Puppetry in Assam

by Gitali Saikia | 2018 | 39,831 words

This represents a methodological study of Puppetry in Assam, which forms a major part of their ancient traditions and folk dramas. The art of puppetry has close relation with Assamese culture and society. Even though the availability of local literature is limited, there are many books on Indian puppetry....

Folk Drama: Origin and Development

The term folk drama indicats non-commercial and tradition based rural theatre. Folk drama is composite art form of dance, music and dialogue with deep roots in local identity and native culture. Instead of written script, folk drama depends on performer’s memory and innovative capacity. Here music gets preference over dialogue. Simply it can say that drama created for folk life and orally transmitted from generation to generation is generally termed as folk drama. History of dance, drama and music reveal that these are as old as human civilization. In the initial period of human civilization, before man had begun to speak, they used various gestures (dance, for instance) as a medium of their expression of inner feelings. With the passage of time, they began to use some alarming sounds to convey fear, trumpeting their success in war with animals and fellow beings, and by crying to express their sad thoughts. Their feeling of joy and exhilaration found expression in song and dance. People harmoniously blended bodily expressions and those refined forms of sound, which became the art of folk. The premitive society was agrarian society.They celebrated various socio religious festivals for a productive life and for expressing the gratitude to supernatural forces to god or to gods.

Dance was main attraction of these festivals.

“Folk drama began in primitive pragan rites and magic ceremony of song and dance”.[1]

Gradually elements of acting got mixed with dance.Those elements were imitation of daily activities of people such as ploughing, diging, fishing etc. Thus began the tradition of folk drama.

Therefore, many folklorists inferred that folk dramas have deep connection with religious festivals. Theme of folk drama may be secular or religious.

However to give a clear definition of folk drama is not very easy.

“Unlike more fortunate areas of folklore (folktale, riddle, folk song) there does not yet exist a satisfactory and generally accepted theoretical definition of just what folk drama is.”[2]

Dr. Nabin Chandra Sharma says,

“to get a complete and perfect definition of folk drama, we must give importance on logics and views forwarded by different scholars about folk drama.”[3]

Primitive or folk society is a small group of people scatterd over a territory.

“Folk-drama exists on a village or small-group level. The former are members of the community and therefore known to most of the audience. The dramas are given on special occasions only, most commonly a seasonal festival.”[4]

As a genere of folk performing art, folk drama earned great interest of folklorists of different parts of the world. Relationship of folk drama to other cultural forms, particularly ritual and festival earned interst of folklorist to study folk drama seriously. Sir James G.Frazer was famous anthropologist and folklorist of nineteenth century who influence thinking about folk drama in the nineteenth century.

His study supports that folk drama originated from rituals and they are based on myths.

“He was particularly interested in seasonal spring northern Europian folk customs that dramatized the slaying (and occasional resurrection) of a vegetative character in the form of a short play. Such characters,variously costumed in leaves, moss, bark, ferns,flowers, and other items,usually were executed in the plays by being beheaded,fired upon with blank muskets,or stabbed. Frazer hypothesized that these folk dramas were remnants of pre-Christian fertility rituals based on the cyclical agrarian calendar and connected to ancient myths”.[5]

Greece is considered as the birthplace of drama. Dynusis was the god of fertility and wine of Greece.To satisfy their adored God “Dynusis”, devotees used to dancing and singing chorus.Thespis, a director of chorus incorporated an actor into chorus and made conversation with him.

Thus for the first time dialogue was used in drama.

“When Thespis a director of choruses,his face smeared with white lead perhaps in simulation of the dead god,stood on a table and addressed the leader of the chorus,dialogue was born in Greece.With his inspired step Thespis also created the classic actor as distinct from the dancer.” 6

The English drama was also originated from religious belief.It was born out of liturgy of church.English drama were mainly of two types-Mysteries and Miracles.Mysteries borrowed their theme from Bible and Miracles were based on the lives of saints.Saints were tried to preach complex chapters of Bible through performance of drama.

