Living Dolls: Story of Indian Puppets

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Preface   Puppets arouse in me two kinds of feelings. When they behave like human beings, they seem to be mocking at me. They exaggerate my shortcomings, trampling on which they go on capering in a Falstaffian way and make me laugh unknowingly at my own foolishness. When however they behave as themselves, they look mysterious. As if they were 'beings' of another world who sweetly persuade me to come crawling to theirs. And when I am there, thei...



Puppets arouse in me two kinds of feelings. When they behave like human beings, they seem to be mocking at me. They exaggerate my shortcomings, trampling on which they go on capering in a Falstaffian way and make me laugh unknowingly at my own foolishness. When however they behave as themselves, they look mysterious. As if they were 'beings' of another world who sweetly persuade me to come crawling to theirs. And when I am there, their world looks like a multi-coloured small ball, extremely fascinating and entirely manageable. I feel great, enriched by the opening of the doors of other planes of reality and of other levels of experience.


Although I had the idea that puppets can take drama to great heights, it was not until 1980 when I attended the World Congress of UNIMA at Washington, that I came to know that puppet theatre can have such an amazing range and variety. Some of the puppet shows presented at the Congress had such aesthetic appeal that they were in no way less than any human theatre of high calibre. They helped reinforce my fascination for puppets.


As a child I was immensely impressed with the few puppet shows that I watched. I remember to have stealthily imitated some of the fascinating movements of the puppets. Gradually, puppet shows became quite scarce and I do not remember to have seen any puppet show between the late forties and mid-fifties. It was as if the puppeteers shied away from urban and semi-urban areas where movies had begun to be the craze of the entertainment-hungry crowds.


Towards late fifties I chanced to watch a Ravanachhaya show at Cuttack and that was my first exposure to shadow play. I was enthralled. Earlier I had not imagined that moving shadows could be so powerful, so dramatic, and so eloquent. I met the puppeteer after the show. He was a very simple and unassuming old man of about sixty years. He told me that he came from a remote village in the district of Dhenkanal .


in Orissa. The fascinating shadow show lingered in my memory for many days. I had no chance of watching a puppet show after that till I joined the Sangeet Natak Akademi, New Delhi, in the year 1970.


At the Akademi, I was initially given the delightful job of surveying and documenting the various forms of traditional folk and tribal performing arts including puppetry. The then Secretary of the Akademi Dr. Suresh Awasthi used to take a good deal of interest in traditional puppetry. When I narrated to him my experience of Ravanachhaya he, with a touch of excitement in his voice, advised me to lose no time in searching for the puppeteer, and to comprehensively document the shadow play through filming and sound recording. Thus began a mission which would culminate in the discovery and revival of a fascinating art form which would have otherwise languished and finally died in isolation.

I, along with my colleagues R. S. Malhotra the cinematographer, H. L. Veer the sound recordist and O. K. Sharma the photographer, set out to find the Ravanachhaya performer and to document his performance. All that I knew about him was that he lived in a village in the district of Dhenkanal. I hoped that somebody in Orissa would know more about him.


On reaching Orissa we found that very few had even heard the name of Ravanachhaya, let alone have any idea of the whereabouts of the performer. Even the Orissa State Sangeet Natak Akademi was of little help in the matter. Yet, we determinedly forged along on our search.


We reached the district headquarters town of Dhenkanal, the capital of an erstwhile princely state, and after which the district has been named. Our firm determination and persistence led us to the Stenographer of the Sub-divisional Magistrate whose wife belonged to the village where the puppeteer used to live. Though the man himself was not in a position to elicit us much, his wife enlightened us with the information that the name of the Ravanachhaya performer was Kathinanda Das and he lived in a village called Odasa which is about hundred kilometres away from Dhenkanal. Thrilled with joy we headed for the small sleepy village called Odasa.


Kathinanda Das looked a much neglected person. The tattered cloth he wore gave us an idea of the extent of his poverty. Though he was puzzled at first to find us calling on him, we saw a soft stir of happiness and excitement in his silent eyes when he learnt of our purpose. His hands trembled with excitement and age as he drew out a tin chest containing the Ravanachhaya figures. Rust had settled on its hinges, and when he opened the box, it creaked. Kathinanda Das told us that he was opening the chest after 3 years. The creaking sound was like the groans of a dying art.


