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Puppetry – A Dying Traditional Art
Lifestyle has changed so rapidly that many of our traditional crafts and hobbies have been relegated to the archives. Television and video are taking away 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 have become cross-legged staring at computer screens and kyphotic, huddled in high-backed chairs. The tragedy is that even our children have caught the bug and prefer the computer to other carefree games and hobbies. Haven’t we read about child prodigies as young as three or four who have already become cyber-addicts!
Stress is inevitably an internal reaction to these high-tech stimuli, and the eternal desire to be alone with the crowd leads many young people to depression, nervousness, peptic ulcers and chronic fatigue. In view of this reality, it would be wise not to lose sight of our old traditional pastimes that could prove to be therapeutic but unfortunately die for lack of patronage.
One of those is the art of puppetry. Dolls originated in India, under the rulers of the Vijayanagara Empire, in the 3rd century AD. They were honed into a theatrical art in Andhra Pradesh. It helped spread the works of saints and religious leaders, as well as depicting stories from Hindu epics.
It later spread to Southeast Asia. Cambodian puppeteers inspired the Thais, and in the 14th century Thai shadow play became prominent. Java and Bali followed, although it failed in Sumatra.
The Malays in the 19th century followed Siamese and Japanese styles. A gallery of shadow puppets from sixteen countries is on display at the Museum Negara in Kuala Lumpur. In all these countries, Rama, Sita, Hanuman and Ravana are the main puppets as the tales from the Ramayana are enacted. Stories from the Mahabharata can also be interpreted by puppeteers.
Puppet theater in China is more than 1500 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 puppet theater.
Greek dolls originated in the 5th century BC and were made from small clay figures. There is also evidence of puppet theater in ancient Egypt, mostly miniatures of gods.
The word doll is derived from the Latin word “pupa” meaning “doll” or “girl”. In the mid-nineteenth century it was called a “marionette” because the Mary doll was used in Nativity plays. Puppets survived the Middle Ages, although drama and theater were banned by the church.
In the 16th century, during the gold rush to Honduras, a man named Cortés entertained these pioneers on their long journey from Mexico to their El Dorado.
In Italy, Germany, France and England, the puppet theater flourished from the 16th century. Sweet Punch and Judy are our childhood friends. Surprisingly, they do not originate in England. Punch was the brainchild of a Neapolitan actor who called his character “Polcinella” (little chicken) and portrayed the likeable qualities of a chicken. This doll became so famous that it ended up in London in 1660 as “Punchinello”. The name was quite a mouthful, so it was shortened to “Punch”.
Punch married Joan in Philadelphia. With both of these puppets, “Punch Opera” was produced and performed in New York. Joan became Judy in 1825. These strange characters have delighted both children and adults all over the world, in theaters or on sidewalks, museums or street corners.
Gradually, puppet characters were added to the repertoire. The appearance of the dolls became more refined as skilled craftsmen began to make models. Puppeteers were trained as performers and many original plays were produced. What was once a one-man show became a family occupation involving multiple family members or small men’s businesses.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, puppet theaters 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 like Samuel Pepys noted the names of the shows they saw in their diaries. George Washington even wrote down the amount he spent to take his family to the show. Puppet shows were mentioned in literature by Shakespeare, Ben Jonson and many others.
Guilds and societies were formed all over Europe and in London. Books were published on the history, dramaturgy and technique of puppet shows.
However, with the outbreak of World War II, the puppet theater declined. Most of the young men were called to arms. Here and there a lone puppeteer with his portable stage puts on a show in camps, bomb shelters or hospitals.
There are basically three types of dolls.
SHADOW dolls are made of transparent leather and colorful vegetable dyes. Buffalo, goat or sheep skin is treated to become transparent. The limbs are loosely jointed so that they can move independently. A stick attached vertically in the middle. The movement of the sticks causes general movements. But for special movements, separate strings attached to the limbs are used.
These skin puppets are projected onto a screen illuminated by a light source placed behind the puppets. Indian shadow play differs from other countries in that the flat puppets are pressed against a white screen so that the audience sees a clear colored shadow. A puppeteer sits behind a light source and manipulates the puppets to create moving shadows on the screen. He also speaks in part, sings or accompanied by music. The light source is a bowl filled with castor oil or coconut oil and lit by a wick. They have now been replaced by low-voltage electric bulbs.
In South India, shadow puppets are called Tholu Bomalata or Thogalu Bombeatta. In the good old days, troupes of artists roamed the countryside and staged performances in villages at night. It was a mass appeal to rustic folk. These puppeteers belonged to a semi-nomadic tribe called ‘kiliikyathas’ and hailed from Andhra and North Kanara. Since this profession was not profitable, they did manual labor during the day and only staged shows at night.
They performed by invitation only. The village headman booked the performance with a token fee of ten rupees, which was given along with a betel leaf and a piece of areca nut.
An invocation to the local deities was performed by the Sutrasara (head puppeteer). This ceremony, called “karagallu”, was intended to ward off famine, pestilence or evil in the village.
The dolls were transported in reed baskets and kept their color for years. The destruction of the puppets when they had outlived their usefulness or there were no people to run the show was done by immersing them in a river or sea.
There is another type of puppet theater in South Canara. Here STRING puppets or marionettes are manipulated with six strings. The performance takes place on a stage six feet long and four feet wide with a background of blue or black cloth. Puppets or magicians are never seen. They wear anklets that give the illusion that the dolls themselves are dancing.
The main narrator (Bhagvata) recites the story line while the puppets perform and the dialogue and music are provided by the puppeteers. This Yakshagana puppet show is 300 years old and travels with a field drama troupe that plays across South Kanara. Puppet shows are held at intervals as the dramas continue throughout the night.
A puppet theater requires only a small investment in money, materials, and labor. Both the stage and the puppets are portable. The performance area is small. Shadow puppetry originated in the East and traveled to the West.
ROD dolls are of Western origin and have traveled to the East. Also called stick dolls, they are constructed around a main central rod. A short horizontal bar serves as shoulders from which the upper limbs hang. The hands are made of cloth and stuffed with straw or paper. They are joined or machined with other thinner bars. These dolls can be man-sized or larger. They are dressed in different outfits 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 pulp or cloth stuffed with straw and covered with clay and starch paint. Features are highlighted with a brush. Limb coordination happens only in practice.
Soft or BODY dolls are made with fabric and are handled by hand and fingers. Movements require nimble fingers, and speech imitation requires a ventriloquist’s voice.
The visual impact of puppetry is stunning. In addition, viewers can participate wholeheartedly with their comments and encouragement. It provides pure family entertainment.
Doll building is a worthwhile hobby. It requires good observation skills and the ability to imitate characters like a cartoonist. It requires a basic knowledge of anatomy and the ability to make the joints move. Innovations are possible with different materials such as cardboard, cookie cutters, even banana peels. With a little imagination, skits or plays can be created to educate or entertain.
Puppet theater is a good means of communication for rural audiences. Messages about health, hygiene, family planning can be spread in a realistic manner. Countries like Africa already use puppets for health propaganda.
Puppet making and performance is good occupational therapy for the convalescing and physically disabled. Muscle coordination and manual dexterity improve with effort.
Psychoanalysis of children is also possible by analyzing the comments they make about what they see.
Field advertising is another option. Promotional stories can be held to inform the public about new products available.
However, this art is best used as a hobby. Creating and presenting a puppet show can provide hours of delightful fun for young and old alike. Let’s not let puppet theater die.
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