Basharat Bashir

Vanishing art of storytelling –The Puppetry

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A puppet is one of the most notable and insightful inventions, puppet could be any figure like human, animal, or any abstract form which is moved by human effort, not mechanical aid. Puppetry is the art of storytelling by manipulating these figuresalong with music and sound effects for use in theatrical performance.Puppetry combines various mediums of art together like painting, sculpture, craft, storytelling, mimicry, music and drama in a very composed way which fascinates not only the art lovers but societies as a whole.This is the form of art which is not bounded to galleries, theaters or cinema, itis from the people and for the people on a very common platforms like social functions or fairs. This unique and one of the oldestforms of art originated in India almost 3000 years ago and practiced all over the world.Cultural adaptations of puppetry have developed in many parts of the world, including Japan, Germany, Indonesia, and the United States. But as modernization rises with many new contemporary and innovative mediums, such traditional type of art form seems to fade away slowly in the near future.

Puppetry throughout the ages has held an important place in traditional entertainment. Different parts of the country show different identities through puppets, with their regional styles of painting, sculpture, language, music and culture being reflected in them. Puppetry has also been successfully used to motivate emotionally and physically handicapped persons to develop their mental and physical ability. The joy of making puppets and communicating through them helps in all round development of the personality of a child.

There are many different types of puppets each having its individual characteristics.They are made of a wide range of materials, depending on their form and intended use. They can be extremely complex or very simple in their construction. Styles of multiple forms of puppetry such as glove, shadow, rod, and string puppetryvary from region to region and state to state. In the northern state of Bihar, puppets are almost life-sized, in Bengal they can weigh up to ten kilos, but in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, they are paper-thin. In Rajasthan, they are made with wood and fabric, in Tamil Nadu they are made of leather, in Bengal with terracotta, and in Odisha with wood.

String Puppets

String puppetry, also known as marionettesis the most expressive and common form of puppetry across India. It is performed with the help of two to five strings that are attached to the limbs and head of the puppetand tied to puppeteers’ fingers to manipulate them.Rajasthan, Orissa, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu are of the regions where this form of puppetry has flourished. In Rajasthan, string puppetsare called “kathputli”. They are carved from a single piece of wood and look like large dolls that are colorfully dressed in the medieval traditional Rajasthani style. They can be seen dancing on the local tunes. Oval faces, large eyes, arched eyebrows and large lips are some of the distinct facial features of these string puppetsand they do not have legs. The string puppets of Odisha are known as “Kundhei”, they are made up of light wood and have more joints and strings.And strings are attached to a triangular shaped wooden prop of which puppeteers hold for manipulation.They aretherefore, more versatile, articulate and easy to handle.The costumes of Kundheiis inspired by actors of the Jatra traditional theatre and the music is drawn from the popular regional tunes. “Gombeyatta”are the string puppets of Karnataka. The Gombeyatta puppet figures have joints at the legs, shoulders, elbows, hips and knees. These puppets are manipulated by five to seven strings tied to a straight prop. The complicated movements of the puppet are manipulated by more than one puppeteer at a time. They are designed like the traditional regional theatre character of Yakshagana. The music dramatically blends both folk and classical elements. The puppetry of Tamil Nadu is known as “Bommalattam”. The Bommalattam puppet dance combines the techniques of both rod puppets and string puppets.  They are made of wood, cloth or leather and the strings for manipulation are tied to an iron ring which the puppeteer wears like a crown on his head. 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 ft in height and weighing about 10 kg.

Shadow Puppets

Shadow puppetry is the most fascinating form of puppetry also known as shadow play. This unique form of storytelling is the oldest type of puppetry in the world.Shadow puppets are figures that are placedbetween a strong source of light and a screen. Puppeteers move them to create the illusion of moving figures on the screen, they can make figures appear to walk, talk, fight and dance.They use cutouts of flat figures made of leather, treated in a way to make them translucent then painted with natural dyes and decorated with traditional motifs. The manipulation between the light and the screen makes silhouettes or colourful shadows. This tradition of shadow puppetry survives in Orissa, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. The shadow theatre of Karnataka is known as “TogaluGombeyatta”. These puppets are mostly small in size however they differ in size according to their social status like, large size for kings and religious characters and smaller size for common people or servants.”ChamadyachaBahulya”is the traditional shadow puppet theater of Maharashtra and its practiced by the Thakar community. Though these forms have distinct regional identities, languages and dialects in which they are performed but they share a common ideology, aesthetics and themes. The narratives are mainly based on the epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata, Puranas, local myths and tales. A complete ensemble of puppets consists of sixty-five figures carved from translucent and coloured buffalo leather. Leather puppets made from goat skin are the hallmark of art and craft of Andhra Pradesh and shadow play known as “TholuBommalata”is rich and profound tradition of the region.  The puppets are large in size and have jointed waist, shoulders, elbows and knees. They are coloured on both sides to create coloured shadows on the screen by throwing light on them. The music is dominantly influenced by the classical music of the region and mainly depicts narratives from epics like the Mahabharata and Ramayana, blending them with local customs, social issues and passing culture from one generation to another to keep this form alive. The most theatrically exciting puppet play is the “Ravanachhaya” of Orissa. The puppets made without joints as a single piece and withoutcolour to create opaque shadows or silhouettes on the screen.These puppets are madefrom deer skin and are formed in bold dramatic postures to create very sensitive and lyrical shadows. Apart from human and animal characters, many props such as trees, mountains, chariots, etc. are also used in this puppetry. These puppets are generally smaller sized, not more than two feet high.

