The term ‘puppet’ is derived from the Anglo-Norman word ‘poppe’ meaning ‘doll’. In India, puppets are known by various names – ‘Kathputli’ (Hindi), ‘Gombeyaata’ (Kannada), and ‘Kathi Kundhe’ (Oriya). Puppets are one of the oldest forms of entertainment, with most of the themes based on legends and epics such as Ramayana and Mahabharata. During olden days puppets also acted as instruments of social awareness tackling problems such as dowry system, illiteracy, poverty, and cleanliness among others. Art of Puppetry has also been successfully used to motivate emotionally and physically handicapped students develop their mental and physical abilities.
Puppetry is more popular as a rural art. In the absence of television, radio or movies, puppetry was the perfect medium of communicating folk stories and propagating social messages. Typically, performances commenced late at night and continued till dawn. Here is a video of ‘Gombeyaata’ with origins in Mangalore, Karnataka. This is 1st part of Yakshagana performance of an episode from Ramayana ‘Lanka Dahana’ using string puppetry, by its greatest exponents Shri Ganesha Yakshagana Gombeyata Mandali of Karnataka. The group of talented puppeteers are lead by Mr. Bhaskara Kogga Kamath, a 4th generation puppeteer. One of the rare instances where the younger generation has taken an interest in pursuing the art. Do visit their website for more information. If you watch closely, one cannot help but admire the mastery the puppeteers have. They can make their puppets walk, dance, and even gesticulate, while coordinating the visuals with the music and with the various characters involved.
The video above gives an idea of the hand movements and music accompanying a puppet performance. Today, with villagers being drawn to movies and television, the audience for such shows is dwindling. Puppeteer families have taken to other professions to earn a livelihood. Hopefully, with more patronage from the urban folks, the art of puppetry can be revived.
Resources: Centre for Cultural Resources and Training provides more information on the various puppet forms of India.