Triveni Journal

1927 | 11,233,916 words

Triveni is a journal dedicated to ancient Indian culture, history, philosophy, art, spirituality, music and all sorts of literature. Triveni was founded at Madras in 1927 and since that time various authors have donated their creativity in the form of articles, covering many aspects of public life....

The Tradition of the Puppet Theatre

Dr S. V. Joga Rao

With special reference to the Andhra

DR S. V. JOGA RAO, M. A., Ph. D.

The Puppet-show is the first kind of drama or cinema that man has ever known. The craze of the common man for tales gradually gave rise to several kinds of story-telling through musical setting, the puppet-show and, afterwards, the drama. Once upon a time, a typical tradition of story-telling, namely, Akhyanaka was in vogue in our country (Vide KadambariPurvabhaga). I hold that this Akhyanaka was the precursor of the puppet-play. A large canvas on which the important events of a story are well painted is kept on a dais facing the audience. Perhaps this might be the same as the Akhyanakapata mentioned by Vatsyayana. Bhojadeva observes in his Sringaraprakasaas follows:

“Akhyanaka sanjnantarlabhate yadabhinayan pathan gayan grandhika ekah kathyati govindavadavahite sadasi.”

The story is narrated by an exponent accompanied by music and dance. These story-tellers are called Chaitrikas; Grandhikas or Sowbhikas. Abhinava Gupta in hiscommentary on Bharata’s Natya Sastra says: “tatrapi natyachayatmakataiva natyasyaiva hyami bhaganis pandascitra putrika pustaprabhrtayo granthikadiparikalpita saksatkara kalpapratyaya sampadah.”

The stories, on account of the skill of the narrators, are felt by the audience as eventful spectacles. This kind of story-telling by showing only painted pictures is an elementary stage; by moving dolls is the next; and men’s taking to acting instead of the dolls (thereby giving a vent to the story to cut through its way straight, of its own accord,) is the later developed stage.

For long, the puppet-show has been thriving in our country as the most popular amusement of the common folk and a superb art form. In fact, some scholars like A. B. Keith hold that it has paved the way for the drama to come into being. The word Sutradhara in the Sanskrit plays, which stands for a director but actually means a string-holder, suits the puppet-show better, as the whole show runs by the pulling of strings. It might have been symbolically employed by the Sanskrit dramatists in their works and it, no doubt, suggests the earlier concept.

In the Sanskrit Mahabharata a certain thing called ‘Rupopajivanam’ is mentioned and Nilakantha Pandita, a commentator, elucidates as follows:

“Rupopajivanam jalamandapiketi dakshinatyesu prasiddham, yatra sukshma vastram vyavadhaya charmamayairakaraih rajamatyadinam caryam pradarsate.”

This means that Rupopajivana has become famous in South India under the name Jalamandapika, the performance of which involves the actions of the kings, ministers and the like presented by leather puppets on a fine piece of cloth. This is undoubtedly the shadow- play. Here it is interesting to note that the word Rupopajivanam stands quite significant of its name, which means a kind of play that depends upon costume. And it stands as an apt epithet to the puppet-play that paved the way for the ‘Rupaka’ (Drama) itself. (The Sanskrit dramatists define Rupaka as ‘Ruparopadrupakam’, which means that the drama is a result of the costumatic representation.)

There are conclusive proofs, already established by researches, to show that the Histrionic art in India was pretty old, older than Christ, and it cannot be far from the truth to infer that the art of puppetry is much older. But, curiously enough, it has not lost altogether its attraction even after the advent of the drama. It has been flourishing along with the drama all through. Asoka’s Dhowli and Girnar inscriptions suggest that some kind of dolls were used as means of propaganda in the Utkal and the Sowrashtra respectively. The Panchalanuyana, mentioned by Vatsyayana in his Kama Sutra (1-4-42), is said to be a play of the civilised also and is supposed to be the puppet-show. (Panchala means a doll.) Yasodhara in his commentary, Jayamangala by name, says that it was in vogue in Mithila.

