Puppetry – a dying traditional art

Puppetry – a dying traditional art

Lifestyles have changed so rapidly that many of our traditional crafts and hobbies have been consigned to the archives. Television and video are taking up our free time, and the incredible information superhighways have turned us into obsessive-compulsive freaks who can’t keep their fingers off the mouse. We’ve become cross-eyed, staring at computer screens and kyphotic, hunched over in high-backed chairs. The tragedy is that even our children have caught the bug and prefer the computer to other light-hearted games and hobbies. Haven’t we read about the miracles of three or four years old who have already become cyber-addicted!

Stress is inevitably the internal reaction to these high-tech stimuli, and the eternal desire to be one with the crowd pushes many young people to depression, nervousness, peptic ulcers and chronic fatigue. In the light of these realities, it would be wise not to lose sight of our old traditional pastimes which could prove therapeutic but are sadly dying for lack of patronage.

One such is puppetry. Puppets appeared in India, under the rulers of the Vijayanagar Empire, in the 3rd century AD. They were perfected as a theatrical art in Andhra Pradesh. It helped spread the works of saints and religious leaders and also depicted stories from the Hindu epics.

It later spread to Southeast Asia. Cambodian puppeteers inspired the Thais and in the 14th century Thai shadow play became famous. Java and Bali followed, but they did not stick to Sumatra.

The Malays followed the Siamese and Japanese styles in the 19th century. A gallery of shadow puppets from sixteen countries is on display at the Negara Museum in Kuala Lumpur. In all these countries, Rama, Sita, Hanuman and Ravana are the main puppets as tales from the Ramayana are enacted. Stories from the Mahabharata also lend themselves to interpretation by puppeteers.

Puppetry in China is more than 1,500 years old. Their stories are never from Hindu epics, but from ancient Chinese classical literature. In ancient times, the imperial court was the main patron of the puppeteer.

Greek dolls originate from the 5th century BC and are made of clay figures with small joints. There is also evidence of puppetry in ancient Egypt, mostly miniatures of gods.

The word puppet is derived from the Latin word “pupa” meaning “doll” or “girl”. In the mid-nineteenth century, she was called a “marionette” because the Mary doll was used in Nativity plays. Puppets survived into the Middle Ages, although the church forbade drama and theater.

In the 16th century, during the Honduran gold rush, a man named Cortes entertained these pioneers on their long journey from Mexico to their El Dorado.

In Italy, Germany, France and England, puppetry flourished from the 16th century onwards. Sweet Punch and Judy are friends from our childhood. Surprisingly, they did not originate in England. Punch was the brainchild of a Naples actor who named his character “Polcinella” (little chicken) and portrayed the chicken’s attractive qualities. This doll became so famous that in 1660 it reached London as Punchinello. The name was quite a mouthful, so it was shortened to ‘Punch’.

Punch got a wife named Joan in Philadelphia. With these two puppets the “Punch Opera” was produced and performed in New York. Joan became Judy in 1825. These strange characters delight both children and adults all over the world, in theaters or on sidewalks, in museums or on street corners.

Puppet characters are gradually added to the repertoire. The dolls became more elaborate in appearance as skilled craftsmen began to make the models. Puppeteers are trained as performers and many original plays are staged. What was once a one-man show has become a family profession involving several family members or small companies of men.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, puppet shows became extremely popular in artistic circles. Writers such as George Sands and Goethe staged their own elaborate puppet shows to entertain their friends. Famous men such as Samuel Pepys recorded in their diaries the names of the plays they had seen. George Washington even recorded the amount he spent to take his family to the show. Puppetry has been mentioned in literature by Shakespeare, Ben Jonson and many others.

Guilds and societies were formed all over Europe and in London. Books have been published on the history, dramaturgy and technique of puppet shows.

However, with the advent of World War II, there was a decline in puppetry. Most of the young men were called to arms. Here and there a lone puppeteer with his portable stage put on a show in the camps, bomb shelters or hospitals.

There are basically three types of dolls.

