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....

Legend related to puppetry

“Legends are prose narratives which,like myths are regarded as true by the narrator and his audience,but they are set in a period considered less remote,when the world was much as it today”.[1]

The art of puppetry is claimed as the most ancient performing art.

“There are references to different kinds of puppets in the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Buddhist work called Therigatha and stories behind the origin of puppeytry.Puppet play is defined as any inanimate figure given life by the will and spirit of man,”[2]

It is seen that certain legend or janashruti or kimvadanti are prevailed about origin of puppetry. According to one popular Rajasthani legend, once upon a time there was a carpenter named Sevakram.He was expert in making wooden dolls,look very real but lifeless.One day the Hindu God Shiva and his wife Parvathi came to the carpenters shop.Parvathi was fascinated by the wooden dolls and asked her husband Shiva to give life to the dolls. Shiva gave them life and they began to dance.Sevakram was very happy with the living dolls. However,after exit of Shiva and Parvathi, the dancing singing and laughing dolls become lifeless. Sevakram went to the state of desolate.A divine massage came from the heaven to Sevakram that “Sevakram, if you want back the lives of dolls then manipulate them with sutra (string).The puppeteer therefore known as sutradhar. Following the divine message, Sevakram attached strings to the puppets and they become again alive.

Thus, art of puppetry began in this world. There are many legends prevalent about the origin of puppetry. According to one another legend, the origin of puppetry is attributed to Brahma (the deity who was assigned the function of creating the universe and is the first of the Hindu trinity). It is said that for the entertainment of his wife Saraswati, Brahma created and gave life to the Adi, the first Nat puppeteer. He then again created another figure for the Nat to manipulate and thereby entertain the Goddess. However, Brahma was not very pleased with the effort and he therefore, banished the puppeteer to earth and hence was the birth of the first Bhat. It is conjectured that this legend might have originated in Rajasthan since the Nat Bhats are the caste of puppeteers belonging to the region.[2] However, some scholars says that Nat Bhatas was not created by Brahma,rather they were created by lord Shiva.

Even the Godess Parvathi is treated as a daughter of the puppeteers.

India and many other lands had viewed puppets as divine creation. A Charming Indian legend coming down to the 11th century AD and recorded by Somadeva, quotes folk rituals in old Prakrit language and talks about exquisite dolls created by a carpenter.Gouri,Shiva’s consort, adored them and Shiva instilled life in them to perform dances. The carpenter prayed for continuing the boon, which was granted, and puppets were created which could fly in the sky, carry garlands, fetch water and tell stories!”[3]

Another legend prevaild about the origin of puppetry is that:

“Once Lord Shiva and Parvathi in disguise came down to Bhuloka to test their real Bhaktasdevotees. Then they came across a man remembering the lord’s name all the time lived in utter poverty with not a single grain in his house. He still welcomed the couples with a smile on his face and spread his torn rags for sitting.In order to test his devotion, lord Shiva asked him to entertain them with new and unique art form, which were never seen or heard before. Immediately the man cuts the skin from his thighs and cut down into a figure that he tied to some twigs. Then he held against the dim lit earthenlamp. The reflection or the shadow of thefigure that fell on the walls entertained lord Shiva and Parvathi. Impressed with his art lord Shiva blessed him with wealth and prosperity.”[4]

This legend indicates the birth of shadow puppetry. There are many legends prevail about puppetry in Assam. One of the popular legend about puppetry is that, before the birth of Srimanta Sankardeva water puppetry was very popular in Assam.Water puppetry was known as “Jal putli”.

However, it migrated to Vietnam.—

“Thousands of years ago the paddy fields of the some parts of Vietnam were under flood for many days due to heavy rain. There was no work for the peasants and for passing their time; they began to prepare puppets by using water resistant sung (fig) trees. They used those puppets as a tool of entertainment, after paying homage to their local spirits and prayers for good harvesting. Gradually with developed techniques they began to enact legends and myths prevailing in their society.”[5]

The legends prevailed about puppetry indicates the importance of puppetry in social life and religious belief of common people. Puppetry is deeply rooted to Indian culture and these legends are the strong example of it.

Footnotes and references:


Bascom,W.R: Contribution to Folkloristics,Meerut,1979,p:104


Ghosh Shampa, Banarjee Utpal Kr: Indian puppets, Abhinav Publication, 2011.p:2




Rangarajan Padmini:Indian,Folk: Genesis and Origin of Puppetry,socialvision.pdf


Saikia G,Tamuli:Folk Theatre of Assam,DIPR,Assam,Guwahati,2014,p:41

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