String Puppetry (sUtrda gombeyATa) (ಸೂತ್ರದ ಗೊಂಬೆಯಾಟ) is an attractive performing art practiced in Karnataka as in many other states of India. However, puppet show is one of the most ancient theatrical forms of Karnataka. Many literary texts and musical compositions have mad a mention of this folk art since twelfth century. Poets such Basavanna, Kumaravyasa, Harihara, Nemichandra and Ratnakaarvarni have used metaphors taken from puppet shows. Puppet show is secular because it is not associated with any particular ritual or caste. It is practiced all over Karnataka even though it has close connections with Yakshagana, the well known art form of coastal Karnataka.

The puppets of North Karnataka are short and slim in appearance having a pair of legs and hands where as the puppets of South Karnataka are three feet tall but without legs. The heads and hands of these puppets are made of strong wood such as teak, silavAra etc. Remaining parts of the body are made from wood such as atti, bUruga and harivANa. The head, the body and the limbs of these puppets are made separately and linked to one another in an artistic manner. Skilled carpenters are in charge of making and painting the puppets. The puppeteer controls the movements of the puppets with the help of black threads tied to different parts of a puppet. Occasionally a single puppet is manipulated by more than one puppeteer. The puppets are painted exquisitely making use of organic dyes. The color and features of the faces depend on the character of the puppets. Goggle-eyed, dark colored puppets represent wicked persons. A royal person has a lighter color and has mustaches. Demons like rAvaNa and hiDimba are painted red and royal characters are given a yellow coat. These puppets are decked in costumes and ornaments that are suited to their types and assumed characters. In some traditions masks are used to cover the face. Of late, some puppet troupes have discarded strings and have replaced them with rods for easier manipulation.

The stage for a puppet show is very simple in its conception. It is a structure which is about 15 feet wide, 12 feet long and about 12 feet tall. The platform is created about one foot above the ground level. The stage is covered on three sides. The puppets are in front of a black screen and the puppeteers stand behind the screen and they are concealed by another black screen which is hung from above. All the puppets and the musical instruments are kept on the stage and worshipped before the commencement of the performance. After the pooja, the puppets are hung in a row from a rope so that the relevant puppet is picked up when needed. The puppeteers manipulate the puppet in a very skillful manner. The acrobatic movements of the puppets are astounding. A puppet is even made to smoke a cigarette. The male puppets excel in fighting. They dash against each other strike, chase, and grapple and fall dead.

The performances are usually based on mythological stories with which the spectators are quite familiar. aLLAcAry and an array of his wives provide comic relief. The dialogues are delivered and the songs are sung by the artists who accompany the puppeteers. Most of the songs are set to Yakshagana tunes. TALa, mukhaveeNa, canDe and maddaLe provide the background score.

Puppet shows continue to be popular even to this day. Many institutions such as Chitrkala Parishath, Bangalore, Folklore museum, Mysore University and Janapadaloka started by H.L. Nage Gowda have a huge collection of string puppets.



Further Reading and Links:

1.      Kamat's Potpourri: Puppets - The Puppeteers of India

2.      Karnataka Puppetry by S.A. Krishnaiah, 1988, R.R.C. for Folk Performing Arts, Udupi.

3. (Yakshagana String Puppet)

4. (An article and afew puppets)

5. ( A puppeteer and a puppet)

6. ( A website on puppets and Seeta Vanavaasa Puppets)


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