Puppetry Art in India

In Puppet Theatre various forms, known as puppets, are used to illustrate the narratives. In India, the roots of the puppet theatre lie in a dancer’s mask. Excavations at several Harappan sites have revealed a number of toys whose body parts can be manipulated with strings.

There are basic four kinds of puppets used in India as follows:

  • String Puppets – This includes Kathputli of Rajasthan, Kundhei of Odisha, Gombeyetta of Karnataka and Bomallattam art of Tamil Nadu.
  • Shadow Puppets – This includes the Togalu Gombeyatta of Karnataka, Tholu Bommalata of Andhra Pradesh, Ravanachhaya of Odisha
  • Rod Puppets – This includes Putul Nautch of West Bengal and Yampuri of Bihar
  • Glove Puppets – Important form is Pavakoothu of Kerala

The puppeteer narrates his story in verse or prose, while the puppets provide the visual treat. Stories adapted from puranic literature, local myths and legends usually form the content of traditional puppet theatre in India which, in turn, imbibes elements of all creative expressions like painting, sculpture, music, dance, drama, etc. The presentation of puppet programmes involves the creative efforts of many people working together.

String Puppets

String puppets are also called as marionettes. Marionettes having jointed limbs controlled by strings allow far greater flexibility and are, therefore, the most articulate of the puppets. Rajasthan, Orissa, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu are some of the regions where this form of puppetry has flourished.

Kathputli, Rajasthan

Carved from a single piece of wood, these puppets are like large dolls that are colourfully dressed.

The Kathputli is accompanied by a highly dramatised version of the regional music. Oval faces, large eyes, arched eyebrows and large lips are some of the distinct facial features. 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.

Kundhei, Odisha

Made of light wood, the Kundhei puppets of Odisha have no legs but wear long flowing kirts. 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. 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.

Gombeyatta, Karnataka

Gombeyatta is a puppetry art of Karnataka. The puppets are styled and designed like the characters of Yakshagana theatre form of the region. The Gombeyatta puppet figures are highly stylized and have joints at the legs, shoulders, elbows, hips and knees. These puppets are manipulated by five to seven strings tied to a prop.  Some of the more complicated movements of the puppet are manipulated by two to three puppeteers at a time. Episodes enacted in Gombeyatta are usually based on Prasangas of the Yakshagana plays.  The music that accompanies is dramatic and beautifully blends folk and classical elements.

Bommalattam, Tamil Nadu

Bommalattam combine the techniques of both rod and string puppets. 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 .A few puppets have jointed arms and hands, which are manipulated by rods.  The Bommalattam puppets are the largest, heaviest and the most articulate of all traditional Indian marionettes. A puppet may be as big as 4.5 feet in height weighing about ten kilograms. Bommalattam theatre has elaborate preliminaries which are divided into four parts – Vinayak Puja, Komali, Amanattam and Pusenkanattam.

Shadow Puppets

Shadow puppets are flat figures, 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. This tradition of shadow puppets survives in Odisha Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu.

Togalu Gombeyatta, 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.

Tholu Bommalata, Andhra Pradesh

The puppets are large in size and have jointed waist, shoulders, elbows and knees. They are coloured on both sides. Hence, these puppets throw coloured shadows on the screen. 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.

Ravanachhaya, Odisha

The puppets are in one piece and have no joints. Hence the manipulation requires great dexterity. They are not coloured, hence throw opaque shadows on the screen.

The puppets are made of deer skin and are conceived in bold dramatic poses. Apart from human and animal characters, many props such as trees, mountains, chariots, etc. are also used. Although, Ravanachhaya puppets are smaller in size-the largest not more than two feet have no jointed limbs, they create very sensitive and lyrical shadows.

Rod Puppets

Rod puppets are an extension of glove-puppets, but often much larger and supported and manipulated by rods from below. This form of puppetry now is found mostly in West Bengal and Orissa.

Putul Nautch, West Bengal

The Puppets are carved from wood and follow the various artistic styles of a particular region.

The Bengal rod-puppets are about 3 to 4 feet in height and are costumed like the actors of Jatra theatre form. 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.

A bamboo-made hub is tied firmly to the waist of the puppeteer on which the rod holding the puppet is placed. The puppeteers each holding one puppet, stand behind a head-high curtain and while manipulating the rods also move and dance imparting corresponding movements to the puppets.  While the puppeteers themselves sing and deliver the stylized prose dialogues, a group of musicians, usually three to four in numbers, sitting at the side of the stage provide the accompanying music with a drum, harmonium and cymbals.

Yampuri, Bihar

These puppets are made of wood. Unlike the traditional Rod puppets of West Bengal, these puppets are in one piece and have no joints. As these puppets have no joints, the manipulation is different from other Rod puppets and requires greater dexterity.

Glove Puppets

Glove puppets are also known as sleeve, hand or palm puppets. The head is made of Papier mache, cloth or wood, with two hands emerging from just below the neck. The rest of the figure consists of a long flowing skirt. The manipulation technique is simple. The movements are controlled by the human hand with the first finger inserted in the head and the middle finger and the thumb are the two arms of the puppet. The tradition of glove puppets in India is popular in Uttar Pradesh, Orissa, West Bengal and Kerala.

Pavakoothu, Kerala

It came into existence during the 18th century due to the influence of Kathakali. In Pavakoothu, 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 face of the puppet is decorated with paints, small and thin pieces of gilded tin, the feathers of the peacock, etc. The musical instruments used during the performance are Chenda, Chengiloa, Ilathalam and Shankha. The theme for Glove puppet plays in Kerala is based on the episodes from either the Ramayana or the Mahabharata.

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