Out came from the tin chest dozens of innocent looking leather-puppets. They were covered by fungus growth. Kathinanda lovingly wiped the fungus with an oil soaked rag. He improvised a puppet stage, and soon after darkness set in, the Ravanachhaya show began. We held our breath. The show was fascinating. We were spell-bound how such simple looking leather made figures are capable of carrying drama to such dizzy heights. Their shadows acquired such rare lyricity.


When the villagers saw us filming, photographing, and tape-recording the performance of Kathinanda Das, their estimation of him shot up like a rocket. All at once Kathinanda was the most important person in the village. His esteem in the eyes of the villagers soared even higher when he performed in Delhi and received the coveted Central Akademi Award. When I write this preface, Kathinanda Das is no more. He left for his heavenly abode about a year ago. But fortunately, the art survives.


I have narrated this long story with the sole purpose of acquainting the readers with the present condition of many genres of rural performing arts of this country. The above story of Ravanachhaya could have been that of any other form of traditional puppet theatre or that of a folk or tribal form of art.


All these arts originated and grew up in an agricultural civilization. As industrialisation is making deep and rapid inroads, the values and taste of Indian society are changing fast. Many ancient forms of art are now unable to appeal to the taste of the common mass. Again, since the earlier feudal system has been completely replaced by democracy, the responsibility of providing sound patronage to any art is on the people. Under such a system it is likely that the most popular art will get the most encouraging patronage. Naturally, under present day circumstances, if performing arts such as the various styles of traditional puppetry are to survive, they have to struggle alongside popular mass media. Institutions as the Sangeet Natak Akademi, on behalf of the Government, can only give moral and marginally financial support which may not be adequate for an art to live. Both qualitative and quantitative vastness and variety of this country's heritage in performing arts are as much its assets as liabilities.


The Sangeet Natak Akademi, New Delhi, became increasingly aware that unless something urgent was done, a few forms of traditional puppetry would become extinct. In 1977 Smt. Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya became the Chairman and Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan, the Vice-Chairman of the Akademi. Both are known for their abiding interest in traditional art forms. During their tenure the Akademi implemented a new scheme, viz. Preservation and Promotion of Puppetry. Initially, I was entrusted with the responsibility of supervising the operative aspect of the scheme.


The first elaborate survey of traditional forms of puppet theatre was done by Inder Razdan about two decades ago under the banner of Bharatiya Natya Sangh. Before I joined the Akademi, Govind Vidyarthi had initiated the working of the Documentation Unit and credit for locating authentic puppeteers of a few forms of traditional puppetry should go to him. I had the opportunity of working with him for about eight years. He travelled extensively throughout the country and came in direct contact with countless forms of performing arts. He is a storehouse of information upon which I have drawn many a time and Sri Vidyarthi has always been generous.


I am deeply indebted to all whom I have mentioned above and also to S. C. Bansal, the sound recordist, who together with R. S. Malhotra and O. K. Sharma enthusiastically cooperated with me in 1976 when I made the documentary film 'Chhayanatak' based on the shadow theatre tradition of this country. This film is in the Documentation Unit of the Akademi.


I gratefully remember all those puppeteers, informants, and scholars who unhesitatingly gave me the information I wanted. This monograph could not have been written had they not been so generous to me.


Most of the photographs used in the book were obtained with the courtesy of Sangeet Natak Akademi, New Delhi.

Before concluding I must express my deep gratitude to Dr. S. S. Shashi and Smt. Bharati Mahadevan because had they not taken personal interest this monograph would not have appeared in book form so soon. My thanks are also due to Sri R. Sarangan and Sri J. Adalja who designed the book with great care. I am extremely grateful to Sri H. H. N. Tandon for taking keen interest in the production of this book.




In theatre there are two kinds of emotion. The audience may be moved either by the personality or impersonality of the actor. A fascinating kind of impersonality is acquired by the actor when he puts on a mask as in Seraikela and Purulia Chhau dances or when his face is treated with heavy and stylized mask-like make-up as in Koodiattam and Kathakali of Kerala and Yakshagana of Karnataka. This kind of impersonality of the puppet 'actors' fascinate the audience.


Puppets are 'actors' though not human beings. Nor are they merely bits of wood and rags. Just as mask is considered as 'the other face of man', so also we may consider puppet as 'the other being'. Since it is endowed with such extraordinary life of its own, it can carry drama to heights beyond the reach of human actors.


Puppet is, in fact, the mask complete, from which the human actor has withdrawn, not to be dissociated but to be united with subtler objectivity for exploring yet another dimension of theatre yet another plane of reality.


