Kundhei Nacha by Maguni Charan Kunwar

Puppetry is one of the ancient forms of entertainment. Puppetry is a form of theatre or performance that involves the manipulation of puppets – inanimate objects, often resembling some type of human or animal figure, that are animated or manipulated by a human called a puppeteer. Such a performance is also known as a puppet production. The script for a puppet production is called a puppet play. Puppeteers use movements from hands and arms to control devices such as rods or strings to move the body, head, limbs, and in some cases the mouth and eyes of the puppet. The puppeteer sometimes speaks in the voice of the character of the puppet, while at other times they perform to a recorded soundtrack.

Puppetry has long been of interest in India, both for entertainment and educational purposes. The oldest written reference to puppetry is found in the Tamil classic Silappadikaram, written around 1st and 2nd century B.C. Apart from the art form, puppetry has been of philosophical importance in the Indian culture. In the Bhagwata, God has been described as a puppeteer, controlling the universe with the three strings – Satta, Raja and Tama. Similarly, in the Indian theatre, the narrator was called Sutradhar, or the ‘holder of strings’. A large variety of puppetry traditions have developed in various parts across India, each with their own distinct form of puppets. Stories from mythology, folk lore and local legends were adopted. Puppetry has imbibed elements of painting, sculpture, music, dance and drama has imbibed elements of painting, sculpture, music, dance and drama and has created a unique avenue of artistic expression. However, the lack of devoted audience and financial security has led to a steady decline of this art form in the modern times. Puppetry in India can be broadly classified into four categories. A brief outline of each with some prominent examples are given as follows: String puppet, Shadow puppet, Glove puppet and Rod puppet.

String Puppets

String puppets or marionettes have a prominent presence in the Indian cultural traditions. The features of string puppets are:
1. The puppets are generally 8-9 inch miniature figures chiselled out of wood.
2. Oil colour is used to paint the wood with skin colour and add other facial features such as eyes, lips, nose, etc.
3. Small wooden pipes are created with the body to form the limbs. The body is then covered with colourful miniature dress and stitched.
4. Miniature jewelleries and other accessories are attached to give a realistic feel.
5. Strings are attached to small holes in the hands, head and back of the body which are then controlled by the puppeteer.

Some of the popular examples of string puppetry in India are: Kathputli (Rajasthan), Kundhei (Odisha), Gambeyatta (Karnataka) and Bommalattam (Tamil Nadu)

Shadow Puppets

India has a rich tradition in shadow puppetry, which has survived till now. Some of the features of shadow puppetry are:
1. Shadow puppets are flat figures cut out of leather.
2. The figures are painted identically on both sides of the leather.
3. The puppets are placed on a white screen with light falling from behind, creating a shadow on the screen.
4. The figures are manipulated so that the silhouettes created on the blank screen create telling imagery.

Some of the popular examples of shadow puppetry are: Togalu Gombeyatta (Karnataka), Ravanachhaya (Odisha) and Tholu Bommalata (Andhra Pradesh)

Glove Puppets

Glove puppets are also known as sleeve, hand or palm puppets. They are small figures with head and arms wearing a long, flowing skirt as costume. The puppets are generally made of cloth or wood, but some variations of paper puppet has also been seen. The puppeteer wears the puppet as glove, manipulating the head with his index finger. The two hands are manipulated using the thumb and the middle finger – giving life and expression to the originally limp puppet. Glove puppets are popular all across India, with the performance usually accompanied by rhythmic beats of drum or dholak.

A popular example of glove puppetry in India is:Pavakoothu (Kerala)

Rod Puppets

Rod puppets are larger variations of glove puppet and are controlled by rods by the puppeteer from behind a screen. It is mainly popular in the region of Eastern India.

Some of the popular examples are: Yampuri (Bihar) and Putul Nachh (Odisha- Bengal Assam)


Sources:
1. Wikipedia
2. Indian Art and Culture by Nitin Singhania