May 26, 2024


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Puppetry – A Dying Traditional Art

Lifestyles have changed so rapidly that many of our traditional crafts and hobbies have been consigned to the archives. Television and videos take up our free time, and the incredible Information Highways have turned us into obsessive compulsive freaks who can’t keep our fingers off the mouse. We have become cross-eyed, staring at computer screens, and kyphotic, hunched in our high-backed chairs. The tragedy is that even our children have caught the bug, and prefer the computer to other carefree games and hobbies. Haven’t we read of prodigies aged three or four, who have already become Cyber-addicts!

Stress is inevitably the internal reaction to these high-tech stimuli, and the eternal urge to be one with the crowd, is driving many young people to depression, nervousness, peptic ulcers and chronic fatigue. In the light of these realities, it would be wise not to lose sight of our old traditional pastimes that could prove therapeutic, but are unfortunately dying for want of patronage.

One such is the art of Puppetry. Puppets came into being in India, under the rulers of the Vijayanagar Empire, in 3rd Century A.D. It was honed into a theatrical art in Andhra Pradesh. It helped to propagate the works of saints and religious leaders, and also depict stories from the Hindu epics.

Later, it spread to South East Asia. The Cambodian puppeteers inspired the Thais, and in 14th Century, Thai shadow play came into prominence. Java and Bali followed, though it didn’t catch on in Sumatra.

The Malays followed the Siamese and Japanese styles in 19th Century. At the Museum Negara in Kuala Lumpur, a gallery of shadow puppets from sixteen countries, have been exhibited. In all these countries, Rama, Sita, Hanuman and Ravana are the principal puppets, as tales from Ramayana are staged. Stories from the Mahabharatha also lend themselves to interpretation by puppeteers.

Puppetry is more than 1500 years old in China. Their stories are never from the Hindu epics, but from ancient Chinese classical literature. In the days of old, the Imperial Court was the chief patron of the puppeteer.

Greek puppets originated in 5th Century B.C. and were made of small-jointed clay figures. There is evidence too of puppetry in ancient Egypt, mostly miniatures of Gods.

The word puppet is derived from the Latin word ‘pupa,’ meaning ‘doll’ or ‘girl.’ In the mid-nineteenth Century, it was called ‘marionette’ because the puppet of Mary was used in Nativity plays. Puppets survived the Middle Ages, even though the Church prohibited Drama and Theatre.

In 16th Century, during the gold rush to the Honduras, a man called Cortes entertained these pioneers, during their long journey from Mexico to their El Dorado.

In Italy, Germany, France and England, puppetry flourished from 16th Century onwards. The lovable Punch and Judy are friends of our childhood. Surprisingly, they did not originate in England. Punch was the brain-child of an actor from Naples, who called his character “Polcinella” (little chicken), and depicted the lovable qualities of the chicken. This puppet became so famous, that in 1660, he reached London as “Punchinello.” The name was quite a mouthful, so it was abbreviated to “Punch.”

Punch acquired a wife called Joan, in Philadelphia. With both these puppets, the “Punch Opera” was produced and played in New York. Joan became Judy in 1825. These quaint characters have delighted both children and adults all over the globe, in theatres or on sidewalks, in museums or at street corners.

Gradually, puppet characters were added to the repertoire. Puppets became more sophisticated in appearance, as skilled craftsmen began to make the models. Puppeteers became trained as performers, and many original plays were staged. What was once a one-man show became a family occupation involving several members of the family or small companies of men.

In 18th and 19th Centuries, puppet theatres became extremely popular in artistic circles. Writers like George Sands and Goethe organized their own well-prepared puppet shows to entertain their friends. Famous men like Samuel Pepys, noted down in their diaries, the names of the shows they had seen. George Washington even wrote down the sum he had spent, to take his family to the show. Puppet shows have been mentioned in literature by Shakespeare, Ben Johnson and many others.

All over Europe and in London, guilds and societies were formed. Books were published on the history, drama and technique of puppet shows.

However, with the advent of World War II, there was decline in puppetry. Most of the young men were called to arms. Here and there, a lone puppeteer with his portable stage put up a show in the camps, or bomb shelters or hospitals.

