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Puppetry in India
Oct 18, 2014

India is said to be the home of puppets, but it is yet to awaken to its unlimited possibilities. The earliest reference to the art of puppetry is found in Tamil classic ‘Silappadikaaram’ written around the 1st or 2nd century B.C. 

Almost all types of puppets are found in India. Puppetry throughout the ages has held an important place in traditional entertainment. Like traditional theatre, themes for puppet theatre are mostly based on epics and legends. Puppets from different parts of the country have their own identity. Regional styles of painting and sculpture are reflected in them.


Puppetry has been successfully used to motivate emotionally and physically handicapped students to develop their mental and physical faculties. Awareness programmes about the conservation of the natural and cultural environment have also proved to be useful.

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.

1) String Puppets

2) Shadow Puppets


3) Rod Puppets


4) Glove Puppets

 

1) String puppets:

  • Perhaps most common Puppetry in India

  • Marionettes having jointed limbs controlled by strings allow far greater flexibility and are, therefore, the most articulate of the puppets. 

  • String puppets are made of wood, or wire, or cloth stuffed with cotton, rags or saw dust.

  • The puppet is suspended from a hand held control strings that are attached to different parts of the puppet's body. The puppet is manipulated by operating the control as well as by loosening or pulling the relevant string(s). Some of the traditional string puppets are very heavy. For the convenience of manipulation and support, two rods are attached to the hands of the puppets.

  • Rajasthan, Orissa, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu are some of the regions where this form of puppetry has flourished.

  • Centuries-old art of string puppetry is slowly dying

a) Traditional String Puppet of Rajasthan is Known as Kathaputli

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

  • Their costumes and headgears are designed in the medieval Rajasthani style of dress.

  • Mainly the Bhat community practises this art termed Kathputli(Kath meaning wood and Putli meaning doll). 

  • These people claim that their ancestors had performed for royal families and received great honour and prestige from the rulers of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Punjab. Their legend goes back to the times of the Great King Vikramaditya, of Ujjain whose throne Simhasan Battisi had 32 decorative dolls dancing and doing acrobatic feats. The first Bhat produced a play with 32 puppets on the life and achievements of king Vikramaditya and his progeny performed it for hundreds of years.

  • The Kathputli is accompanied by a highly dramatised version of the regional music.

  • Puppeteers manipulate the puppets with a whistling, squeaking voice and are interpreted by a narrator who also provides the rhythms.

  • These puppets wear long trailing skirts and do not have legs.

  • Their bodies and limbs are made of mango wood and stuffed with cotton. A slight jerk of the string causes the puppets to produce movements of the hands, neck and shoulder. Many puppets hang on one rope: one string tied to the head and other to the waist. 

  • Puppeteers manipulate them with two to five strings which are normally tied to their fingers and not to a prop or a support.

b) Kundhei, Orissa

  • The string puppet of Orissa is called Gopalila Kundhei (Gopalila meaning story of Radha and Krishna and Kundhei meaning puppet) as they depict the story of Radha Krishna.

  • Made of light wood, the Orissa puppets have no legs but wear long flowing skirts.

  • 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.

  • String puppetry is mainly centred in North Orissa. All puppeteers are Ahir Gopal by caste (cowherds) and believe that they have migrated from Vrindaban.

c) Gombeyatta, Karnataka

  • The string puppets of Karnataka are called Gombeyatta.

  • They are styled and designed like the characters of Yakshagana, the traditional theatre form of the region.

  • The form is believed to have been prevalent in the ninth century, as mentioned in the Puranas. All the ritualistic rigours of the Yakshagana are observed. 

  • The string puppets are made of wood. Their costumes are like those worn by the characters from Yakshagana, with the same elaborate make-up, colourful headgear and heavy jewellery.

  • 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.

  • The person conducting the show is known as Bhagavathar. He is a sensitive musician and an imaginative storyteller, giving dramatic expressions to the simple or complex situations through the puppets.

  • The contents are drawn from the epics and the Bhagavat Puran.The Maddale and the Shruti (drone) provide the accompaniment. 

  • 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.

d) Bommalatam, Tamil Nadu

  • Puppets from Tamil Nadu, known as Bommalatam.

  • They 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 Bommalatam puppets are the largest, heaviest and the most articulate of all traditional Indian marionettes.

e) Putala Natch, Assam

  • The string puppet of Assam is known as Putala Natch (Putala meaning doll and Natch meaning dance)

  • The puppet theatre is more popular in lower Assam, while fairly competent troupes have been working in Nowgong and other upper Assam districts, including Satras (hermitages).

