Rural Art

Gulabo and Sitabo

In the post-colonial era, changing conditions in India have
made many puppetry traditions extinct but there are interest groups that
carry some vestiges of the art forward.

By Sophiya Qadeer | August 2020

Puppetry is a type of narrative theatre; at the crossroads between bardic storytelling and theatrical performance. In India, puppetry is not only a means of entertainment, but also a form of cultural and religious dissemination. Several traditional puppet genres in India mirror the country’s rich heritage in communal inclusivity, regional values and cultural plurality.

The foundations of puppetry in India cannot be authentically traced; however, mythology provides two fundamental tales that are witness to the importance of this art. According to one legend, the originator Brahma gave life to the adi—the first nat puppeteer—and created the first puppet in order to entertain his wife, Saraswati. Not satiated with his work, Brahma banished the puppeteer to earth, starting the line of nat bhatt puppeteers. This legend applies to the Rajasthani puppet tradition as well, nat bhatt being the name of the puppeteer cast from this region.

An alternative legend has a protagonist—the god Shiva—patron of puppetry, and his wife Parvati. An artisan synthesized two wooden dolls that captured the attention of Parvati. The goddess and her celestial companion entered the dolls, beginning an exquisite dance. Soon, however, the two got sick of this dance game, eventually abandoning the dolls. 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.

Divine foundations are stressed as the origin of Indian puppetry, which testifies the importance of puppetry in India. These days, traditional puppetry is regarded as a folk art form, mostly reflecting the rural environment. However, in the past it was revered and celebrated by the urban elite and among the nobles as well. 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 of India.

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