Just the thought of puppets makes one invariably think of childhood, that excitement each one of us felt as a child upon witnessing puppets in a fair or an exhibition remains unparalleled even today.

During my last visit to Jaipur, the cultural hub in the Indian state of Rajasthan, I came across a group of musicians and puppet makers and their art was magnificent.

I was drawn towards the folk music and the puppet show they were conducting and stayed glued to the entire act for hours. Later, I met the artists and couldn’t stop myself from taking a peep into their world of Puppetry.

Simply put, Puppetry is the art of storytelling with the aid of dolls, often two or three-dimensional – along with music and sound effects. It is however much more than a mode of entertainment for children. Since mythological times puppetry has been a popular medium of communication, education, and entertainment. Over the years an amalgamation of regional styles of paintings and sculptures are reflected in them making it more holistic. With other sources of readily available entertainment growing at a rapid pace, puppetry has become less appreciated and less known about.

While in Jaipur, the cultural hub in the heart of Rajasthan, I was intrigued to know more about this dying artform and decided to meet the local craftsmen who have been practicing Puppetry. After a lot of search and quest, I met Raju, a Puppet maker living in the Kathputli Colony area in the city that houses most of such craftsmen and their families. Raju took me to his humble abode and gave me a glimpse of how the art has evolved over the years. His family has been into the business of Puppetry since the last 2 generations. He believes that it is impossible to date the birth of the art of puppetry, but mythological and historical evidence suggest that puppets have been around in India since ancient times.

I was surprised to see that he could speak French, Italian and even Spanish fluently considering that he told me that he had never been to school and had a formal education.

“The love for this art of storytelling through the puppets I create made me learn different languages. Since Rajasthan is a great tourist destination in India and we are frequented by many foreigners, I wanted to share my art with them though their own language so that they can connect better, said Raju.” He showed me the string puppets that he had created himself over the years. “There are various kinds of puppets and these can be classified under string or rod, shadow, hand or glove puppets,” explained Raju.

The puppets he uses have jointed limbs, controlled by strings allowing for more flexibility. This greater ability to control makes them the most articulate of all the different puppet types found in India, but also the most challenging. The dexterity required to control these puppets often comes after years and years of practice.

He further explained that “Kathputlis, the large colorful dolls are vibrantly dressed. The inspiration for the dresses comes from Medieval Rajasthan. Puppeteers speak in shrill voices produced when spoken through a bamboo reed. The art form tackles social problems like dowry, women’s empowerment, illiteracy, and poverty to name a few. Accompanied by a dramatised version of regional music, oval eyes, arched eyebrows are some of the traits of a Kathputli”.

When you look at puppets, they look so real. He said that It takes anywhere between 3-6 months to completely create one such puppet but could also take longer in case the puppets are more intricate.

Puppets are made of mango wood and filled with cotton. They are decorated with soft colorful clothes and vibrant make-up. They are usually around 1.5 to 2 feet high. No legs present for female puppets, but the male ones have just to differentiate them. Long big and stylized eyes catch the attention at first.

First a 9-inch wooden stick is cut and given desired shape in the case of string puppets. Face is drawn on it using oil paint of matching human skin color. Nose, eyes, and lips are drawn using gentle brush. Small pipes are used to make hands and legs and they get attached to wood to give a perfect look.

It gets wrapped up in vibrant clothing with eye-catchy jewelry accessories. Last but not least, attachment of strings to hands and legs are mandatory to make it move freely. The puppeteer narrates the story in the form of a song and usually his wife accompanies the play by playing a musical instrument called Dholak.

“Another common trait in Indian puppetry is the composition of the troupes. Puppetry in India is a family business. Children start their apprenticeship looking at their elders’ work.

A puppeteer’s work includes not only manufacturing and operating the puppets, but also memorizing the texts. Family troupes bequeath the puppets from generation to generation; they are a family treasure, sometimes also used as a bride’s dowry. This type of transmission suggests that over the centuries puppets did not change radically. In regional genres there has been a very limited evolution in the appearance of puppet,” said Raju.

Initially, the people from ‘Putli Bhats’ community travelled through various parts of Rajasthan and entertained the masses with their own hand-made puppets and earned money from different shows.

It slowly advertised the ancient Kings and Queens and as a result of it, they got an opportunity to perform in front of the Royal audience and got suitably rewarded. No doubt, it flourished during the times of Kings in Rajasthan as it caught their attention. It was seen not only as a medium of entertainment but also to teach socio-cultural and moral values.

It gave solutions and served as a medium for creating awareness among the public. The first puppetry show done by the Bhat community was based on the life of the Great King Vikramaditya of Ujjain. 32 puppets were involved in this show making it more remarkable at that time.

At present, the Crafts Museum in New Delhi, Bhartiya Lok Kala Mandir in Udaipur, Jagmohan Palace in Mysore and Chitrakala Parishad in Bangalore are the best museums in showing the best workings of puppetry in India.

Having a down time in every field of art is common and it so happened to the puppetry art during the Mughal rulings. But it stood the test of time, by the strong hearted Bhats community people to survive and rise again. This art is imbibed in their blood and they don’t see this not only as a source of living. It is like pure divine for them. So, the next time you are visiting India, make sure to have a glimpse of this marvel and make your trip even more worthwhile.

Nitika Sharma
Freelance Writer/ Blogger/ Content Strategist