History of Puppetry

Puppetry is one of the most imaginative ways of telling a story in the society. Several regions in India make puppetry one of the richest heritages of our country. The origin of puppetry in India cannot be dated, but mythology provides at least two stories that are witness to the importance of this art.

According to one legend, the creator Brahma gave life to the adi, the first nat puppeteer, and created the first puppet for the entertainment of his wife Saraswati. Not satisfied with his work, Brahma banished the puppeteer to earth, starting the line of nat bhatt puppeteers.

An alternative legend has as protagonist the god Shiva, patron of puppetry, and his wife Parvati. An artisan manufactured two wooden dolls that captured the attention of Parvati—the goddess and his divine companion entered the dolls and started an exquisite dance; and when they got sick of this play they abandoned the dolls and the artisan was very sad at his dolls being lifeless again. With the help and blessings of the gods, the artisan then invented a system of strings to move the dolls, and so puppetry was born

Both of the above legends conclusively show the importance which was attached to puppetry in India since times immemorial.

Nowadays, traditional puppetry is regarded as a folk art typical of the rural environment—in the past it was taken into high consideration in the urban elite and among the nobles. Further evidence of the link of puppetry with the highest social groups is in the attestation of the word gombe, meaning puppet, used as a surname for Brahmin families in the southern regions



Puppetry- its definition and origin in India

A puppetry is a form of narrative art that uses a doll or a figure that represents a person, animal, object or an idea and is used to tell a story.

Several literary sources report the existence of puppetry in ancient times. Puppetry is mentioned in the Mahabharata (dated from the 9th century BCE, it reached the written form in the 4th century BCE), in Panini’s grammar (4th century BCE), and in Patanjali’s texts (2nd century BCE). Tamil texts from the 2nd century BCE (Silappadikaaram) onwards mention dolls moved by strings

According to a scholar, puppetry outdates theatrical plays as the word Sutradhara, that indicates the director and main storyteller in Sanskrit plays, literally means the ‘string holder’

Srimad Bhagavata, the great epic depicting the story of Lord Krishna in his childhood say that with three strings-Satta, Raja and Tama, the God manipulates each object in the universe as a marionette.

History of Puppetry

Figure: Human being depicted as being controlled through strings by divine forces

Some of the salient features associated with this art form are:

  • Themes: Like traditional theatre, themes for puppet theatre are mostly based on epics and legends.
  • Regional variations: Puppets from different parts of the country have their own identity. Regional styles of painting and sculpture are reflected in them.
  • Music and song: Puppet shows are accompanied by loud music and song to create interests for both young and old alike. Music has a special role in puppet shows
  • Language: Puppetry presents several regional forms in local languages, but some peculiar elements highlight the connection to classic Sanskrit drama.
  • A minimum of four persons are required to stage a puppet play namely: Sutradhara, two singers and the drummer.
  • Part of ritual celebrations: Puppet shows are traditionally linked to a ritual context—performances were usually held during festivals or celebrations such as marriages or other family and community occasions.

Over the centuries puppetry fulfilled at least two functions—education and entertainment. Alongside religious education, in the last decades, government initiatives have also been propagated by puppetry, such as hygiene and family planning campaigns.