An Introduction to Indian Puppetry

in Article
Published on: 17 September 2018

Serena Autiero

Serena Autiero’s major fields of interest are: South Asian and Indian Ocean art and archaeology. She’s actively involved in the study of Indian heritage. Serena is founder and Vice-President of Vidyā - Arti e Culture dell'Asia, an Italian association dedicated to the study, dissemination and preservation of Asian cultures. She has been Assistant Professor of Art History at the Princess Noura Bint Abdulrahman University of Riyadh (Saudi Arabia). Serena received her PhD from the Sapienza University of Rome. She was a member of the Italian Archaeological Mission to Nepal, and of the Italian Archaeological Mission in the Swat Valley (Pakistan). From 2007 to 2014 she was a collaborator to the Educational Sector of the National Museum of Oriental Art 'G. Tucci' in Rome for several projects on the arts and archaeology of Asian countries.


Indian puppetry is a subject as varied as the many cultural traditions of the Indian subcontinent. Several regional genres make puppetry one of the richest heritages of India. Though there is enormous diversity, there are common traits.


The origin of puppetry in India cannot be dated, but mythology provides at least two stories that are witness to the importance of this art, even if they don’t give any historical data. According to one legend, the creator Brahma gave life to the adi, the first nat puppeteer, and created the first puppet for the entertainment of his wife Saraswati. Not satisfied with his work, Brahma banished the puppeteer to earth, starting the line of nat bhatt puppeteers. This legend applies most probably to the Rajasthani tradition, nat bhatt being the name of the puppeteer cast from this region (Sarma and Singh 2010:35). An alternative legend has as protagonist the god Shiva, patron of puppetry, and his wife Parvati. An artisan manufactured two wooden dolls that captured the attention of Parvati—the goddess and his divine companion entered the dolls and started an exquisite dance; and when they got sick of this play they abandoned the dolls and the artisan was very sad at his dolls being lifeless again. With the help and blessings of the gods, the artisan then invented a system of strings to move the dolls, and so puppetry was born (Chattopadhyay 1995 (1975):159).


Divine origin of puppetry is stressed in both stories, and this testifies the importance of puppetry in India. Nowadays, traditional puppetry is regarded as a folk art typical of the rural environment—in the past it was taken into high consideration in the urban elite and among the nobles (Baird 1965:46). Further evidence of the link of puppetry with the highest social groups is in the attestation of the word gombe, meaning puppet, used as a surname for Brahmin families in the southern regions (Tilakasiri 1969:21).


Several literary sources report the existence of puppetry in ancient times. Puppetry is mentioned in the Mahabharata (dated from the 9th century BCE, it reached the written form in the 4th century BCE), in Panini’s grammar (4th century BCE), and in Patanjali’s texts (2nd century BCE) (Sarma and Singh 2010:35). Tamil texts from the 2nd century BCE onwards mention dolls moved by strings (Chattopadhyay 1995 (1975):158). The antiquity of Indian puppetry has been highlighted by Richard Pischel (1849-1908), an important German scholar, who argued that India was the source of Western puppet traditions (Foley and Pudumjee 2013).


These data reinforce the idea that the several living traditions of Indian puppetry are heirs of a refined and noble art prospering in the past. According to a scholar, puppetry outdates theatrical plays as the word sutradhara, that indicates the director and main storyteller in Sanskrit plays, literally means the ‘string holder’ (Baird 1965:46; Philpott 1969:112).


Puppetry is a type of narrative theatre; at the crossroads between bardic storytelling and theatre plays. Shows include live music, narration and gestures taken from dance (Yarrow 2001:69). In traditional puppetry; the plots are mainly derived from the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, and the Puranas (stories of gods and goddesses). This also happens with many other Indian performing arts, it should suffice to mention dance. Epic plays allow the puppeteers to cover a pedagogic role, teaching the masses about gods and heroes, and the many ethical implications of the sacred stories. Over the centuries puppetry fulfilled at least two functions—education and entertainment. Alongside religious education, in the last decades, government initiatives have also been propagated by puppetry, such as hygiene and family planning campaigns. Moreover puppetry has also been used and incorporated in school education.


The puppeteer gives life to the puppet, creating for the limited time of the show a new form of life. As noted by Ananda K. Coomaraswamy (1877-1947), the sutradhara acts as Vishwakarma, the abstract form of the maker god, who pulls the strings of human existence (Foley and Pudumjee 2013). The peculiar life of the puppet is separated by human existence, but also different from divine existence. Puppets are in an intermediate dimension, and their appearance, symbolic and stylized, does not follow human anatomy (Chattopadhyay 1995 (1975):158). In some genres, puppets speak in their own special language rendered through special devices (bamboo mouth pieces and whistles). Mostly the appearance of the puppets follow the iconography of gods and heroes as described in the texts and depicted in art, but some features are exaggerated—generally heads are disproportionate to the body. It is however very difficult to generalize among the several diverse traditions.


