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....

Puppetry in India (a): String puppet or Marionette

String puppet or marionette is one of the very popular forms of puppet. Different quantities of strings are attached according to the function the puppets have to play.

“The tradition of string puppets is wide-spread and has great range and variety in form and techniques of manipulation.”[1]

History of string puppets are very old. Historical evidences say that string operated wooden figures were used in ritualistic celebrations in ancient Egypt. Reference of using of string puppet in ancient Greece is also found in works of great historian Hirodotus. Ivory and clay dolls attached to strings were found in children’s tombs of ancient Greece and Rome. These puppets were manipulated by iron rods and strings. In Europian culture also, marionette earned great popularity.Countries like France, Germany, Ausrtia, Denmark,string puppet was used for various purpose,particularly for religious and amusement purpose.It is already mentioned that India has a long tradition of string puppet.String puppets have more scope for manipulation than other puppets. Different body gestures like laughing, talking, embracing can express easily through string puppet. Gestures of various complex dances can smoothly express by string puppet. String attached to puppet may vary according to the manner of dance. One end of strings attached to puppets while other end is tied to a stick or ring on puppeteers hand.

However to manipulate string puppet is not a very easy task.

“Even though the number of strings can be added to infinity,the puppeteer only has two hands,one to maintain the control bar at the correct height and the other to pull on the strings: and if there were a second or third puppeteer (which seems to be the maximum number to operate a puppet), one can not manipulate everything.It is therefore essential to conceive and build a string puppet to execute very precise action and gestures.”[2]

The materials generally used for string puppets are cloth, wood, cotton, cup hooks, paint etc.Tradition of string puppet is prevalent in Assam, Maharashtra,Odisha,Rajasthan,Tamilnadu,Tripura and Manipur.However, they are known by different name in different place.Sagarika putala theatre troupe of Assam uses string puppets of Bihu dancer,where they attached more than fifteen strings.

Scholars believe that string puppet was invented in Rajasthan and it is more than thousand years old. Rajasthani string puppet is known as Kathputli. Kathputlis are made from a single wooden block. Kathputlis have no feet. The lower part of Kathputli is covered with a long skirt. Stuffed rags are used to made arms and hands.

Minimum three strings are attached to general puppets and eight to nine strings are attached to dancer puppets.

“The puppets have only one, two or three strings.It is only in the case of Rashdhari (dancer) that as many as nine strings are attached to the figure. Dance is life-like and acrobatic feats are also performed.”[3]

Puppet theatre is an integral part of Rajasthani culture and tradition.It is believed that Rajasthani Bhat community introduced string puppet to Rajasthan as well as India. Kathputli flourished with patronage of kings and rich families.Rajasthani puppet show adopts theme from folk tales and stories.

However, the most popular play of Rajasthani puppet theatre is Amar Singh Rathod.

“Traditionally, Kathputli is a one–play repertoire theatre.The play Amar Singh Rathod, (a Chieftain in Mughal emperor Shahjahan’s court) deals with his bravery and fight in the court.The plot of the play is very thin, and the performance is filled by a number of stock characters who appear to entertain the courtiers.”[4]

The most interesting feature about the Rajasthani puppet is the high pitched voice of the puppeteers which is called boli (speech). To produced boli,the puppeteer speaks through a reed.The reed is made from a small piece of split bamboo.In puppet theatre of Assam also high-pitched sharp squeaking sounds are produced with crude whistles made of cane or bamboo frame and a leaf or rubber membrane.

String puppet of Tamilnadu is called Bommalattam. Bommalattam means doll dance. This type of puppet is very large and heavy in weight. Infact, Bommalattam is the largest and heaviest string puppet of India. Bommalattam is of two types–Tanjavour and Kombakanam. Bommalattams are decorated with beautiful headgear and with gorgeous costume. Stories for Bommalattam are adopted from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

Traditional string puppets of Karnataka are called Gombetta.The Gombettas are have close resemblance with live performers of Yakshagana. The Ramayana, the Mahabharata and Puranas are main source of theme of their play.

String puppet tradition of Odhisa is called Sakhi–Kandhei (Companion doll). Sakhi–kandhei puppets are made of lightwood and have resemblance with Puppets of Assam and Rajasthaan as these puppets have no feet. Long skirts are used to hide the absence of feet.Five to seven strings are attached to the puppets. Triangular wooden control is tied to strings of the puppets. The costume of the puppets are similar to the costume of Jatra play, which is one of the famous folk theatre forms of Odisha. Generally stories about lord Krishna are enected by Sakhi Kandhei. Kendrapara district of Odisha is famous for string puppets.The music of Sakhi kandhei is based on folk musical tradition of Odisha.

String puppet tradition of Maharashtra is known as Kalasutri bahulye. Kala means forefingers of human hand, sutra means black thread and bahulye means puppets. The puppets are small with moveable arms and shoulder joints carved from the light wood of coral tree. Kalasutri bahulye was originated in Rajasthan-Gujrat area and migrated to Maharashtra. Unfortunately, this type of puppetry is gasping for breath. Lack of interest and influence of globalization is the main reason of its decreasing popularity.

Footnotes and references:


Awasthi Suresh:Performance Tradition in India,p:43


wepa.unima.org,String Puppet,World Encyclopedia of Puppetry Arts.


wepa.unima.org,String Puppet,World Encyclopedia of Puppetry Arts.


Awasthi Suresh:Performance Tradition in India,p:43

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