  • The body and hands of the puppets are made of soft wood by joining together different parts forming the head, torso and limbs with the help of cloth. They cover the head and hand with a paste of clay and cow dung, and colour them. 

  • Some puppets have joints in elbows but no legs. The lower portion is normally covered with cloth so that, while manipulated, the figures glide smoothly along the floor of the stage. The size of the puppets varies from 1 foot to 3 feet.

f) Kalasutri Bahulya, Maharashtra

  • The Kalasutri puppets are small puppets without legs.

  • They have only two joints at the shoulders and are manipulated using strings that are attached to the head and hands of the puppet. 

  • Episodes from Ramayana or other epics of the area are narrated through folk tunes.

g) Nool Pavakoothu, Kerala

  • The string puppet tradition, earlier confined to Ernakulam district, is called NoolPavakoothu (Nool meaning string and Pavakoothu meaning doll's dance).

  • The performance usually begins with a comic prelude full of fun and humour. First, the puppet of a female character is introduced who dances and plays with some balls --- throwing them up in succession and catching them all till they come down.

  • The songs and dialogue of the string puppet plays practised in Malayalam language. The puppets are made of wood, beautified with paint and with artistic carving. The joints in the bodies of these puppets are so supple that the head, arms, legs and waist can be easily moved.

h) Keelubommalatta, Andhra Pradesh

  • The string puppet of Andhra Pradesh is called Keelubommalatta (Keelu meaning string and bommalatta meaning doll's dance). 

  • The puppeteer manipulates by body movements to animate the puppet tied to a ring placed over his head. While doing so, he makes a variety of loud sounds, even as the dialogue and music keep on going, to emphasise the uniqueness of the puppet. 

i) Laithibi Jagoi, Manipur

  • Laithibimeaning doll and Jagoi meaning dance

  • String puppetry, resembling human or divine figures, is performed at Rasleela, whereas puppet-shows with animal and demonic forms are performed during Gostha Leela.

  • A black screen is hung from the floor of the platform reaching the ground. The puppets are lowered to the ground and manipulated with the aid of black strings, which become invisible against the black backdrop.

j) Kalasutri Bahuliya, Maharashtra

  • Kalasutri meaning string and Bahulia meaning puppet

  • String puppets came from the Rajasthan-Gujrat area to Maharashtra and were given patronage by the rulers of Sawant-Wadi.

2) Shadow puppets

Shadow puppets are flat puppets that are operated against the rear of a tightly stretched white cloth screen. They are 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. Manipulation between the light and the screen make silhouettes or colourful shadows, as the case may be, for the viewers who sit in front of the screen. This tradition of shadow puppets survives in   the states of Andhra Pradesh (Tholu Bommalata), Karnataka (Togalu Gombeyata), Kerala (Tolpavakoothu), Maharashtra (chamadyache Bahulya), Orissa, and Tamil Nadu (Tolpavaikoothu). Togalu Gombeyatta

  • 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.

a) Tholu Bommalata, Andhra Pradesh

  • Tholu Bommalata is Andhra Pradesh's shadow theatre.

  • Tholu Bommalata, meaning dance of leather puppets (tholu – leather, bommalata – puppet dance).

  • It has the richest and strongest tradition.

  • The puppets are large in size.

  • 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.

  • The theme of the puppet plays are drawn from the Ramayana, Mahabharata and Puranas.

  • A really long time ago when there was no radio, television, the knowledge of the local folk tales and the Hindu epics like Ramayana, Mahabharata were narrated by this puppetry dance in many remote villages.

  • It combines the techniques of both rod and string puppets. 

  • The puppets are mostly made of skin of  antelope, spotted deer and goat. Auspicious characters are made of antelope skin  and deer skin

  • The strings attached to these puppets are attached to a iron ring which the puppeteer wears in his head like a crown. 

  • These puppets are the large, heavy and most articulate and some of the puppets have also joined hands and arms. 

  • The theatre has elaborate preliminaries that are divided into four parts-Vinayak puja, Komali, Amanattam, and Pusenkanattam.

  • The puppeteers always stand behind the screen and manipulate the figures. They sing and deliver dialogues for the figures and the song is supported by one or two vocalists.

  • The players manipulate the figures by placing them on the screen and then moving them away and thus it creates a illusion in the mind of the people that the figures are suddenly appear in bodily form and then fading away.

  • The puppeteers make the puppets dance as they rotate the dancer detachable head and manipulate their hands to create an illusion of twirling.. The fighting scenes are enacted by holding the hip of the puppets rather than the central stick alone to have more balance and control. The scene of fighting is as dramatic as extremely interesting and charming. 