Although puppets owe their articulation to human agency, at times, they surpass in theatricality. The West has now fully awakened to the immense theatrical possibilities of puppets. In the first decade of this century Edward Gordon Craig who greatly influenced modern theatre said, "The marionette appears to me to be the last echo of some noble and beautiful art of past civilization. But as with all art that has passed into fat and vulgar hands, the puppet has become a reproach. All puppets are now but low comedians ... 'Puppet' is a term of contempt, though there still remain some who find beauty in these little figures, degenerate though they have become ... And who knows whether the Puppet shall not once again become the faithful medium for the beautiful thoughts of the artists."


What Craig hoped has actually happened in the West and one of the most interesting stories of the recent years has been the revival of interest in puppetry. The old traditional puppetry has been reinvigorated and puppets have been successfully introduced to many new spheres of activity, such as education, therapeutics, rehabilitation of handicapped children, propaganda, advertising, cinema and television. It has been now recognised that there is no limit to the power of puppets to provide aesthetic entertainment. In countries like the USSR, France, Czechoslovakia, Sweden, Germany, Hungary, Poland, USA, Canada, Japan and Australia, contemporary puppetry is so developed that it claims equal status with that of human theatre.


Puppet theatre fascinates not only because they move us by their impersonality, but there are other deep psychological reasons. We have all a strong desire to escape reality. Psychologists call it 'wish fulfilment'. The puppet's power of offering escape from reality through wish fulfilment is the secret of its surprisingly universal appeal which comes through identification, not with any of the puppets but with the puppeteer. Through this identification the audience enjoys the same sensation of power and authority as the puppeteer, though to a lesser degree. Puppetry helps to fulfil mainly three kinds of wishes:


(a) We all wish to have power over others. It is the wish to make ourselves felt by controlling others' destinies. Accordingly the puppeteer creates his puppets and populates his own world. Perhaps he behaves as a despot or a god. May be he reveals a Hitler in himself, but undoubtedly absolute is the control over his kingdom. His power and authority is unquestionable.


(b) The other wish is somewhat the same as that of a father who aspires to fulful in his son what he has missed in life. Therefore, puppets often perform such acts that we want to but can not do. This is a kind of 'sublimation'.


(c) The wish to appear superior to others is no less strong in us. This is satisfied in puppetry mainly in two ways: by manipulating the puppets in such a way that the audience is puzzled and mystified to the extent that they ask themselves 'how is it all done?' and by exposing the weaknesses of fellow human beings through cruel caricatures.


Again, from the perspective of the spectators, puppet show presents a different world a different plane of reality. The puppets are something unfamiliar, not quite understood, but wonderfully small and insignificant only bits of wood and yet endowed with such extraordinary life of their own. This way the spectator indulges in a feeling of superiority one of the most pleasant sensations that can be experienced. He feels as if he is the onlooker of an inferior race of beings who excite his curiosity as to how exactly they achieve their peculiar antics, while at the same time he can laugh at them with a slight sneer.


Because of these psychological reasons puppetry is very effectively used in correcting delinquency in children.

Rightly programmed puppet shows can be extremely satisfying purely from the aesthetic point of view. Puppets have the potentiality to surpass human beings both in theatricality and in grace, so much so that we are, at times, tempted to imitate them. Oliver Goldsmith, the reputed English poet, almost broke his leg trying to prove that he could jump over a broomstick as gracefully as a puppet. Many other great persons of highly refined sensibility have not only been impressed but inspired by puppet theatre. Goethe, the great German poet, was inspired to write Faust by seeing a puppet show based on the legend of Dr. Faustus. Shakespeare is said to have had puppets in mind when he wrote A Midsummer Night's Dream. In more recent times, Maurice Macterlinck, the Belgian poet and dramatist who received the Nobel prize in 1911, wrote puppet plays. The last play that G.B. Shaw wrote Shakes versus Shav was perhaps for puppets.


Although the West had a much feebler tradition in puppetry, it is now fully aware of its potentialities which offer immense scope as a powerful means of dramatic expression. It is, however, unfortunate that India which has an unbroken tradition ot puppet theatre for more than two thousand years is yet to awaken to the desirability of reinvigorating this fascinating art. In the contemporary scene of performing arts, puppetry is perhaps the most neglected.


