Puppetry is a popular form of entertainment theatre in different parts of India, which uses various forms, known as ‘puppets’, to illustrate the narratives. The origin of puppetry in India goes back to the ancient times. Excavations at several Harappan sites have revealed a number of toys whose body parts can be manipulated with strings. There are numerous references to different kinds of puppets in the Mahabharata and a Buddhist work called ‘Therigatha’.
There are four basic kinds of puppets – glove, string, rod and shadow. The glove puppets are found mainly in Odisha, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, parts of Uttar Pradesh and the southern part of West Bengal. These puppets are worn on the hand and the puppeteer manipulates their heads and arms with his fingers. The puppeteer narrates his story in verse or prose, while the puppets provide the visual treat. The glove puppets in Orissa are referred as ‘Sakhi Kundhei’ and the performance is called Gopa Lila Kundhei or Kundhei Nacha. The glove puppets of Kerala are more ornate, colourful and resemble the actors on the Kathakali stage in their make-up and costume. Their performance is known as ‘Pava Kathakali’ or ‘Pavakoothu’. The themes of this theatre are mainly Radha-Krishna stories and episodes from the Ramayana. In Tamil Nadu also the performance of glove puppetry is described as ‘Pavakoothu’. The glove puppets of Bengal are known as ‘Bener Putul’ and the art is practised by members of the ‘Kahar’ tribes. The glove puppet shows on the theme of two women, ‘Gulabo’ and ‘Sitabo’ are very popular in Lucknow. In Karnataka, the glove puppets are known as ‘Chinni Patti’.
String puppets are found in Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Odisha, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. In this, the stress is more on the manipulative skill of the puppeteer. The ‘Kataputali’ shows of Rajasthan, ‘Putla Nach’ of Assam, ‘Malasutri Bhaulya’ of Maharashtra, ‘Bommalattam’ of Tamil Nadu and ‘Gombeyatta’ of Karnataka fall under this category. The ‘Putual Nach’ of West Bengal and the ‘Kathi Kundhei’ of Odisha are the best examples of rod puppetry in India.
During a puppetry performance in a village, a rectangular stage is set up by using split bamboo and woolen blankets (Kambli). The performance is commenced with an invocation to Lord Ganesha and Saraswati. In order to announce that the show is about to commence a pair of buffoons Silekyatha and his hilarious wife, Bangarakka makes an appearance on the screen. They attract the audience by observations, gestures, jokes and comments on village affairs. The core of the performance is enacted during which detailed and dramatically prolonged episodes from Ramayana, Mahabharata, stories from Puranas and the Devi scriptures are presented. The headman, his wife and children, gives the male, female, and children voices respectively. The music is provided by rubbing a reed on the back of a bell-metal dish, a mukha-veena or a harmonium. The themes depend on the occasions for which the Puppeteers are invited. They perform “Krishna Leela” on birthdays, “Girija Kalyana” on wedding days and “Swargarohana” when a death takes place.