  • The style of singing and the vocal delivery is very much similar to that of old fashioned drama genre ‘satyabhamakalapam’.

b) Ravanachhaya, Odisha

  • The puppets are in one piece and have no joints.

  • 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. 

  • Held close to a white cloth screen against an oil-lamp, shadows are distinctly visible to the spectators who sit on the other side.

  • Apart from human and animal characters, many props such as trees, mountains, chariots, etc. are also used.

  • Ravanachhaya puppets are smaller in size-the largest not more than two feet have no limbs.

c) Chamadyache Bahulya, Maharashtra

  • These shadow puppets have no jointed limbs and are delicately coloured with vegetable dyes. 

  • Episodes from Ramayana are narrated using folk tunes. This form is also in the brink of extinction.

  • This form is prevalent only in the Ratnagiri district of Maharashtra. 

d) Togalu Gombeyaata, Karnataka

  • The leather or shadow puppets locally called togalu (leather) gombe-atta (puppet dance) of Karnataka is similar to the leather puppets of Andhra Pradesh.  

  • The Gombe atta presents stories based on episodes drawn from epics and puranas.

  • The highly dramatic music is a blend of folk and classical style. 

3) Rod Puppets

Rod puppets are an extension of glove-puppets, but often much larger and supported and manipulated by rods from below. 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. The main holding rod that supports the puppet may be hidden by a robe or costume of the puppet. The action rods are usually connected to the hands of the puppet and manipulated by the puppeteer to show action. The body and hands have a bamboo base covered and plastered with hay and rice husk mixed and moulded into required shape. Due to the absence of legs the puppets are draped in a sari or dhoti as per the character. The puppet movements are highly dramatic. This form of puppetry now is found mostly in West Bengal and Orissa.

a) Yampuri, Bihar

  • The traditional Rod puppet of Bihar is known as Yampuri.

  • These puppets are made of wood.

  • Unlike the traditional Rod puppets of West Bengal and Orissa, 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.

b) Putul Nautch, West Bengal

  • The traditional rod puppet form of West Bengal is known as Putul Nautch.

  • They are carved from wood and follow the various artistic styles of a particular region.

  • The music and verbal text and even costumes have close similarity with the Jatra theatre.

c) Kathi Kandhe, Odisha

  • The puppets in this form are stuck to rods and held aloft and manipulated from below by string. 

  • Besides the head, both hands and sometimes the legs are also manipulated. Stories from mythology, fantasy and social themes are adopted for the rod puppet plays while a group of musicians provides the musical interludes.

  • Only one troupe from Keonjhar district perform the show. 

4) Glove Puppets

The glove puppets are worn on hands just like a glove. The middle finger and thumb act as hands of the puppet and the index finger acts as the head. Also known as hand puppets these are a small figure having head and arms wearing a long skirt as its dress. One puppeteer can perform with two puppets at a time. The tradition of glove puppets in India is popular in Uttar Pradesh, Orissa, West Bengal and Kerala. In Uttar Pradesh, glove puppet plays usually present social themes, whereas in Orissa such plays are based on stories of Radha and Krishna. In Orissa, the puppeteer plays on the dholak with one hand and manipulates the puppet with the other.


Glove puppeteers have come from all communities and religions with the nature of stories and legends as no bar to the puppeteer. Puppets, made of wood, paper or terracotta, have no legs and remain covered by costume on the lower parts. The faces and the dresses are all fashioned after the local customs. Puppeteers perform solo and rarely in a team.

a) Pavakoothu, Kerala 

  • In Kerala, the traditional glove puppet play is called Pavakoothu.

  • It came into existence during the 18th century due to the influence of Kathakali.

  • The theme for Glove puppet plays in Kerala is based on the episodes from either the Ramayana or the Mahabharata.

  • The puppets are very colourful and created like a kathakali actor who wears heavy and mask-like facial make-up, headgear and colourful costumes.

  • The theme for Glove puppet plays in Kerala is based on the episodes from either the Ramayana or the Mahabharata.

  • Bener Putul, West Bengal

  • In West Bengal (mainly south), glove puppets are known as Bener Putul, i.e., dolls of commercial people.

  • The music is based on either common folk tunes or even popular Hindi or Bengali songs, full of robust humour and sarcasm.

  • The puppets have anklets fixed on arms, which are used to keep rhythm by clapping.

  • There are pairs of male and female puppets used by the puppeteers with two hands. The themes are based on social events like linguistic differences, escapade of lover- couples, or even family planning.


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