SHADOW dolls are made of translucent leather and colored vegetable dyes. Buffalo, goat or sheep skin is treated to become translucent. The limbs are loosely connected so that they can move independently. A stick is attached vertically in the middle. The motion of the rods produces general motions. But for special movements, single strings attached to the limbs are used.

These leather puppets are projected onto a screen that is illuminated by a light source placed behind the puppets. Indian shadow play is different from other countries as the flat puppets are pressed against a white screen so that a clearly colored shadow is visible to the audience. The puppeteer sits behind the light source and manipulates the puppets to form moving shadows on the screen. He also speaks parts, sings or is accompanied by music. The light source is a bowl filled with castor or coconut oil and lit by a wick. They have now been replaced by low voltage light bulbs.

In South India, shadow puppets are called Tholu Bomalatta or Thogalu Bombeatta. In the good old days, troupes of entertainers toured the countryside and gave nightly performances in the villages. It had mass appeal for rural people. These puppeteers belonged to a semi-nomadic tribe called “Kiliikyathas” and hailed from Andhra and North Kanara. Since it was not a lucrative profession, they did manual labor during the day and performed only at night.

They performed by invitation only. The performance was booked with a token fee of ten rupees, given along with a betel leaf and a piece of arecanut by the village headman.

The sutradara (chief puppeteer) performs the invocation to the local deities. This ceremony, called “karagallu”, was supposed to protect against famine, pestilence or evil in the village.

The dolls were transported in reed baskets and retained their color for years. The disposal of the puppets when they had outlived their usefulness or when there were no people to perform the performance was by immersion in a river or sea.

There is another form of puppetry in South Kanara. Here, STRING puppets or marionettes are controlled by six strings. The performance is on a stage six feet long and four feet wide, against a background of blue or black cloth. The puppeteers or magicians are never seen. They wear anklets that give the illusion that the dolls themselves are dancing.

The main narrator (Bhagwata) recites the plot while the puppets act and the dialogue and music are provided by the puppeteers. This Yakshagana puppet show is 300 years old and travels with the field drama troupe performing all over South Kanara. During the intermission, puppet shows take place as the dramas continue all night.

Puppetry needs only a small investment in money, materials, labor. Both the stage and the puppets are portable. The performance area is small. Shadow puppetry originated in the East and traveled west.

ROD dolls are of western origin and have traveled east. These are also called stick dolls and are built around the main central rod. A short horizontal bar serves as shoulders from which the upper limbs hang. The arms are made of fabric and filled with straw or paper. They are connected or manipulated with other thinner rods. These dolls can be human-sized or larger. They are dressed in different costumes and the puppeteer hides behind the puppet and manipulates it. The face, neck and hands are flesh-colored. The face can be made of paper mache or cloth filled with straw and covered with clay and starch paint. The lines are outlined with a brush. Limb coordination only comes with practice.

Soft or BODY dolls are made of fabric and manipulated with hand and fingers. One needs dexterous fingers for movements and a ventriloquist’s voice to simulate speech.

The visual impact of the puppetry is great. Also, the audience can participate wholeheartedly with their comments and encouragement. It provides pure family fun.

Building dolls is a useful hobby. He needs good observation and the ability to reproduce characters, something like a cartoonist. Basic knowledge of anatomy and joint mobility skills are required. Innovations are possible with materials as diverse as cardboard, cookie cutters, even banana peels. With a little imagination, skits or plays can be created for education or entertainment.

Puppetry is a good communication medium for rural audiences. Messages on health, hygiene, family planning can be disseminated in a realistic manner. Countries like Africa already use puppets for health propaganda.

Creating and performing puppets is good occupational therapy for convalescents and people with physical disabilities. Muscle coordination and manual dexterity improve with effort.

Psychoanalysis of children is also possible by analyzing the comments they make on what they see.

Rural advertising is another option. Promotional skits may be organized to inform the public of new products available.

However, the best use of this art is as a hobby. Building and performing puppet shows can provide hours of fun for young and old alike. Let’s not let puppetry die.

#Puppetry #dying #traditional #art

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