Glimpses of Puppets in India

Ahanthem Homen Singh *

A puppet may be defined as an inanimate figure which can be manipulated by a human being, the puppeteer. It is given life by the puppeteer and made to perform according to the puppeteer's will. An important task of the puppeteer is to transform the puppet from being a mere "figure" towards embodying a distinct "character".

For this, the puppeteer applies various techniques of manipulation and the various types of puppet forms corresponding to the demands of the character. The puppeteer usually culls materials from his own traditions and also applies his creativity in formulating the appearance and function of his puppets.

Puppetry has been part of the sacred rituals which were performed to propitiate the gods and spirits apart from the common theatre practice. In India, this tradition continues even to this day. It is believed that commissioning a puppet performance is equivalent to an act of divine service.

The puppet plays are staged or commissioned to cure and eradicate diseases of men and animals, to invoke the rain gods to procure rain, or to free a person from an evil spirit's possession. In Karnataka, the episode of 'Virataparva' from the Mahabharata is performed through puppet plays to appease the rain god.

In Tamil Nadu, Bommalattam are performed in villages and temples to ensure rain as well as to placate gods to prevent the outbreak of diseases. Sometimes they are also performed as part of the death ceremony. Moreover, certain rites are associated with the making and maintaining of the puppets. The puppeteers perform ritualistic sacrifices before creating the puppets and also when the figures are finished.

In Karnataka, while making characters like Ravan, Kali etc., fowls are sacrificed and the figures are applied black tinge as the final touch (S.A. Krishnaiah: 1987). In some puppet traditions, the marking of eyes on the puppet which signifies the infusion of life into it is observed with sacrifices. The puppets are also worshipped on certain religious occasions.

Apart from it, as a ritual, the puppeteers regularly applied neem or eucalyptus oil on the puppets. This is beneficial as they act as a protective agent against insects and fungus and help in preserving the puppets. The purposes behind the manipulation of puppet figures can be variously defined as curing illnesses, ensuring fertility, eradicating the evil, propagating religious faith and also imparting education through entertainment or to just tell a story.

In India, puppets can be generally classified into four types according to its mode of manipulation. They are Hand or Glove Puppets, String Puppets, Rod Puppets and Shadow Puppets.:

1. Hand/Glove Puppet:

This is a type of puppetry where the puppeteer's hand is slipped inside the puppet and its movements are acted out by his fingers. Usually the forefinger becomes the head of the puppet and the thumb and the third finger act as its two hands. Hand/glove puppetry is quite prevalent in Orissa, Kerala, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal.

A popular glove puppet theatre form indigenous to Kerala is known as Pava Kathakali. The puppets are carved delicately in wood in the manner of Kathakali actors with their headdresses and costumes, painted and decorated by transparent coral and peacock feathers.

Kundhei Nach (kundhei means 'doll' and nach means 'dance') is a popular play of glove puppets in Orissa. Another glove puppet tradition thriving in the Medinipur district is Benir Putul Naach. The heads of the puppets are made out of terracotta and the hands and stumps are carved out of wood. The puppets have bells and cymbals attached to their wrists.

2. Rod Puppet:

Traditionally, rod puppetry prospered in the states of Orissa and Bengal. The rod puppets in Orissa are called Kathikundhei Nach (rod doll dance). Bengal's tradition of rod puppet performance is known as Danger Putul Nach. The themes of this performance are derived from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Puranas and jatras.

Apart from these, there is a composite puppet-form in Tamil Nadu named Bommalattam which uses both string and rod puppetry. The performances were intended to ensure the timely arrival of monsoon and to placate the deities. The rods, unlike other forms of rod puppetry are attached from above. Strings are attached to the heads and limbs of the puppets. Smaller puppets are manipulated by strings only.

3. String Puppet:

This puppet tradition is prevalent in Orissa, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Rajasthan. Kathputli (wooden doll) of Rajasthan is one of the popular string puppets of India. In this tradition the puppets are carved out of a single block of wood and generally stand 1.5 feet in height. The puppets have long flowing skirts that hide the feet and their arms and hands are made of stuffed rags.

Sakhi kundhei (companion doll) also known as Sakhi Nata, is Orissa's string puppet. The puppets are made of wood and the long flowing decorative skirts hide the legs. A puppet is manipulated by the strings (usually five to seven) attached to a triangular wooden control.

Bommalattam (doll dance) of Tamil Nadu are among the heaviest and the largest puppets with some of them being as big as 4.5 feet in height and weighing over 10 kilos. In Maharashtra, the string puppet tradition is called Kalasutri Bahalye (thread skill doll). Here the puppets' figures are artistically carved and painted. Sadly, this tradition is dying fast in Maharashtra.

4. Shadow Puppet:

Perhaps one of the oldest forms of puppetry, shadow puppets are found in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra, Orissa and Tamil Nadu. Ravan Chhaya from Orissa and Tholpavai Koothu from Kerala are the two prominent shadow puppet theatre traditions of India.

Ravan Chhaya puppets are made from the skins of deer, mountain goats and sheep and they are not painted so as to retain their natural colours. Sizes of the puppets vary from less than 20 centimeters to over 60 centimeters, with no joints. This tradition is named after Ravan as it is believed that Ram, a divine and illuminated being, does not cast a shadow.

Tholpavai Koothu is an ancient form of art dedicated to goddess Bhagavathi, worshipped by the Hindu community of Kerala as the Mother Goddess. The puppets are opaque, thus casting black and white shadow, mainly in sitting or standing profile. Tolu Bommalatta (leather puppet dance) of Andhra Pradesh have puppets that are of human size with several joints. They are translucent and cast coloured shadows on the screens.

The shadow puppet show of Karnataka, Togalu Gombeyatta shares certain similarities with Andhra Pradesh's Tolu Bommalatta. The figures in this puppet show are also translucent and they shed coloured shadows.


J. Tilakasiri, The Puppet Theatre of Asia. Ceylon: Department of Cultural Affairs, 1968.
Putul Yatra: An Exhibition of Indian Puppets, New Delhi: Sangeet Natak Akademi.
Suresh Awasthi, Performance Tradition in India. New Delhi: National Book Trust, 2001.
S. A. Krishnaiah, Puppetry in Karnataka. Udupi : R.R.C., 1987.

* Ahanthem Homen Singh wrote this article for Imphal Times
The writer is Research Scholar, Dept. of Modern Indian Languages and Literary Studies, University of Delhi and can be contacted at homenahanthem(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was posted on March 26, 2017.

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