This art spread to other countries also as early as 10th century A. D. This has been flourishing in Southern China, especially in the Fukin province, since the reign of the kings of the Sang dynasty (A. D. 960-1279), and dramatic pieces with Buddhist and Folk tales as themes, couched in pleasant musical setting, supplied the ground to the puppet-shows 1. An age-long tradition of these has been established in islands like Java also. There the shadow-play is called Wayang Purva and the Marionette-show is called Wayang Klitic. 2 It is a matter of pride for us that our own Mahabharata and Ramayana supplied themes for them. Today the puppet-show holds its sway throughout the world.

The countryside of Andhra has long been a home of the puppet-shows. Many a Telugu work like Kumarasambhavaof Nannechoda (11 c.), Uttara Harivamsa of Nachana Somanatha (14 c.), Ranganadharamayana(13 c.), Palanati vira charita (15 c), Sambhopakhyana(16 c), Panchaliparinaya(16 c.) mentioned these shows. In the Panditaradhya charitra of Palkuriki Somanadha, mention has been made to the effect that these shows were put on boards at night times during Sivaratri festival at shrines like Srisaila and tales from our epics like the Mahabharata formed the themes.

Invariably in every puppet-show there is an elaborate theme, often an old legend from the mythological lore. The play of the puppets goes on, while the performers narrate the story in verse and song and in tunes appropriate to the movements of the puppets. Literary necessity naturally comes in, but pure prose is not of any interest in these shows. Usually in every country, compositions exuberant of song, set to dramatic sequence, are used for these shows. Operas are used in the West for supplying the ground. The Puppet Book edited by Mr. L. V. Wall makes the following observations:

“Musical plays and operas, if specially arranged, can be given by puppets. One advantage of opera on the puppet stage is that the conventional gestures of the singers are well within the capacity of the puppet but besides there is the possible influence any production might have towards increasing interest in the opera” 3

Javanese use certain compositions called ‘Lakans’ in the place of operas.4 In Sanskrit, the chayanataka is believed to have been used for puppet-plays. Dutaingadaof Subhata (A. D. 1172), Rama-bhyudaya, Pandavabhyudaya and Subhadraparinayaof Vyasaramadeva (A. D. 1402-15) are some of the famous chayanatakas. The term chayanataka is a typical Sanskrit synonym for the English term, the shadow-play. The puppets are placed behind the curtain and in front of the lamp. The audience actually catch sight of the shadow alone. Hence the name. In the case of marionette-shows, the wooden puppets have no curtain in front of them; shadows have no place, but the advantage of the chayanataka may be availed of even by them. In Mysore and around, the Yakshagana, a kind of musical play, forms the ground of both the ‘Sutrada Gombe’ (shadow-play) and the ‘Chakkalada Gombe’ (the marionette-show); the same is the case with the Andhra. The Andhra and the Karnataka are rich in the Yakshagana literature.

In fact some Telugu poets wrote Yakshaganas with the purpose in view. Sriramanataka, a Yakshagana composition by Maringantibhattaru Ramanujacharya (A. D. 1850), has become famous as Bommalata Ramayana. (Bommalata, in Telugu, means puppet-play.) Draupadii vastrapaharanamu, Simantini Parinayamu, Radha Krisna Samvadamu by Chaturvedula Narasimha sastry, the Santa Veluru Kusalava nataka and Kota Venkatappayya sastry’s Banasura nataka were purposefully composed, so as to be put on boards as regular plays by men and also to suit the puppet stage. Stories like Lankadahana, Lakshmanamurcha, Ramavanavasa, Sitapaharana, Myravanacharita, Uttaragograhana, Kichakavadha and the like are some more of the themes which have become popular.

There are texts composed by the performers themselves. There is a palm-leaf manuscript in the Govt. Oriental Manuscripts Library, Madras (R. No. 1349), by name ‘Bommalatahasyanatakam’ in which it is mentioned that it belongs to the theatre of ‘Dakshina simhasanadhiswara’ Vijayasetu Raghunatha Bhupala. The performers wanted to play Srikrisnavilasa, but the actual content of the Manuscript is only a long prologue in which the marriage of Ketigadu, a buffoon-like conventional character, is the theme. The paraphernalia of the puppet-show also has been dealt with.

