Puppetry or “Kathputli” is an ancient and popular form of folk entertainment in India. The delivery of the dialogues, the movement of the puppet and the beat of the musical instruments are well synchronised and create a dramatic atmosphere. Puppetry in India is estimated to have originated around 5th century B.C. There are four types of puppets – glove, rod, shadow and string. They are based on the different ways of manipulation of puppets. Below is a short description of each of these types
- Glove Puppets
Also known as hand puppets these are small figures having head and arms wearing a long skirt as its dress. 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. One puppeteer can perform with two puppets at a time.
- Kerala (Pava kathakali – doll dance drama). The puppets are colourful and created like a kathakali actor who wears mask-like facial make-up, headgear and colourful costumes. The height of a puppet varies from one to two feet. The head and the arms are carved from wood and joined with thick cloth. The theme for puppet plays is based on episodes from either the Ramayana or the Mahabharata.
- Orissa (Kundhei nach –doll dance). They are made of three wooden pieces consisting of the head and the two hands with holes for inserting fingers. The wooden pieces are joined in a long flowing costume. The puppeteer plays on the dholak with one hand and manipulates the puppet with the other.
- Rod Puppets
The rod puppets are manipulated by rods of various types and sizes. 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 puppets are draped in a sari or dhoti as per the character.
- West Bengal (putul nach – dancing dolls). The puppeteers, each holding a puppet, perform from behind a head-high bamboo curtain. They move and dance while manipulating the rods attached to the puppets. The body and hands of the puppets are made of soft wood. Plays based on Ramayana and Bengali legends are enacted through puppets.
- Orissa (Kathi Kandhe). The Orissa Rod puppets are much smaller in size, usually about twelve to eighteen inches. Stories based on mythology, fantasy and social themes are adopted by the rod puppeteers. The puppeteers squat on the ground behind a screen. It is more operatic in its verbal contents since impromptu prose dialogues are infrequently used. Most of the dialogues are sung.
- Bihar (Yampuri). These puppets are made of wood. These puppets are in one piece and have no joints. Since these puppets have no joints, the manipulation is different from other Rod puppets and requires greater skills.
- 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 is treated to make it translucent. Shadow puppets are pressed against the screen with a strong source of light behind it. The manipulation between the light and the screen make silhouettes or colourful shadows for the viewers who sit in front of the screen.
- Andhra Pradesh (Tholu Bommalata – dance of leather puppets). The puppets are about 5-6 feet in height and have joints at shoulders, elbows, knees and sometimes also the waist, neck and ankles. They are coloured on both sides and throw coloured shadows on the screen. The music is influenced by the classical music of the region and the theme of the puppet plays are drawn from the Ramayana, Mahabharata and Puranas.
- Kanataka (Togalu gombyatta – leather puppet dance). These puppets 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. The themes for the puppet plays are drawn from epics and literature and a number of characters like clowns, dancers are presented in almost all plays. The music that accompanies is dramatic and beautifully blends folk and classical elements. The highly dramatic music is a blend of folk and classical style.
- Maharashtra (Chamdyacha Bahuliya). These shadow puppets from Ratnagiri area in Mahrashtra have no jointed limbs and are delicately coloured with vegetable dyes. Episodes from Ramayana are narrated using folk tunes.
- Orissa (Ravana Chhaya – shadow of Ravan). This is among the most theatrically exciting puppet show. These puppets are small in size with the largest not more than two feet tall. Held close to a white cloth screen against an oil-lamp, shadows are distinctly visible to the spectators who sit on the other side. They are not coloured, hence throw opaque shadows on the screen. The manipulation requires great dexterity, since there are no joints. Apart from human and animal characters, many props such as trees, mountains, chariots are also used.
- String Puppets
String puppets or marionettes are made of wood 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. Marionettes having limbs controlled by strings allow far greater flexibility and are, therefore, the most articulate of the puppets. The puppet is manipulated by operating the control as well as by loosening or pulling the relevant string. For the convenience of manipulation and support, two rods are attached to the hands of the puppets.
- Maharashtra (Kalasutri Bahulya). 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.
- Orissa (Gopalila Kundhei). The string puppets are light wooden half-dolls from head to waist with detachable arms. These 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 puppetry adopts verse-dramas based on mythology, fantasy and social themes, with plenty of interludes of dance and humorous skits.
- Rajasthan (Kathputli). Carved from a single piece of wood, these puppets are like large dolls that are colourfully dressed. Strings are attached to the head for manipulation. The faces are usually painted yellow, white or any light colour. The hands have no joints unlike the other string puppets of India. These puppets wear long trailing skirts and do not have legs. Puppeteers manipulate them with two to five strings which are normally tied to their fingers and not to a prop or a support. Popular legendary stories are enacted with folk music of Rajasthan.
- Tamil Nadu (Bommalattam). This form combines the techniques of both rod and string puppets. Bommalattam puppets are the largest, heaviest and the most articulate of all traditional Indian marionettes. The size may be around 4 feet in height and many weigh around 8-10 kg. 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. The joints at the shoulders, hips, knees, ankles and wrists require multiple movements during the puppet manipulation.