India has longest tradition in theatre dating back to 5000 years.[6] In India, seeds of drama was sprouted in religious performances.There was tradition of recitation of chants, myths etc. along with dance and music.This kind of religious activities can termed as the preliminary stage of drama. However, there are two views about the origin of drama in India.

According to the first view, Indian drama came into existence under the influence of Greek drama.

“It was assumed by some scholars that since the ancient Greeks and the ancient Indians came such intimate contact with each other from the 4th century B.C onwards, and particularly after the invasion of India and the conquest of part of the country by Alexander the great, it was but natural to expect that Greek drama should influence Indian drama.”[7]

However, this view about origin of Indian drama is rejected by some other scholars.

According to them, there were vast difference in narration, presentation style etc. of Indian drama and Greek drama.

“The Greek recognize,whereas the author of Shakuntala ignores the unity of time and space. The Greek chorus,in the character of a moral judge, is entirely unknown in his productions. On the other hand,the happy blending of tragic and comic incidents,which is characteristic of Indian quite as much as of Shakespearean plays, is altogether against the rules of the Athenian stage.The keynote of Greek poetry is joy and pride of life,but Sanskrit dramas, though they all end well, generally moralize on the text that life is but vanity and vexation of spirit.”[8]

Another popular view about origin of drama is that it was created in Devaloka. It is believed that knowledge of drama was created in heaven by lord Brahma who is also believed to be a creator of the universe.

In India elements of drama can be seen in the epics the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

“The post–Vedic literary period marks an important phase in the making of Indian drama. The epics the Ramayana and the Mahabharata with their dialogues–oriented poetic structures,the tradition of recitation by a whole class of reciters, clearly suggest their vital role in the making and development of drama.The epics not only have enriched Indian performance tradition, they have given the country a distinctive performative culture.”[9]

According to scholars like Farley P. Richmond, Darius L. Swann, Phillip B. Zarrilli, Sanskrit theatre is the earliest form of theatre of India. Sanskrit theatre was closely related to ancient rituals and was based on the “Natya Sastra”. Natya Shastra is the earliest treatise on dramaturgy of the world and written by Bharata Muni.Sanskrit theatre was much more sophisticated in its form, nature, and was urban oriented. During 15th -16th centuries there came a change in political set up of India and different regional languages emerged in all parts of the country. According to history,during this period folk theatre emerged forcefully in different regions. Newly emerged folk drama adopted the language of the region in which it emerged.Folk drama earned popularity among common people as they found reflection of their own life in folk drama. As a result, folk drama’s growing popularity replaced Sanskrit drama. Puranic tales, legends, mythological lore, philosophy and stories of Sanskrit dramas were popularized by folk drama.Thus it is seen that the tradition of folk drama flowed from the classical to the folk.

During the independence movement, folk theatre was high in its popularity.Folk theatre forms were used to arousing conscience of people against the British colonial rule.

“India has a rich tradition of using folk media for nation building activities;even during the freedom struggle folk songs were used to popularize satyagrah and conveying political messages.Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore,in his famous swadeshi samaj speech in July 1904 advocate the use of Jatra, festivals and songs in order to reach the rural masses. Likewise,the eminent Tamil poet Subramanya Bharathi started using folk music to invoke patriotic feelings.Folk tunes were used to popularize songs on glories of spinning -wheel,need to boycott British goods and other diverse themes associated with the freedom struggle.”[10]

Assam also has glorious tradition of folk drama.

“Assam may specially be proud of its rich tradition of folk-theatre or the quasi-dramatic institutions.From the earliest time of civilization Pragjyotishpura-Kamrupa was pioneer of music–dance and acting.This view has been supported by anthropologists.”[11]

Bharata’s Natyasatra has special reference of existence of the tradition of dance drama and music in Assam, since ancient time.

