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Puppetry – A Dying Traditional Art
Lifestyles have changed so rapidly that many of our traditional crafts and hobbies have been consigned to the archives. Television and videos occupy our free time, and the incredible Information Highways have turned us into obsessive freaks who can’t keep their fingers off the mouse. We have become cross-eyed, staring at computer screens and kyphotic, hunched over in our high-backed chairs. The tragedy is that even our children have caught the bug and prefer the computer to other carefree games and hobbies. Have we not read about prodigies of three or four years who have already become cyber-addicts!
Stress is inevitably the internal reaction to these high-tech stimuli, and the eternal urge to be one with the crowd drives many young people to depression, nervousness, ulcers and chronic fatigue. In view of these realities, it would be wise not to lose sight of our old traditional pastimes which could prove therapeutic but are sadly dying for lack of patronage.
One such is the art of puppetry. Puppets originated in India, under the rulers of the Vijayanagar Empire, in the 3rd century AD. It was honed into a theater art in Andhra Pradesh. It helped spread the works of saints and religious leaders and also depicted stories from the Hindu epics.
Later it spread to Southeast Asia. The Cambodian puppeteers inspired the Thais, and in the 14th century Thai shadow play emerged. Java and Bali followed, although it did not catch on in Sumatra.
The Malays followed the Siamese and Japanese styles in the 19th century. At the Museum Negara in Kuala Lumpur, a gallery of shadow puppets from sixteen countries has been exhibited. In all these countries, Rama, Sita, Hanuman and Ravana are the main puppets when stories from the Ramayana are staged. Stories from the Mahabharatha also lend themselves to interpretation by puppeteers.
Puppetry is more than 1500 years old in China. Their stories are never from the Hindu epics, but from ancient Chinese classical literature. In the old days, the imperial court was the main patron of the puppeteer.
Greek puppets originated in the 5th century BC. and was made of small clay figures. There is also evidence of puppet shows in ancient Egypt, mostly miniatures of gods.
The word puppet is derived from the Latin word ‘puppe’, meaning ‘doll’ or ‘girl’. In the mid-nineteenth century it was called ‘marionette’ because the Maria doll was used in nativity scenes. Puppets survived the Middle Ages, even though the church banned drama and theater.
In the 16th century, during the gold rush to Honduras, a man named Cortes entertained these pioneers during their long journey from Mexico to their El Dorado.
In Italy, Germany, France and England puppet shows flourished from the 16th century onwards. The lovable Punch and Judy are friends from our childhood. Surprisingly, they do not originate from England. Punch was the brainchild of an actor from Naples, who named his character “Polcinella” (little chicken) and portrayed the chicken’s lovable qualities. This doll became so famous that in 1660 he reached London as “Punchinello”. The name was something of a mouthful, so it was shortened to “Punch”.
Punch got a wife named Joan in Philadelphia. With both these puppets, the “Punch Opera” was produced and performed in New York. Joan became Judy in 1825. These picturesque characters have delighted both children and adults all over the globe, in theaters or on sidewalks, in museums or on street corners.
Gradually, puppet figures were added to the repertoire. Dolls became more sophisticated in appearance as skilled craftsmen began to make the models. Puppeteers were trained as performers and many original plays were performed. What was once a one-man show became a family business involving several family members or small men’s firms.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, puppet shows became extremely popular in artistic circles. Writers such as George Sands and Goethe organized their own well-prepared puppet shows to entertain their friends. Famous men such as Samuel Pepys noted in their diaries the names of the shows they had seen. George Washington even wrote down the amount he had spent to bring his family to the show. Puppetry has been mentioned in literature by Shakespeare, Ben Johnson and many others.
All over Europe and in London, guilds and associations were formed. Books were published on the history, drama and technique of puppetry.
However, with the advent of World War II, there was a decline in puppetry. Most of the young men were called to arms. Here and there a lone puppeteer with his portable stage put on a show in the camps, bomb shelters or hospitals.
Basically there are three kinds of dolls.