History of Puppetry


Many scholars are of the opinion that puppet theatre originated in India and it is from here that the art along with the epic themes migrated to other Asian countries. Richard Pischel in The Home of the Puppet Play (1902) says, " .. .it is not improbable that the puppet play is in reality everywhere the most ancient form of dramatic representation. Without doubt, this is the case in India, and there, too, we must look for its home." There are a few who do not agree with Pischel and say puppetry did not originate in India but in China or Greece or Italy. There are, however, a number of evidences to prove that puppetry reached great heights in India as long back as in the early centuries B. C.


An unmistakable reference to puppetry is found in the Tamil classic Silappadikaram written around 2nd century B. C. Netyesbestre, the masterly treatise on dramaturgy was written by Bharata around the same time. He mentions two earlier dramaturgists, namely, Krisasva and Shilalin, but their works are not extant. In Natyashastra, puppetry has not been dealt with but the producer-cumdirector of the human theatre has been termed as Sutradharwhich means 'holder of strings'. The word must have found its place in theatre-terminology long before Natyashastra was written and there is no doubt that it came from marionette theatre. This leads logically to the assumption that puppet theatre reached great heights and was very popular even before human theatre crystallised. Prevalence of human theatre in India is traced back to 400 years before Christ. Puppetry therefore must have originated in India earlier than 5th century B. C. No country can, perhaps, claim such a long tradition in this art.


That puppetry was very popular and impressive as an art in ancient India is evident from the way it has been referred to in poems, especially with metaphysical content. For instance, in Srimad Bhagavata, the God Almighty has been likened to a puppeteer who with three strings Sattva, Rajas and Tamas manipulates all the beings in the created universe.


The Sanskrit language has also taken a deeper view in naming these inanimate objects. They are termed as Puttalika or Puttika, both of which etymologically mean 'little sons'. Whereas the word 'puppet' is derived from the Italian word 'pupa' meaning a doll. Derived from the root 'Put', Puttalika or Puttika is a dimunitive form of Putra meaning 'son'. The etymology thus suggests a 'life' contained in the puppets. Pupa, on the other hand, may anticipate animation through manipulation, but basically it points to an inanimate object. The etymological meaning of Puttalika has sunk so deep into the mind of traditional puppeteers that they usually keep the box containing puppets in their bedrooms and when a puppet is 'old' and can not stand any more manipulation it is not just rejected and thrown. Chanting mantra, the puppet to be discarded is taken to a river and is assigned to the waves.


Puppet theatre contacts its audience in two ways.


When the material structure of the puppet is stressed, its ambition to imitate human beings is to some extent ridiculed and as a result it produces a comic effect. But when the elements of life in the puppets are stressed, the emphasis is put on their mysterious origins and they produce a magic effect.


It is probable that the earliest appearance of puppets was in connection with religious ceremonies or as a medium of popularising religious legends. Even today, both in India and Java some forms of traditional puppetry have distinct ritualistic overtones. There are references to chhayanataka (shadow theatre) being used by preachers of Jainism and Buddhism to popularise their religious legends. In India as also in some temples of Egypt and Greece statues were constructed which could make movements under the direction of concealed controls. Similar figures existed in medieval Europe; and among African tribes, idols have been found which could be secretly operated. This leads to the assumption that puppets were originally, like masks, ritual objects representing gods.


As civilization advanced it was recognised that puppets do not only mystify, they also do entertain. Gradually they started coming out of the temple precincts and appeared before their audience as 'actors'; but were not totally emancipated from their original legacies.


Some puppeteers who wanted to free themselves from the yoke of tradition started to feel that the puppet is particularly suited for mimicry and satire. They put more stress on the material structure of the puppets than on the elements of 'life' in those stylized figures. Thus the fashionable puppet theatre, especially in European countries, took shape towards 18th and 19th century, and acquired a sophisticated charm with an emphasis on comic effect rather than magic effect.


During early years of the 20th century some artists 'discovered' puppetry to be a worthwhile artistic and dramatic medium and accorded it a serious respect which it had never enjoyed before. Educationists joined the artists in welcoming puppet theatre as a means of self expression and as a vehicle of instruction.






Three-Dimensional Puppets


Shadow Theatre


Contemporary Puppet Theatre



Sample Pages

Item Code: NAJ931 Author: Jiwan Pani Cover: Hardcover Edition: 1986 Publisher: Publications Division, Government of India Language: English Size: 8.0 inch x 10.5 inch Pages: 68 (Throughout Color and B/W Illustrations ) Other Details: Weight of the Book: 450 gms
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