Another common trait in Indian puppetry is the composition of the troupes. Puppetry in India is a family business. Children start their apprenticeship looking at their elders’ work. A puppeteer’s work includes not only manufacturing and operating the puppets, but also memorizing the texts. Family troupes bequeath the puppets from generation to generation; they are a family treasure, sometimes also used as a bride’s dowry. This type of transmission suggests that over the centuries puppets did not change radically. In regional genres there has been a very limited evolution in the appearance of puppets.


Puppetry genres are strictly related to other traditions--there is a strong connection with actor theatre forms, regional dance-drama, and with visual art traditions (Foley and Pudumjee 2013).


Puppetry presents several regional forms in local languages, but some peculiar elements highlight the connection to classic Sanskrit drama. The interweaving of text, sound, rhythm and movement, and the presence of such character as the sutradhara and the clown (vidushaka in classic Sanskrit drama, but known with different names in regional traditions) make this connection with Sanskrit drama apparent (Foley and Pudumjee 2013).


Puppet shows are traditionally linked to a ritual context—performances were usually held during festivals or celebrations such as marriages or other family and community occasions. Sometimes puppet plays were performed in order to ward off evil spirits or to solicit rain in times of draught (Chattopadhyay 1995 (1975):159).


There are many types of puppets in India; some traditions have become extinct, while others struggle to survive in the modern world. Besides traditional puppet genres, India is home to many contemporary initiatives that renovate puppetry while supporting the preservation of heritage styles.


Living traditions include different types of puppets: string puppets, rod puppets, glove puppets, and shadow puppets. Regional diversity and very distinct identities cannot hide the many common traits among puppetry traditions such as the same literary sources, similar structure of the plays with opening invocation, comic skits and/or intervention on current issues, the musical accompaniment, features shared with dance, and a moral content mostly linked to religion.


String puppets


String puppets, more precisely known as marionettes, can be made of different materials such as wood and terracotta; they are tri-dimensional and as the name suggests are moved through strings attached to the head and limbs. The number of strings can vary according to the tradition; more strings translate in a major and more complex range of attainable movements.


Marionettes are widespread in India from North to South, celebrated traditions are reported from Rajasthan (kathputli), West Bengal (tarer putul nach), Maharashtra (kalasutri bahulya), Odisha (gopalila kundhei), Karnataka (yakshagana gombeyata), Kerala (nool pavakothu), Tamil Nadu (bommalattam), Andhra Pradesh and Telangana (koyya bommalata, keelu bommalata, and sutram bommalata) (Foley and Pudumjee 2013; Sarma and Singh 2010: 38; Chattopadhyay 1995 (1975):160-164).


Kathputli marionettes from Rajasthan are noteworthy for their fine decoration and costumes inspired by medieval Rajasthani style and for the stories they perform. Kathputli shows narrate stories of Rajput heroes, one of the few exceptions from the usual Hindu epic plots (Salerno 2013: 75-88).


Tamil Nadu has a famous tradition of marionettes known as bommalattam (‘doll dance’); this style is reported also from bordering areas of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. The large marionettes (about 90 centimetres per ten kilograms) are peculiar because they are moved by strings attached to a ring worn by the puppeteers on their head, and arms are moved by rods manipulated from above; bommalattam puppeteers move the marionettes with a full body effort. This tradition has noble ancestry: bommalattam was patronized by the Thanjavur court in the 18th and 19th centuries (Foley and Pudumjee 2013).


Rod puppets


Rod puppetry was traditionally practiced in Eastern India (Odisha and Bengal), besides the mixed string-cum-rod bommalattam puppets from Tamil Nadu. Rod puppets are manipulated from below, with one or multiple sticks of different size (Singh and Sarma 2010:37).


In the southern regions of West Bengal rod puppetry is known in local language as danger putul nach, a very peculiar style for the large dimensions of the puppets that can reach up to 1.2 metres and weigh up to ten kilograms. The lower part of the body is only suggested by the large skirts; a rod passes through the body to support it, while other smaller rods allow movements of the head and arms. Puppets are finely decorated in local painting style, and costumes are elegantly elaborated. This tradition includes nowadays not only epic and folk stories, but also plots from Bengali movies (Chattopadhyay 1995 (1975):164; Foley and Pudumjee 2013).