The SHADOW dolls are made of transparent leather and colored vegetable dyes. Buffalo, goat or sheep skin is treated to become translucent. The limbs are loosely assembled so they can be moved separately. A stick is attached vertically in the middle. Moving the sticks causes general movements. But for special movements, single strings attached to the limbs are used.
These leather puppets are projected onto a screen illuminated by a light source placed behind the puppets. Indian shadow play differs from other countries as the flat puppets are pressed against a white screen so that a clear colored shadow is seen by the audience. The puppeteer sits behind the light source and manipulates the puppets to form moving shadows on the screen. He also speaks the parts, sings or is accompanied by music. The light source is a bowl filled with castor or coconut oil and lit by a wick. These are now replaced by low voltage electric bulbs.
In South India, shadow puppets are called Tholu Bomalatta or Thogalu Bombeatta. In the good old days, troupes of artists roamed the countryside and held performances at night in the villages. It had a lot of appeal to rustic folk. These puppeteers belonged to a semi-nomadic tribe called ‘Kiliikyathas’ and hailed from Andhra and North Kanara. Since this was not a lucrative profession, they performed manual labor during the day and only held shows at night.
They performed by invitation only. The performance was booked with a token fee of ten rupees given along with betel leaf and a piece of arecanut by the village leader.
The sutrasha (head puppeteer) performed the invocation to the local deities. This ceremony called ‘karagallu’ was supposed to ward off famine, pestilence or evil in the village.
The dolls were transported in sugarcane baskets and retained their color for years. Disposal of the puppets when they had outlived their usefulness or when there were no people to run the show was by immersion in a river or sea.
There is another form of puppetry in South Kanara. Here the STRING dolls or marionettes are manipulated by six strings. The performance is on a stage six feet long and four feet wide, with a background of blue or black fabric. The puppeteers or magicians are never seen. They wear anklets which create the illusion that the dolls themselves are dancing.
The main narrator (Bhagvata) recites the story while the puppets perform, and the dialogue and music are provided by the puppeteers. This Yakshagana puppet theater is 300 years old and travels with the field drama troupe which performs all over South Kanara. Puppet shows are held during intermission, while the dramas continue throughout the night.
Puppet theater only needs a small investment in money, material, manpower. Both stage and puppets are portable. The performance area is small. Shadow puppetry originated in the east and traveled west.
The ROD dolls are of western origin and have traveled east. They are also called Stick dolls, and are constructed around the central central rod. A short horizontal bar serves as the shoulders from which the upper limbs dangle. The arms are made of fabric and filled with straw or paper. They are joined or manipulated with other thinner bars. These dolls can be the size of a man or larger. They are dressed in different costumes and the puppeteer hides behind the puppet and manipulates it. The face, neck and hands are flesh-coloured. The face can be made of paper mache or cloth filled with straw and covered with clay and starch paint. The features are outlined with a brush. Coordination of the limbs only comes through practice.
The soft or BODY dolls are made of fabric and manipulated with hand and fingers. One needs dexterous fingers for movements and a ventriloquist voice to simulate speech.
The visual effect of puppetry is amazing. In addition, the audience can participate wholeheartedly with their comments and encouragement. It provides pure family entertainment.
Constructing dolls is a rewarding hobby. It needs good observation skills and the ability to copy characters, something like a cartoonist. It requires a basic knowledge of anatomy and skill in making the joints mobile. Innovation with different materials such as cardboard, biscuit tins, even banana skins is possible. With a little imagination, skits or plays can be made to educate or entertain.
Puppetry is a good medium of communication for a rural audience. Messages about health, hygiene, family planning can be disseminated in a realistic way. Countries like Africa already use puppets for health propaganda.
Puppet drawing and acting is a good occupational therapy for convalescents and the physically disabled. Muscle coordination and manual dexterity improve with effort.
Psychoanalysis of children is also possible by analyzing the comments they make on what they see.
Rural advertising is another option. Promotion skits can be staged to inform the public about new products available.
However, the best use of this art is as a hobby. Building and presenting puppet shows can provide wonderful hours of fun for young and old alike. Let’s not let puppetry die.
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