Puppetry is one of the ancient forms of entertainment.
The suggestive elements of a puppet being controlled by a master makes it a captivating experience, while the low cost of animation and production of a performance makes it popular among freelance artists.
The form gives unrestricted freedom to the artist in form, design, color and movement and makes it one of the most ingenious inventions of mankind.
Origin of Puppetry in India
Puppetry has long been of interest in India, both for education and entertainment purposes. The excavation sites at harappa and Mohen-jo-daro have yielded puppets with sockets attached to them which suggest the presence of puppetry as an art form.
Oldest written reference to puppetry has been found at Tamil classic Silappadikaaram written around 1st and 2nd Century BC.
Although puppetry has found references in mythology and art but due to the lack of a devoted audience and financial insecurity, there has been a steady decline in this art form.
Puppetry has been categorised as :
String puppet : Kathputli, kundhei, Gombeyatta, Bommalattam
Shadow puppet : Tholu bommalatta, Ravanchhaya, Togalu Gombeyaata
Glove puppet : Pavakutthu
Rod puppet : Yampuri, Putul Nachh
Puppets are chiseled out of wood and are 9 inch miniatures.
Oil color is used to paint the wood to skin color and paint features like eyes, nose etc on it
Strings are attached to small holes in the hands, head and back of the body which are then controlled by the puppeteer. Miniature jewellery is attached to give puppets a realistic feeling.
Some examples :
Kathputli : Traditional string puppets of rajasthan are known as Kathputli, which means a wooden doll. The puppets are covered in traditional bright rajasthani dresses. The show is accompanied by dramatic folk music. A unique feature is the absence of legs. Strings are attached to the fingers of the puppeteers.
Kundhei : These are the names of the string puppets of Odisa. These are made of light wood and dressed in short skirts. These puppets have more joints and give the puppeteer more flexibility. The strings are attached to a triangular prop.
Gombayetta : This is the traditional theatre of Karnataka. It has influence of Yakshagana theatre of Karnataka. Usually, the presence of more than one puppeteer is there to manipulate each puppet.
Bomalattam : Indigenous form of art of Tamil Nadu. A iron ring is attached to the strings of the puppet. This ring is worn by the puppeteer to his head. Bommalattam puppets are the largest and heaviest of the marionettes in India. Some are as tall as 5 feet in height and 10 kg weight.
These are flat figures cut of leather. Figures are painted on both sides of the leather.
Puppets are placed on a white screen with light falling from behind to create a shadow effect on the screen.
The figures are manipulated such that the silhouettes created on the blank screen create a telling imagery.
Some examples of this form are :
Togalu Gobeyatta : Popular theatre show of Karnataka. The size of the puppets changes with the social status of the character. Hence kings are shown at a higher size than commoners.
Ravanchhaya : A popular form of entertainment in Odisa. The theatre uses puppets with no joints and require skill for operations. The use of non human puppets is also seen.
Tholu bomayatta : Shadow puppetry theatre of Andhra Pradesh. The show is accompanied by classical music and is themed around devotional tales in Purana. Puppets are larger in size and colored on both sides.
The puppets are worn on the hand of the puppeteers like gloves.
The puppeteer manipulates the puppet using his index finger, thumbs.
Performances are accompanied by rhythmic beats or dholaks.
Paavakoothu :Traditional puppet show of kerela. The influence of kathakali dance form is evident on these theatre. Plays are themed around ramayana and mahabharat.
A variation of hand puppets and are popular in Eastern India.
Yampuri :Traditional rod puppet of Bihar. Puppets are made of wood and are without joints. They are carved out of wood and are painted and dressed in bright colors.
Putul Nach :Traditional form of art in Bengal - Odia - Assam region. The puppeteer controls the puppets using a rod attached to his waist. Performances are accompanied by a musical troupe.
The first Indian circus was born in 1880. The Great Indian circus of 1880 was founded by Vishnupant Chatre under the patronage of Rajah of Kurduwadi. Though he toured the country as well as as foreign shores in Srilanka and South East Asian countries but his tour of North America was a failure as he couldnt match his competitors.
Chatre met Keereli Kunniharan during his Malabar coast tour. Keereli was a martial arts and gymnast teacher. On Chatre's insistence Keereli opened his own gymnast and acrobat training academy and then a circus.
Students of Keereli Kunniharan opened their own circuses. Then in Kerela many newer circuses came up like the Great Lion circus, Great Ramayan circus and so on.
Hence today Kerela is known as the "Cradle of Indian circus" and Keereli Kunnihanan as "Father of Indian circus".
The Jumbo circus is a circus known as the "Pride of India" as it is the largest circus in India. It includes Russian acrobats and artists and is owned by Shankaran family.
Damoo Dhotre was one of the most popular ring masters of all time. He was born to a poor family in Pune. He later joined a russian circus and later moved to France with the Bertram mill circus. He then joined the Ringling brothers and Barnum and Bailey circus in USA (aka Greatest Show on Earth). He was granted US Citizenship in 1960. After serving the circus industry for 40 years he moved to Pune and died in 1973.
There were 300 indian circuses in 1990 but their number has come down to 30 in 2014. The reasons for this decline are :
Indian circuses are a hereditary affair and hence outside talent is avoided. The circus is run like a close secret and so remains in the confines of a select few.
Acrobatics requires extensive training right from childhood and the Supreme court ban on hiring children below 14 years since 2011 has hit the industry hard.
The Govt of India has enforced a ban on using animals for entertainment since 1997 and this has caused a decline in the audience as the most popular form of entertainment has been stopped.
Circus industry has seen a decline in new generation of acrobats as the typical Indian family views it as a dangerous occupation. Access and growth of world class entertainment in digital form also means that circuses are declining as they couldn't match their competitors.
Govt opening of a circus academy is a step in the right direction. Other Possible remedies :
Social security and benefits for circus performers and acrobats who retire by the age of 40 years is important. Otherwise most of them work as manual laborers after retiring.
Govt should help in providing circuses with the modern safety practices so that performers are safe.
Currently circuses are under the ambit of the Sports ministry and they should be moved to the Culture ministry. This will help them gain recognition as an art form.
Circuses can be used to promote dying art forms and increase popularity among the masses. Circus performance should be redefined to make them relevant to todays audience as well as international tourists.