Basically there are three kinds of puppets.
The SHADOW puppets are made of translucent leather and coloured vegetable dyes. Buffalo, goat or sheep skin is treated to become translucent. Limbs are jointed loosely, so that they can be made to move separately. A stick is attached vertically in the middle. Movement of the sticks causes general movements. But for special movements, single strings attached to the limbs are used.

These leather puppets are projected on a screen, which is illuminated by a light source placed behind the puppets. Indian shadow play is different from other countries, as the flat puppets are pressed against a white screen, so that a clear coloured shadow is seen by the audience. The puppeteer sits behind the source of light and manipulates the puppets, to form moving shadows on the screen. He also speaks the parts, sings, or is accompanied by music. The light source is a bowl filled with castor or coconut oil, and lit by a wick. These are now replaced by low-voltage electric bulbs.

In South India, shadow puppets are called Tholu Bomalatta or Thogalu Bombeatta. In the good old days, troupes of artists roamed the countryside, and held performances at night in the villages. It had mass appeal for rustic folk. These puppeteers belonged to a semi-nomadic tribe called ‘Kiliikyathas,’ and came from Andhra and North Kanara. As this was not a lucrative profession, they did manual labour during the day, and only held shows at night.

They performed only on invitation. The performance was booked with a token fee of ten rupees given along with betel leaf and a piece of arecanut, by the headman of the village.
The sutradara (head puppeteer) performed the invocation to the local deities. This ceremony called ‘karagallu,’ was to ward off famine, pestilence or evil in the village.

The puppets were transported in cane baskets, and retained their colour for years. Disposal of the puppets when they had outlived their usefulness or when there were no people to carry on the show, was by immersion in a river or sea.

There is another form of puppetry in South Kanara. Here the STRING puppets or marionettes are manipulated by six strings. The performance is on a stage six feet long and four feet wide, with a background of blue or black cloth. The puppeteers or magicians are never seen. They wear anklets which produce the illusion that the puppets themselves are dancing.

The main story teller (Bhagvata) recites the story line, while the puppets perform, and the dialogue and music is provided by the puppeteers. This Yakshagana puppetry is 300 years old, and travels with the field drama troupe, which play all over South Kanara. Puppet shows are held during intermission, as the dramas go on all night.

Puppetry needs only a small investment in money, material, manpower. Both stage and puppets are portable. The performing area is small. Shadow puppetry originated in the East and traveled west.

The ROD puppets are of Western origin and have traveled east. They are also called Stick puppets, and are constructed around the main central rod. A short horizontal bar serves as the shoulders, from which the upper limbs dangle. The arms are made of cloth and stuffed with straw or paper. They are jointed or manipulated with other thinner rods. These puppets can be the size of a man or larger. They are dressed up in different costumes, and the puppeteer hides behind the puppet and manipulates it. The face, neck and hands are flesh coloured. The face can be made of paper mache or cloth stuffed with straw, and covered over with clay and starch paint. The features are outlined with a brush. Coordination of the limbs comes only through practice.

The soft or BODY puppets are made with cloth and manipulated with hand and fingers. One needs deft fingers for movements, and a ventriloquist’s voice to simulate speech.

The visual impact of puppetry is awesome. Besides, the audience can participate whole heartedly with their comments and encouragement. It provides clean family entertainment.

Construction of puppets is a rewarding hobby. It needs good powers of observation, and the ability to replicate characters, something like a cartoonist. It needs a basic knowledge of anatomy, and skill in making the joints mobile. Innovation with various materials like cardboard, biscuit tins, even banana skins is possible. With a little imagination, skits or plays to educate or entertain can be produced.

Puppetry is a good communication medium for rural audiences. Messages of health, hygiene, family planning can be propagated in a realistic way. Countries like Africa are already using puppets for health propaganda.

Puppet making and performing is a good occupational therapy for convalescents and physically disabled people. Muscular coordination and manual dexterity improve with effort.

Psychoanalysis of children is also possible by analyzing the comments they make on what they see.

Rural advertising is another possibility. Promotion skits can be staged to inform the public about new products available.

However, the best use of this art is as a hobby. Building and presenting puppet shows can provide delightful hours of fun to young and old alike. Let’s not let puppetry die.