

These puppets, since revived, vary in their heights from 2 feet to 2.5 feet. About 45 such puppets, made of wood and beautified with paint and other decorations, exist in Tripunithura. The protection and custody of these puppets are entrusted to one of the royal families, but the puppeteers all belong to the` Nair' community.

The performance usually begins with a comic prelude full of fun and humour. First, the puppet of a female character is introduced who dances and plays with some balls --- throwing them up in succession and catching them all till they come down. Some clowning follows this: two Vidushakas (clowns), named Koru and Unnaikan, playing these roles. Koru humorously narrates his adventure of hunting and catching a crane. This comic performance by itself attracts a large crowd of spectators.

The songs and dialogue of the string puppet plays practised in Malayalam language. The puppets are made of wood, beautified with paint and with artistic carving. The joints in the bodies of these puppets are so supple that the head, arms, legs and waist can be easily moved. The puppets are 2 feet in height.

CONCLUSION

Most string puppets have a base in the folk forms of the region and are associated with rituals, --- beginning the performance with salutations to the goddesses or prayer to Ganesh. With passage of time, most of the puppet groups are fighting an unequal battle against the other media of entertainment. It is heartening to see that in the generally decline scene, some groups are being revived as in Kerala.

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