Puppetry in India

Kathputlis of Rajasthan/Wikimedia
India has a rich tradition of puppetry. One can trace the roots of puppetry in India to the Indus Valley Civilization, dating as far back as 3300 BCE. However, it is now concentrated in the patches of India such as Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Odisha, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu due to the lack of devoted audience and financial security. Out of all puppetry forms, Kathputli, a Rajasthani string puppet form is pretty famous among people who want to explore India.

Apart from entertainment value, puppetry has been used to convey philosophical ideas by ancient writers. In Bhagvat Gita, the God has been described as the puppeteer, controlling the universe with three string, namely, Sattva, Rajas and Tamas.

Puppetry in India
Every major form of puppetry is found in India. The Puppets in India can be grouped into 4 categories, namely, 1. String Puppets. 2. Shadow Puppets, 3. Glove Puppets and 4. Rod Puppets.

String Puppets in India

The String Puppets, also known as Marionettes, have a strong presence in India. String Puppets with jointed limbs provide a far greater control over the movements and allow the puppeteer to play the role of narrator in the same time. Some of the popular forms of marionettes in India are Kathputli (Rajasthan), Kundehi (Odisha), Gombeyatta (Karnataka) and Bommalattam (Tamil Nadu).

Kathputli is native string puppet art form of Rajasthan. It derives its name from 'kath' which means wood and 'putli' which means doll. Some of their distinc features are Oval faces, large eyes, arched eyebrows and large lips. These puppets are clothed in traditional Rajasthani dresses and interestingly, do not have legs. The kathputli show is accompanied by traditional folk music.

Sakhi Kundhei
The string puppets of Odisha are known as Sakhi Kundhei or simply Kundhei. These puppets are made of light wood and also not have legs. These puppets have more joints. Therefore, these are more versatile and easy to manipulate. Their costumes resemble dresses of Jatra theatre and movements are influenced by the Odissi dance. The term Kundhie seems to be derived from word Kundi which means joint in local language.

Gombeyatta is the string puppet form of Karnataka. These highly stylized puppets are modelled on Yakshagana characters. These are manipulated with 5 to 7 strings and some of the complex puppet movements are orchestrated with the additional puppeteers.

The stringed puppets of Tamil Nadu are known as Bommalattam. The Bommalattam combine elements of string and rod puppets. These are made up of wood. The strings for manipulation are tied to an iron ring which the puppeteer wears like a crown on his head. Other subtle hand movements are made with the help of rods. Some of the Bommalattam puppets can be as heavy as 10 kg and as big as 4.5 feet.

Shadow Puppets in India

Shadow puppets are flat figures cut out of leather and treated to appear translucent. They are pressed against the screen with a bright source of light. The careful manipulation of light help in creating the moments and adding the layers of drama. This art of shadow puppets is only concentrated in the patches of Odisha, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu.

Togalu Gombeyatta
The shadow puppetry form of Karnataka is known as the Togalu Gombeyatta. The large puppets are used for Gods, Kings and other religious figures whereas smaller puppets are used for common people.

Togalu Gombeyatta
Togalu Gombeyatta is the shadown puppet form of Andhra Pradesh. These puppets are large in size and have jointed waist, shoulders, elbows and knees. These puppets are coloured on both sides. Hence, throw coloured shadows on the screen. It draws stories from Ramayana, Mahabharata and other Vedic texts.

Ravana Chhaya
Ravana Chhaya is the shadow puppet form of Odisha. These are one piece puppets and do not have joints. These are not coloured. Therefore, these puppets do not throw any light. In old days, these puppets were made of deer skin leather. As the name suggests, Ravana Chhaya stories are based on Ramayana. These stories showcase a more humane Ravana than other popular Ramayan stories. The Javanese Puppet theatre of Wayang is said to have originated from Ravana Chhaya.

Chamadyache Bahulya
Chamadyache bahulya is a form of shadow play practiced only in a small area Sawantwadi in Maharashtra. It is said to be arrived from Rajasthan and stories are based on the themese of Ramayana. Chamadyache bahulya literally means the skin doll in Marathi.


Tholpavakoothu literally means play of leather dolls in Malayalam. It is practiced mainly in Palakkad, Thrissur and Malappuram districts of Kerala and dedicated to Goddess Bhadrakali. The stories are based on Kamba Ramayana.

Glove Puppets in India

Also known as sleeve, hand or palm puppets, Glove puppets is popular in the regions of Uttar Pradesh, Odisha, West Bengal and Kerala. In Uttar Pradesh, glove puppets are used for spreading social messages like Save the Girl Child and importance of cleanliness.

Pavakoothu is the traditional glove puppet drama of Kerala. It is highly influenced by Kathakali and came into existence in the 18th century. Their heads and hands are carved out of wood and joined together with thick cloth and stiched into a small bag. The facial features are modelled after the makeup of Kathakali performers. Most of Pavakoothu stories are based on Mahabharata and Ramayana.

Rod Puppets in India

Rod puppets is nothing, but a variation of glove puppets and controlled by rods behind the screen. It is popular north and eastern states of India such as Bihar, Odisha, Assam, Tripura and West Bengal.

Putul Nautch
Putul Nautch is the traditional rod puppet form of the eastern states, especially Bengal-Odisha-Assam region. The puppets are usually 3 to 4 feet in height and have 3 joints - one at neck and two at shoulders. The rod is attached to the waist and puppeteer performs from behind the curtain. Each region (Bengal, Odisha and Assam) has its own variant of Putul Nautch characterized by the size of figurines, movements and music.

The traditional rod puppets of Bihar are known as Yampuri. These puppets are made of wood and have no joints. Therefore, their manipulation  requires greater skills.

Source: Centre for Cultural Resources and Training

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