Puppetry has been one of the most vibrant and long thriving theatrical forms in India. A puppet may be defined as any inanimate figure given life by the will and the spirit of man and this whole act is known as puppetry.
“As such, there are twin levels of performance where the puppeteer at first conceptualizes and internalizes the set of roles to be enacted and subsequently transfers them upon the “inanimate” puppets. Thereby, the audience is confronted with a dual presence – the “omnipresent” puppeteer/ master performer sharing the space with the “animated” puppets which play into the hands of the puppeteer. An important task of the puppeteer is to transform the puppet from being a mere “figure” towards embodying a distinct character.
For this, the puppeteer applies the various techniques of manipulation and the various types of puppet forms corresponding to the demands of the character”.
The word puppet comes from the French word ‘Poupee’ or the Latin ‘ Pupa’, both meaning ‘dolls’. In Sanskrit, puppets are termed ‘Putrika’’, Putraka’or ‘ Puttalika’, all of which are derived from the root Putta equivalent to Putra (son). It is derived from ancient Indian thoughts that puppets have life.
Telling a story is at the crux of this form of art and it is also a great way to entertain and engage the audience too. The storytelling concept is very much woven into this art form. Puppetry largely depends on the visuals and the acting through the voice of the puppeteer. Even when the language becomes a barrier the visual storytelling prevails and one could understand and extract some meaning through them.
The puppeteers in India extract their materials from their own tradition and also apply their own creativity in order to transform the appearance and functionality of the puppets. Creativity is highly needed in order to make the puppet come alive on stage. However, the tradition that the puppeteer is carrying and manipulates is also crucial. The kind of stories that are performed throughout India ranges from heroic tales of heroes and legends and reinvention of epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata.
Origin of Puppetry
Every region and religion all over the world has its own origin stories of this art form but they all have something in common and that is they all originated from ancient times dating back to the caveman period. In India, it has been found that puppetry may even be a 4000 years old cultural art form.
The origin of puppetry is still not very clear, Ancient Hindu philosophers have paid the greatest tribute to puppeteers. They have likened God Almighty to a puppeteer and the entire universe to a puppet stage. Srimad Bhagavata, the great epic depicting the story of Lord Krishna in his childhood says that with three strings-Satta, Raja and Tama, God manipulates each object in the universe as a marionette.
“Shadow puppetry is one of the oldest forms of puppetry, an ingenious technology of animating pictures, developed centuries before the advent of cinema, and dating back at least 3,000 years. In Asia, unlike Europe, puppet theatre is still largely a living folk tradition. Puppet performances in Asian villages are usually informal, though often lengthy open-air affairs (India, Indonesia, Japan). Marriages, as well as births and funerals, religious as well as national holidays, all, can become the occasion for a puppet performance. Frequently the performance takes place in a shrine or in the temple courtyard (India, Japan, Thailand). Puppet performance is thought by simple village folk to be "auspicious, effective in warding off evil spirits and epidemics, avoiding drought and bringing rain”.
Puppetry has been part of the sacred rituals which were performed to propitiate the gods and spirits. This tradition continues even to this day. It is believed that commissioning a puppet performance is equivalent to an act of divine service. The puppet plays are staged or commissioned to cure and eradicate diseases of men and animals, to ensure fertility of a woman as well as of the fields, to invoke the rain gods to procure rain, or to free a person from an evil spirit's possession. In Karnataka, the episode of ' Virataparva' from Mahabharata is performed through puppet plays to appease the rain god”.