The fame and distinctness of the Rajasthani puppets are well known all around the world and for the same reason; they are popular souvenirs for foreigners and tourists. The craft is also used to make portraits of famous rulers such as 'Shivaji Maharaj', 'Maharaja Jai Singh' and 'Maharana Pratap'. Door hangings resembling animals such as camel, elephant, toys like 'Kacchi ghodi' (toy horse) as well as other wall hangings are made using the craft. The puppet performance are also used to narrate and create awareness about society evils such as Polio, AIDS, child marriages, dowry and many other social evils.
The etymology of Kathputhli is derived from the Sanskrit words for son or children (Puttika or puttalika). This has sunk so deep into the minds of the puppeteers that they mostly keep the boxes containing the puppets in their bedrooms. When the puppet is tattered and cannot be used anymore, it is not thrown away or neglected. It is taken to a river and set into the currents after chanting verses and mantras.
Traditionally the artisans who were involved in making puppets belonged to the nomadic community called as Putli Bhatt or Nat. Nats are the performing artists who used to wander from village to village along with their portable theatres. They entertained gatherings by narrating the achievement of the heroes from mythological and social traditions. Though they belong, originally, to the Nagaur area in the Marwar region, they travel all through the country in order to exhibit their skills. Today these communities have settled in different parts of Rajasthan and are still practicing this age old tradition.
It has been one of the oldest forms of entertainment. In the olden day time these puppets were not only a source of entertainment but also provided moral and social education. They tackled problems like dowry system, women empowerment, illiteracy, poverty, unemployment, cleanliness. Through these puppet shows they made people aware of the social problem that everybody was facing and also showed ways of solving them. Many organizations are now making use of puppets as a medium to spread effective information on health, education and human rights too.
Narration and music make an intricate part of the puppet show. They are both usually hidden from the audience. The puppets "illustrate" the text by their action. Through variations in pitch and coloration, the actor gives the puppet its own voice. Every puppet has its own style of language, delivering dialogue, tempo and mannerism.
Myths & Legends
Many scholars are of the opinion that India was the place of origin of puppet theatre and it is from here that it migrated to other Asian countries on the back of epic themes. Historic evidences point to puppetry reaching several peaks in India in the early centuries BC. A reference to puppetry is found in the Tamil classic 'Silappadhikaram' written around 2nd century BC. 'Natyashastra', the masterly treatise on dramaturgy was written by sage 'Bharata' around the same time. Puppetry does not have a direct mention in the Natyashastra but the director/producer of human theatre was termed the 'Sutradhar' which means 'holder of strings'. The word must have come in long before the 'Natyashastra' was written and there is no doubt that it came from the marionette theatre. Prevalence of theatre in India is traced back to almost 400 years BC. Its popularity in India is evident in the manner it is referred to in poetry and prose of those times. For example in 'Shrimad Bhagavata', god almighty has been compared to a puppeteer who manipulates all the beings on earth with the three strings- 'Sattva', 'Rajas' and 'Jamas'. In Sanskrit, they are termed as 'Puttalika' or 'Puttika', both of which etymologically mean 'little children'.
Puppets have believed to have a connection to religious ceremonies to popularize religious legends. There are references stating that 'Chhayanataka' (shadow theatre) was used by Jain and Buddhist preachers to narrate the stories pertaining to their religion. It is said that some temples of India, Egypt and Greece, statues were constructed which could make movements with the manipulation of concealed controls. As time went, it was realized that puppets can be more than ritual objects and can be entertaining too. Satire and comedy came to be used in the medium. Slowly, this art form emerged from the precincts of the temple and villages to reach out to the outside world performing on various social and contemporary themes in Indian towns and cities.
It is said that puppetry of Rajasthan is more than a thousand years old but there is no written evidence of it. Mainly the 'Bhat' community practices this art termed 'Kathputli' ('Kath' meaning wood and 'Putli' meaning doll). These people claim that their ancestors had performed for royal families and received great honour and prestige from the rulers of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Punjab. Their legend goes back to the times of the Great King Vikramaditya, of Ujjain whose throne Simhasan Battisi had 32 decorative dolls dancing and doing acrobatic feats. The first Bhat produced a play with 32 puppets on the life and achievements of king Vikramaditya and his progeny performed it for hundreds of years.
Much later came Prithviraj Chauhan of Delhi who gave them money to produce a play on his life and achievements. Under the patronage of Amar Singh Rathod of Nagaur kingdom, the Bhats produced plays on his reign and heroic death, which are still extant today. The great Moghuls of Delhi loved glamorous and gorgeous entertainment and did not patronize puppets. So the puppeteers had to depend on smaller and inferior landlords who had no money or taste for the art. The Kathputli Bhats were gradually reduced to poverty.
Rajasthan puppets have their own unique specialty. Approximately 30cm in height, they are carved out of a single piece of wood. The headgear is also carved out at the same time. They have elongated, stylized eyes. Their faces are usually painted yellow, except the ones to denote foreigners which are painted white.
Puppeteers manipulate the puppets with a whistling, squeaking voice and are interpreted by a narrator who also provides the rhythms. The puppets have no legs and movements are free. They are draped in long trailing skirts and articulated so skillfully as to suggest movement of legs inside. The garments are designed to resemble the medieval Rajasthani attire.
Their bodies and limbs are made of mango wood and stuffed with cotton. A slight jerk of the string causes the puppets to produce movements of the hands, neck and shoulder. Many puppets hang on one rope: one string tied to the head and other to the waist. The puppeteer makes a loop around his fingers and manipulates the puppet. He takes ghungru (bells) in his hands and plays it according to rhythm. These puppets have a very limited vocabulary, so the movements play a very important part. Puppets are moved towards each other with speed and with swords in their hands in fighting postures. Greetings and salutations are done by bending the puppets and leaving their arms to hang loosely.
A curtain, generally dark in colour, is at the back-stage and a colourful curtain with three arches hangs at the front, called Tiwara or Tajmahal. Most of the puppets are hung on the bamboo at the back-stage. Some puppets, like the acrobats and the wrestlers have legs, but these are not to be manipulated. The dancer Anarkalihas four strings. Her limbs are sewn in such a manner that with the slightest jerk several dance-movements can be produced. The Horse rider, Nimbuwala and the Juggler have some intricate movements. A Snake charmer is another attraction of the show. Head of the snake is made of wood and the rest of cloth. The snake charmer is smaller in size than the snake. The announcer is called Kharbar Khan who has a drum tied between his two legs and a stick on his two hands. The puppets are tied with dark strings, which do not show against the dark backdrop, and dim lights are used.