Art of Puppetry Across The World

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Puppetry is a very ancient art form. Puppets have been used since the earliest time to animate and communicate the ideas and needs of human societies. Some historians claim that they pre-date actors in theater. Wire controlled, articulated puppets, made of clay and ivory have also been found in Egyptian tombs. Hieroglyphs also describe ‘walking statues’ being used in Ancient Egyptian dramas.

Vietnamese Water Puppets

Some scholars trace the origin of puppets to India 4000 years ago, where the main character in Sanskrit plays was known as Sutradhara ‘the holder of strings’. China has had a flourishing history of puppetry for 200 years, originally in PiYing XI, the theatre of the lantern shadows, which his more commonly known today as Chinese shadow theatre.

Sanbaso Bunraku Puppet, Tonda Puppet Troupe, Japan

Of the many forms of Japanese Puppetry, the most famous is the ‘bunraku’, which was developed out of Shinto temple rites. Korea received the art form from China around 982 A.D. the Korean word ‘ggogdu gagsi’ denotes puppet. Rod puppetry is the most popular art form in Thailand. Water puppetry is the unique puppetry of Vietnam where the puppets are built out of wool and the shows are performed in a waist high pool

Chinese Stick PuppetsßeSchlange+SchwarzeSchlange.JPG

Karagoz, Turkish shadow puppetry

Middle Eastern puppetry is greatly influenced by ‘Karagoz’ the Turkish shadow theatre. There it is known as Khayal alzill, shadows of the imagination. In the Middle East, puppetry is performed to the accompaniment of drums, tambourines, flute and with special effects – smoke, fire, thunder, rattles etc.

 The art form was famous in Ancient Greece and Rome also. The Greek word for puppets is ‘ neurospasta’ which literally means string-pulling. References have been found in the works of Aristotle and Plato.

In Rome rod puppetry was popular. Italy is considered to be the early home of Marionette, string puppets. During the early Christmas Celebrations, small jointed nativity figures including the infant Christ and Virgin Mary were made to move by strings. This kind of puppet came to be known as a marionette or little Mary.

One of the best-loved of all children’s stories tells of the adventures of Pinocchio puppet which came to life. We find many of the puppet characters famous in different lands.

Great Britain has the traditional Punch and Judy puppetry which traces its roots to the Italian Commedia dell’arte. The figure of Punch is derived from the stick character of Plucinella in Italian and Anglicized to Punchinello. So also Punch’s wife Judy was originally Joan. The character Plunicella became popular in the Netherlands, Denmark, Russia, Romania and France. Thus British puppetry spread across Europe.

The art of puppetry is known to the African ethnic groups in sub-Saharan Africa. They use puppets in ritual dramas as well as in their healing and hunting ceremonies. Puppetry is known in Americas too. The Teotihuacán culture in central Mexico used them as part of their funeral rites in 600 century. Native North American also used Ceremonial Puppets.

Some times even stories of mythologies are, as in India, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are narrated during the puppet shows.

The art of Puppetry in India

Records prove that puppetry had flourished in India for many centuries. It has cut geographical boundaries and political frontiers. As early as the 2nd century Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar has mentioned ‘Marionettes move by strings’ in his Kural.

Sanskrit playwright Bana referred in his ‘Harsha Charita’ and it is also found in the Tamil Epic Silappadhikaram by Ilango Adigal.

In India puppetry is regarded as celestial creation. Different puppet forms are found in India. The Rajasthan Warrior puppets are depicted with large heads, huge eyes, broad chests and undersized bodies.

Ramdas Padhyeis an Indian Ventriloquist, Puppeteer, Puppet-Maker who has performed for the last forty years in India and abroad

The puppets from Andhra Pradesh are mostly divine figures. They are usually in superior appearance and in white, yellow or blue colors. Devils and evil characters are painted black and have distorted faces and clumsy limbs.

Karnataka’s ‘bobbeyatta’ is based on the popular folk musical drama, Yakshagana. Tamilnadu also has ‘bammolattam’ with marionettes made of wood wearing ornamental clothes. They use epic stories for their themes and are manipulated by strings. Vegetable colors locally available are used for decorating the puppets.

The marionettes of Rajasthan known as ‘Kathputli’ are small in size but very lively, they are stylized, made of cloth rags, and wooden heads. Performers take them from place to place for function. It also has parallel music, narrative, and a continuous squeaking from, a bamboo.

In Bengal the unique rod puppets have been in use, which is said to allow the puppeteer greater freedom to manipulate.

Kerala was once known for its glove puppets. They are made of clay, wood or paper.

The shadow puppets of orissa and Assam and leather puppets of Karnataka have acquired fame over the decades as refined art forms, performed during special occasions.

Most of the puppeteers were agriculturists either landowners or labourers. Performances were limited to seasons and special occasions. The puppets were inherited from generations to generation. Special literary skills were not called for except that dialogues only needed to be memorized. Nowadays non-traditionals have taken up puppetry, even as full time profession, the show usually opens with an invocation and the Sutradar or Master of Ceremonies explains the context and story. Entire troupe sings in chorus.

There are four kinds of puppets

Finger puppet: This is a simple puppet with that fits on to a single finger. Finger puppets normally have no moving parts and consist primarily of a hollow cylinder shape to cover the finger. Finger puppets are used in preschools and kindergartens for storytelling with younger children.

Hand puppet: this is a puppet controlled by one hand that occupies the interior of the puppet. Simple hand puppets are usually not much larger than the hand itself. Simple hand puppets, especially popular licensed characters, are sometimes distributed as children’s toys or party favors.

British traditional hand or glove puppets

Hand or glove puppet chicken

Simple sock puppets

Hand or glove puppet dog

Rod puppet: A puppet is constructed around a central rod secured to the head. A large glove covers the rod and is attached to the neck of the puppet. A rod puppet is controlled by the puppeteer moving the metal rods attached to the hands of the puppet and by turning the central rod secured to the head.

Preparing a rod puppet for a performance of The Bramentown musicians, Sibiu, Romania, 2002.

Rod puppets

A rod puppet  with typical rods to control the arms

Marionette or String puppet: This is a puppet suspended and controlled by a number of strings plus sometimes a central rod attached to a control bar held from above by the puppeteer. The control bar can be either a horizontal or vertical one.

A puppeteer manipulating a Marionette

Marionettes from the Swedish Cottage Marionette Theatre, New York, USA production of “Cinderella Samba”’

A puppeteer manipulating a Marionette in Prague, Czech Republic

Shadow puppet: This is a cut-out figure held between a source of light and a translucent screen. It is different from other forms of puppetry as it is two dimensional in form.  Color can be introduced into the cut-out shapes to provide a different dimension.

Shadow Puppets, Jakarta, Indonesia

Chinese Shadow Theatre figures

Wayang Kulit as seen by the audience

Shadow puppet from Kelantan

Short video showing shadow play in Kota Bahru, Malaysia, including behind the scenes

Amitabh Puppet from Show “Juicy Pammi”

Sanjay Dutt Puppet from Show “Juicy Pammi”

Shahrukh Khan Puppet from Show “Juicy Pammi”

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