A Lost Indian Art That Comes With Strings Attached

A Lost Indian Art That Comes With Strings Attached
Kathputli is a form of string puppet theatre native to Rajasthan. Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Explore India's rich history and diverse culture through its puppetry forms

Meenketan Jha
February 21 , 2019
04 Min Read

Puppetry has always been an intriguing art form sparking interest from audiences of all ages. Envisioning the life sagas of great kings and heroes the traditional art form is extremely popular in rural India. Emerging from the grassroot levels, puppetry in India has its own unique identity depending on its region of origin. Over the years an amalgamation of regional styles of paintings and sculptures are reflected in them making it more holistic. But, sadly, it is a dying art. With other sources of readily available entertainment growing at a rapid pace, puppetry has become less appreciated and less known about. Knowledge about these traditional forms tend to be limited to a small group and if are to help in popularizing it once again, we need to make it more easily accessible. 

The Ramayana has inspired many stories told by puppetry around India


Glove Puppets

Glove Puppetry from Kerala

India's history is laden with references of Glove Puppetry. This puppet in the hands of a master puppeteer is a treat for the eyes. The puppets, which happen to be like limp dolls, can produce a wide range of movements. In this particular form, the heads and arms of the puppets are controlled by the fingers of the puppeteer. Found in Orissa, Uttar Pradesh, Kerala, and West Bengal, the themes and the delivery of the skit varies a great deal. In Uttar Pradesh, stories are often based on social themes while in Odisha majority of the shows put together narrate the tales of Radha and Krishna. 

Pavakoothu, a glove puppetry form from Kerala, draws inspiration from Kathakali depicts the fables of Ramayana and Mahabharata. Puppets tend to range from one foot to two-feet tall while the faces are painted painstakingly. Peacock feathers are also used to add elegance to the puppets. 

Rod Puppets

An extension of glove puppetry, only much, much larger. The puppets in this form are manipulated using rods. You can find this form of puppetry expression in West Bengal and Odisha.

Bengali puppeteers believe that rod puppets are superior to their string counterparts due to their superior control. The Putul Nautch from the Nadia district of West Bengal are about 3-4 feet in height. The technique used in the controlling of these puppets brings about a highly theatrical experience. Seeking its guidance from the Jatra theater form in Bengal, a group of musicians provide the music for the performance while the main dialogue and songs are delivered by the puppeteer. 

Shadow Puppets

Tongalu Gombeyaata originates from Karnataka

A form of puppetry you might be more familiar with, shadow puppets are flat and operated against a white clothed screen. This highly technical form is all about judging the perfect balance between the light and the screen. The correct manipulation of both will result in a project of a gorgeous silhouette and colorful shadows. In India, shadow puppetry is very popular with many styles originating from various states (Orissa, Andra Pradesh, Kerala, Karnataka, Maharashtra, and Tamil Nadu). 

In Karanataka's traditional form of shadow puppetry, puppet sizes reflect the social status of the character that they play. Larger puppets are for royal and religious members while smaller puppets depict the common people and servants. Known as Tongalu Gombeyaata, the puppets are mostly colored in red, blue, black or green. While conventionally the form was used to portray stories of the Ramayana and Mahabharata, recent years have seen the arrival of prominent figures like Mahatma Gandhi. The performances begun at night and continue till dawn. An invocation to Hindu God Ganesha and Goddess Saraswati signal the start of the show. 

String Puppets

Oval eyes are a particular highlight of Kathputli

Possibly the most recognized and spoken form of puppetry around India. The puppets in this form have jointed limbs, controlled by strings allowing for more flexibility. This greater ability to control makes them the most articulate of all the puppets, but also the most challenging. The dexterity required to control these puppets often comes after years and years of practice. String puppetry has prospered in Rajasthan, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu.

Kathputli- Rajasthan's form of string puppetry involves large colorful dolls that are vibrantly dressed. The inspiration for the dresses comes from Medieval Rajasthan.  Puppeteers speak in shrill voices produced when spoken through a bamboo reed. The art form tackles social problems like dowry, women's empowerment, illiteracy, and poverty to name a few. Accompanied by a dramatised version of regional music, oval eyes, arched eyebrows are some of the traits of a kathputli. 

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