In Odisha rod puppetry, kathi kundhei nacha, was extinct in post-colonial times, but it has been recently revived. Performances follow the classic pattern with invocation, introduction and epic stories mostly from the Ramayana and the Puranas (Foley and Pudumjee 2013).


Glove puppets


In glove puppetry the puppeteer operate from below slipping his hand in the puppet; usually the forefinger operates the head, while the thumb and third finger move the hands. Also known as hand puppets, glove puppets are widespread in Odisha (sakhi kundhei), Kerala (pavakathakali), Tamil Nadu (pava koothu), Uttar Pradesh (Gulabo-Sitabo) and West Bengal (benir putul).


In Kerala pavakathakali, meaning ‘glove puppet kathakali’, is, as the name suggests, a puppetry version of the famous dance-form Kathakali. This genre developed in the 18th century and risked extinction before it was revived in 1982 by the Natana Kairali Research & Performing Centre for Traditional Arts (Foley and Pudumjee 2013). Both the appearance of the puppets and the stories performed mirror Kathakali. An important part of this dance-drama genre is the expression of emotions through movements of the eyes. Since puppets have fixed expressions; it is the puppeteer, sitting on stage, who interprets emotions.


Most of the puppetry traditions from the south of India narrate epic stories. In the north there are interesting exceptions such as the Gulabo-Sitabo glove puppetry from Uttar Pradesh—this declining tradition portraits the quarrels between the domineering Gulabo and the submissive Sitabo, both married to the same man. The representation of this folk story with glove puppets dates back to the 17th century in the area around Lucknow (Sarma and Singh 2010:37).


Shadow puppets


Shadow puppetry is widespread in South India, allegedly the motherland of this art; this genre is known in Odisha (ravanachhaya), Andhra Pradesh and Telangana (tholu bommalatta), Karnataka (togalu gombe atta), Kerala (tholpava koothu), Tamil Nadu (thol bommalatta), and Maharashtra (charma bahuli natya). Shadow theatre is known in Sanskrit literature as chaya nataka. Despite the diffuculty in ascertaining the historical origins of puppetry, shadow theatre very likely existed in the second half of the first millenium BCE, and was widespread in the 6th century CE (Autiero 2013:62). The oldest known script is Subhata’s Dutangada dated to 1243 AD (Fan Pen Chen 2003:31).


The manufacturing technique of shadow puppets reveal common traits among the many traditions—the way the leather is treated to obtain sheets of stiff parchment is shared. Besides this common feature, shadow puppets vary a lot not only among the different genres but also at a local level according to the family of village tradition. The largest puppets are those from the Telugu-speaking area (tholu bommalata), they reach the height of two meters and have articulated limbs; while smaller puppets such as those from Odisha (ravanachhaya, ranging from 20 to 60 centimeters) are in one piece. Ravanachhaya puppets retain the natural leather colour, while shadow puppets are lively painted in tholu bommalatta, thol bommalattam, and togalu gombe atta. Most of the living traditions use translucent puppets, only tholpava koothu puppets from Kerala are opaque, casting a black-and-white shadow on the white screen (Sarma and Singh 2010:39). In Tamil, Telugu and Kannada, shadow puppetry share very similar names, that highlights a common origin. It is traditionally believed that shadow puppetry reached South India from Maharashtra when the nomadic group of the Killekyatas moved to Karnataka; the fact that old puppeteers could speak Marathi still in the seventies confirms their origin (Chattopadhyay 1995 (1975):168).




There are several traditional puppet genres in India and the overview provided here cannot be all-inclusive as the topic is wide and diverse, but it conveys the main features of this theatre form. Puppetry has been in India a means of entertainment and a form of cultural and religious dissemination. In the post-colonial period, the high-speed modernization wave that invested India put many of the puppetry traditions at risk of extinction; several government and private initiatives contributed to save endangered styles, but many are still struggling to survive in the age of internet.


Besides traditional puppetry, India is home to a lively contemporary scene. Independent India opened up to artistic exchange, and new forms and techniques affected puppetry, introducing new styles and giving origin to a refined urban puppet theatre (Foley and Pudumjee 2013). The birth of modern troupes and the opening to the international scene created new contexts for traditional puppetry to flourish. Several festivals organized in the last decades offer the stage to traditional troupes. So far modernity threatened the very survival of traditional puppetry, but a more conscious use of contemporary means and opportunities is actually the key to preserve this rich heritage of India.




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