This art gradually became a traditional family pursuit and several families of such performers are found here and there in Andhra even today. The Rayalaseema or the Ceded Districts area in Andhra has been the seat of this tradition, for a long time. Some such families enjoyed royal patronage also to an extent and got villages as Inams. There lived a family in a village called Bommalata (virtually means puppet-play) in Rayalaseema where a number of poets flourished. One of them, Bommalata Sambayya by name, who is said to have lived in A. D. 1750 according to the Karnataka kavi charite, composed a Yakshagana called Kiratarjuniya 5 in Telugu and two Yakshaganas called Kariyabantana vijaya and Sarangadhara charite in Kannada. 6

The puppets are made of sheepskin or buffalo leather, wood or cardboard. A good amount of artistic skill is involved in laying out the puppets from the raw material, in observing colour values, in painting them according to the different natures of the different characters, and in applying plating for ornamentation. The play is often an open-air show with little equipment. A small piece of barren ground with a thatched roofing supported by four poles forms the place of performance; white cloth curtain, a lamp, a ‘titti’ (blowing pipe) or harmonium, a drum and cymbals are the other items. Only the facial expressions are not possible but the performers display a free movement of every other limb of the puppet and impress upon the audience that it is a show of the diminutive man. The Dhalang or the manipulator makes a brisk skipping from one tone to another to maintain the natural variety of intonation and modulation of voices of the different characters. Almost all the members of the performer’s family take part in the conduct of the performance; particularly his wife takes the major role in the play-singing. The play-is full of song and verse and a few prose pieces are added here and there as connecting links. When dialogue takes its direct course and the puppets, the representatives of the characters, stand face to face, the performance strikes the keynote of the drama, nay, the actual eventful course of the story itself. When Puranic characters are introduced, the Amarakosa is often quoted. It shows a certain amount of learning, at least on the part of the forefathers of the present performers. People say the humming of the Mukhari Raga is a specialty about them. Certain funny characters namely Gandholigadu, Ketigadu, Juttupoligadu, Codigadu Allatappayya and Bangarakka have been conventionally introduced purely for the sake of amusing the common folk. Ever and anon, especially at times of tension and tedium, they appear on the stage and serve feasts of fun, of course, usually, in a coarse and vulgar manner. But the rustic audiences appreciate them very much. Simply on that account one cannot disregard or ignore these puppet-shows as mere frivolities and nothing else. One should not forget that these shows in ancient days kept the illiterate masses in continuous touch with the tale and doctrine contained in our great classics, thereby contributing to the well-being of the cultural unity and heritage of our country.

Many of the families devoted to this art-tradition in the Telugu country seem to belong to a community called Are (This community is mentioned by Palkuriki Somanatha in his Panditarathyacharitra). Our elders tell us that, long ago, these people migrated to Andhra from Maharashtra. Some of them are said to have been in service in the Kakatiya Empire, some settled down in Telangana and some in Rayalaseema, some scattered here and there in the Coastal Andhra or the Northern Circars and some made a further migration south-ward to Kannada and Malayala provinces and even to the islands like Java. Perhaps the Javanese tradition of the puppet-plays was due to them.

Once the cultured connoisseurs of the Andhra were very much fascinated by this art, but today in Andhra it has almost become a vanishing art on account of the vicissitudes of the modern taste and its fashionable counterpart, the institution of the cinema. But even today this is flourishing in the Western world and in China in the East as a great art form with a well-developed technique. Yes, it is no more an idler’s pastime. It is a world in itself, a world of Art that primitive man created for himself and his fellow-men. It is a tradition of generations!

1 Vide p. 15 of Folk Arts of New China, The Foreign Language Press publication, Peking. 1954.
2 Ref. Sri M. S. Sarma’s article on the subject published in the Andhra Patrica Pramadi New Year’s Day Special Number.
3 Faber and Faber publication. pp. 187-88
4 The Mahabharata and the Wayang in Java by Dr. B. R. Chatterjee. India and Java (Greater India Society Bulletin No.5 Part I. pp. 48-50)
5 G. O. M. L. Telugu Mss. D. Nos. 1849-1851.
6 G. O. M. L. Kannada Mss. D. Nos. 1169, 1212, 1220.

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