Glove Puppets

Glove puppets are also known as sleeve, hand or palm puppets. The puppeteer inserts his hands in the cavity of the puppet’s head and arms to manipulate the whole story he intends to express. The first finger is inserted in the head and the middle finger and the thumb become the two arms of the puppet.With the help of these three fingers, the glove puppet comes alive and produces a wide range of movements. The head of puppet is made of either papier mache, cloth or wood, with two hands emerging from just below the neck and the rest of the figure wears a long flowing skirt. Glove puppetry is popular in parts of Uttar Pradesh, Kerala, Odisha, and West Bengal. The “Gulabo-Sitabo” puppets of Uttar Pradesh usually play out social themes with entertaining and humorous overtones. These puppets, made of papier-mâché, dressed in colourful, shiny clothes and trinkets use regional folk music. The humoris sometimes rude, and sometimes directed at social evils such as dowry system, female infanticide, child marriage, and promotion of women empowerment and education, among others.In Kerala, the traditional glove puppet play is called “Pavakoothu”. Kathakali, the famous classical dance-drama of Kerala has a major influence on Pavakoothu puppet performances. The head and the arms of puppets are carved in wood and joined together with thick cloth, cut and stitched into a small bag.The puppeteer puts his hand into the bag and moves the hands and head of the puppet to narrate the stories. The face of the puppet is decorated with paints, small and thin pieces of gilded tin, feathers of the peacock, etc. The musical instruments used during the performance and the basic theme for these puppet plays in Kerala is based on the episodes from either the Ramayana or the Mahabharata.Folk glove Puppetry in West Bengal is called “Bene Putul”, the roots of the glove puppet orBene Putul tradition lie in the district of East Medinipur in West Bengal. Heads of puppets are traditionally made from terracotta and then painted in a stylized manner, while the hollow arms and hands are made of wood to facilitate the vigorous and rhythmic clapping. The lyrics they use in play, often laced with humour and sarcasm while the music is based on either common folk tunes or even popular Hindi or Bengali songs. Unfortunately, there are only few puppeteers who are struggling to keep their art alive in the lone village of Padmatamali in East Medinipur.

Rod Puppets

Rod puppets are an extension of glove-puppets, they are often much larger and supported and manipulated by rods from below. This form of puppetry is now found mostly in West Bengal and Orissa.The traditional rod puppet form of West Bengal is called “Dang PutulNaach”.  There is a great influence of the traditionalJatra theatreon the costumes, themes, script and enactment of the puppets. While it is entirely carved out of wood, the face is further coated with a clay-and-cloth layer. The puppet is painted and always clothed in gaudy, glittering costumes. There is a hole in each hand of the puppet so that a sword or bow or mace can be inserted for the specific role.The puppets do not have legs and have joints at the shoulders, elbows and wrist. The head is mounted on a central rod or pole, which passes vertically through the torso and is then tied to the puppeteer’s waist.With bells around his ankles, the puppeteer either moves or dances to the music, according to the script, with the puppet attached firmly to his waist. At the same time, he manipulates both the arms with a cord hidden under the clothes. A group of musicians, sitting at the side of the stage provide vocal support and the accompanying music. Both music and dialogues are usually very dramatic, in keeping with the traditional folk theatre style. The traditional rod puppets from the Odisha are known as “Kathi kundheinach”. These puppets are smaller in size, usually about twelve to eighteen inches. They have mostly three joints, but the hands are tied to strings instead of rods. Thus, elements of rod and string puppets are combined in this form of puppetry and puppets are manipulated by a wooden rod. Puppets are carved, painted, and costumed in the Orissa style of jatratheatre, with full skirts and shirts. Puppeteers sit on the ground behind a screen, musicians play drums, cymbals, and reed instruments, including the Indian clarinet and flute, and more recently a harmonium, while a group of puppeteers manipulate.


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