“Bharats Natyasastra makes a four fold classification of pravittis or local usages in dramatic representation. These pravittis are different from each other on account of their differences in manners, language–taste, etc.in the different parts of India.These pravittis are Dakshinatya, Avanti, Odramagadhi and Pancalamadhyama. Among these four Odramagadhi is the local usage of the eastern countries Anga, Banga, Kalinga, Odra, Magadha, Nepal, and Pragjyotish. Scholars opines that the Natyasastra of Bharata has written before the 1st century B.C.”[12]

Thus we can assume that intrinsic form of folk drama has been prevailing in Pragjyotish-Kamrup from before the 1st century B.C.In Odramagadhi pravitti satirical theme gets preference.The influence of Odramagadhi can be seen in folk dramas like Kamrupia Dhulia, Khulia Bhaona, Puppetry or Putalanach and so on.

Abhinaya Darpana by Nandikeswara also has reference of prevelance of dance,music and acting in Pragjyotish-Kamrup from ancient time. Chinese travellar Hiuen–Tsiang had also described about strong tradition of dance, music and drama in Kamrup.

According to Dr.Maheswar Neog

“While the Chinese traveler came in Pragjyotishpur, the king has arranged a party of dance and music for the guest of honour. This party continued for one month for every day.”[13]

Sculptures and literary works from ancient Assam are valuable evidence of folk drama and music in ancient Assam.

“Sculpture of Assam gives us valuable information about our early practice of dancing, music, and folk dramas. Among the early sculptures,the Nataraja icon found at Sibsagar and preserved in the Assam state dancing figures, Cole Park, Tezpur dancing figures, Deo Parbat, Numali Garh, dancing Gonesa, Kamakhya temple are remarkable”.[14]

Mahapurush Srimanta Sankardeva found a distinctive dramatic form in the beginning of 16th century, which is known as Ankiya Bhaona. Sankar Deva is termed as father of Assamese drama. It was the period of emergence of Bhakti movement and Ankiya Bhaona became a significant medium for spreading the Bhakti movement.Thus from all these evidences, we can sum up that the tradition of music, dance and drama has been playing a crucial role in Assam since the ancient period.

Footnotes and references:


J.T Shipley:Dictionary of World Literature: Criticism, Forms, Technique, Cosmo publications, 2008, New Delhi, p.242


Journal of American folklore, vol.81,no: 320, American Folklore Society, 1968, p:168


Sharma Nabin Chandra: Bharator Uttar Purbancholor Paribeshyo Kala, Banalata, Panbazar, 2009, p:211


Abrahms D:Folk drama in R. M. Dorson ed. Folklore and Folklife: An Introduction,University of Chicago,USA. 1972, p.354.


Gabbert Lisa: Humanities, journal, MDPI, published 3rd January2018,




Chaterjee Suniti Kumar: Introduction, Publications division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.Indian Drama,Delhi: National Printing Works,1956, p:7


Gupta,Das Hemendra Nath:The Indian Theatre, New Delhi: Gyan Publishing House.2009.


Aggarwal Vir Bala, Gupta V.S:Handbook of Journalism and Mass Communication, Concept Publishing Company,2002


Awasthi Suresh: Performance Tradition in India, National Book Trust of India, New Delhi, 2009, p:1


Patgiri J.1995, Folklore and Folklife as Reflected Through Modern Assamese Social Drama, unpublished thesis, Department of Folklore, Gauhati University, pp.50-51


Ghosh, M.(ed.): The Natyasastra of Bharata Muni,The Asiatic Society, 1950, intro,p.Lxxxi.


Neog M: Sattriya Dances of Assam and their Rhythms, Professor Moheswar Neog Memorial Trust by Chandra Prakash, Guwahati, 2011,p:3


Barua B.K.: A Cultural History of Assam,Bina Library,Guwahati, 2003,2nd edition, plate,19,21,34,39,57

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