The Changing Face of Traditional Puppetry

Sobel, Anna is originally from New York City. She received her BA in English from Wesleyan University where she first became involved in puppetry after witnessing an inspiring performance by Vermont's activist troupe Bread and Puppet Theatre. From 2001-2003 she worked for an educational children's theatre based in Washington, D.C. called Blue Sky Puppet Theatre. She came to India in September 2003 on a nine-month Fulbright grant to study Indian puppetry and its use as a tool for effecting social change.

"Why would someone from the US come to India to study puppetry," I am often asked, "when Indians are going abroad to study it?" It is not a surprising question, given that India's rich tradition of puppetry is relatively unrecognized, even within the country itself. However, since I don't see the art form as being on its deathbed, I usually respond that I came because I believe that India is the birthplace of puppetry. When I set out on my nine month Fulbright research grant, one of the mysteries I set out to solve was how the traditional forms of puppetry are staying alive. As I traveled around the country connecting with various puppet theatres, I was encouraged to find that in many places traditional puppetry is alive and kicking.

In the village of Koonathara, with Keralan palm trees nodding in the surrounding darkness, the men of the Pulavar family light 21 coconut lamps to start their Tol Pava Koothu (shadow puppet) show. Ganesh is at center stage to receive the opening blessings. A pinch of powder on one of the coconut lamps sparks a dramatic flash of fire. Then with a wave of his drum stick, the second-eldest Pulavar brother, Viswa, commences belting out the ancient text and intermittently strikes the drum, while his older brother, Ramchandra, responds. Behind the screen, the whole family flies into a flurry of activity that will not stop until this one-hour version of the Ramayana is over. Even the youngest children lend a hand, grabbing elephants in the war scene and dancers at Rama's coronation. They have seen the show enough to know what to do.

The Pulavar family doesn't always get through the entire Ramayana in an hour. This sped-up version is tailored to suit modern attention spans. In fact, when the family performs the traditional version of the Ramayana over 21 nights during the annual festival in Bhadrakali temples, there is no audience. One of the reasons for this could be that the lengthy commentaries delivered in a mixture of Malayalam and Tamil that supplement the narrative are not easy to understand. But Ramchandra and his brothers still teach their sons every word. The brothers themselves wake up at five every morning to review a few verses of the crumbling palm leaf scripts in order to keep the epic fresh in their memories.

In the good old days, a different family would sponsor each night's performance in the temples and host the puppeteers at their homes. These days the puppeteers can scarcely get a single meal at a cheap place out of the rare donations. It is hardly a way to make a living. The Pulavar family has always made ends meet by farming rice for the slow half of the year, and today the brothers hold jobs at village post offices nearby to supplement their income. The brothers school their enthusiastic sons in the tradition thanks to grants from the Sangeet Natak Akademi awarded to both pupil and teacher. Another SNA grant paid for the family to write a show about AIDS awareness. With their basic needs provided for, the Pulavars have been able to take more and more of the festival season performance sites from colleagues who are leaving the art form behind in favor of more lucrative work. The family achieved national recognition at the National Shadow Theatre Festival in Bangalore in 1978 and have since traveled to Sweden, Russia, Japan, and Greece, performing either their one-hour Ramayana, or a new show they have written based on the Panchantra.

In Bangalore, another family of traditional puppeteers is continuing to thrive. It is the string puppet troupe called Putthali Kalaranga, and it is spearheaded by the talented Dattatreya Aralikatte. Datta, as he is known, is a specialist in geography and, for the last 25 years, has held a day job teaching that subject in high school. He is also teaching his son, Manu, to be a puppeteer. Will he continue the tradition? "I have to; it's our duty," was Manu's answer. In fact, he seemed to have as much affection for the magnificently carved and painted characters as his father, who refers to the puppet of Parvati his "daughter." According to Datta, there is no future for the art form without that kind of involvement.

I found Datta's show to be as much fun as an amusement park ride, and the rest of the audience seemed to concur. He tells the love story of Shiva and Parvati with pizzazz. During rakshasa Taraksura's unflappable meditation on Shiva, Datta dashes furiously around his puppeteers spraying water by squeezing a plastic bottle with holes in it, scattering dry leaves and flickering lights for a storm. Nor is he afraid to play with fire. At the opening, he has the actual marionette perform arti using lit candles on a brass holder wired into both the puppet's hands. At the gods' wedding, Brahmin puppets spoon real ghee onto a flaming sacred fire. And best of all, Datta makes use of fireworks. These tricks may seem simple, but combine them with a pre-recorded sound track, hands that can pick up objects using a trigger at the other end of the control rod, and excellent manipulation skills, and you have magic. When the show was finished, even though Datta had asked his puppeteers come in front of the curtain to demonstrate how they had been controlling the puppets, the audience flooded the backstage area to see how it all worked.

Datta believes that it's essential to be as attractive as possible because puppeteers have to compete with television. "We have to run with the modern world without giving up tradition," he said. He has even put together educational shows and informative shows on family planning using contemporary hand puppets. However, he is wary of importing other cultures for the sake of keeping up with the times. In his unforgettable live show, a traditional tale with purely Indian special effects, I believe he has succeeded in embodying that Ghandian ideal of modernization without westernization.

What discussion of India's traditional puppetry forms could be complete with a mention of Rajasthani marionettes? Puran Bhatt, who lives with his family cum troupe in the Kathputli Colony of Delhi, takes the tradition to a new level. I first met Puran in the summer of 2000 on the lawn opposite the Washington Monument where he was performing for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Indian audiences may be used to such tricks as the puppet who can juggle his own head or the woman who flips to become a man, but in Puran's hands, the American audience was enthralled. But novelty characters aren't all Puran has up his sleeve. At this year's Ishara Puppet Festival in Delhi, Puran and his family presented the traditional story of Dhola Maru. The delicate lovers Puran has gifted with wire hands wrapped in cloth, a much finer take on the usual wood kathputli hand. With these tiny hands, Puran and his sons convey a range of subtle emotions by gesturing ever so slightly. In a moment of grief, the abandoned Maru buries her head in a pillow and quivers with sobs. It's enough to move an audience to tears.

With the Bhatt family's international success, they could easily leave their home in the slums of Shadipur Depot. Puran carves wood furniture and teaches puppetry to make additional money. Yet Puran has chosen to stay in order to raise his children and his children's children in a kathputli-saturated atmosphere. Their neighbors are all manufacturing the puppets wholesale. Men are splitting wood for the heads and hands, and women are sewing clothes as colorful as the Rajasthani saris they are wearing. The beat of the dhol is always within earshot. It is easy to see how, living here, one could grow up totally immersed in the kathputli tradition. Sure enough, the youngest members of the Bhatt clan can already sing along to every word of Dhola Maru and play some of the trickiest rhythms on the dholki.

None of the puppeteers I have described here are presenting their art form in the strictly traditional way, but as Dr. Krishen K. Kak noted in his article posted on this site, freezing an art form in time spells its doom. These puppeteers enjoy the success they do because they have been able to take on some modern techniques without losing sight of their roots. They are not afraid to experiment with new ideas. Freedom from financial dependence gives the puppeteers and their children a love for the art form that will insure its survival. Their children will not abandon their ancestors' puppetry tradition, and the modern touches they add will continue to keep Indian puppetry a living art form.

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