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Puppetry – And The Dolls Come Alive !

Puppets are dolls that come alive, imitating life and reality, giving meaning to the creator’s ideology. This art from which is believed to have originated in India is still vibrantly alive in a variety of style.

Puppetry is often confused with the play of dolls. Ironically in most countries as in India the word for puppet is derived from the world doll. But while the doll gives some personal satisfaction to the child plying with it, the puppet is far removed from this. It remains a doll while being made and when packed in boxes and trunks, but as soon as it springs to life and breathes its creator’s ideas and images, it supercedes the human being who conceived it. Puppetry is a projected play. It needs its own language and animation to come to life and transmit its message.

The puppet is the essence of its creator’s idea. Its character lies in its grotesque imitations of reality without which it would be of little use. This sharp reality that the figures transmits is what holds and attracts the viewer to this small and fragile figure. Its movements need the automation of either the human being or electronic gadgetry as the case may be.

The division between the animate and the inanimate has drawn generations of artists, poets, writers and actors to the puppet theatre. Puppetry has co-existed with its allied arts of theatre, music, dance and design, without which the art would not be what it has developed into today. And while it borrows from these art forms it also lends to them its own values of objectivity, stylization and movement.

The puppet play has a function- it is religious of entertaining, political or abstract, an imitation of reality to a glimpse of the unknown. As soon as this function of projecting an idea fades, so does the art-form. However, it somehow appears again in another form-not as we may know it but as contemporary puppet theatre.

Though puppetry has existed in most ancient civilizations due to the many references in ancient Indian texts, scholars consider India to be the birthplace of this art. It has much to do with the term Sutradhar, these days the narrator in a theatre performance, literally meaning the holder of strings, or the universal holder and guider of life-Antaryami.

India has a wealthy of puppet styles and techniques-rod puppets, string puppets, glove puppets and shadow puppets. In fact these styles encompass all the known forms of puppetry. Besides these, we also have the use of large figures covering the human body and exaggerating it akin to some contemporary puppet theatres.

Most traditional Indian puppetry can be broadly divided into religious or balladic forms, encompassing court life as many of the puppet theatres of Asia and Japan do, or religious epics from the Ramayana and Mahabharata, to local classics and social themes. Each style bears the imprint of its area or state it comes from-the use of colours, forms, materials used and the idiom of movement and sounds. The art has always been an itenerant one and puppeteers have traveled long distance performing at religious festivals, thanksgivings, harvests and other joyous occasions.

The puppet theatre of today is definitely a progression of its older family-the figure exists, the colour may be there, the sound and movement matter, but from there on its boundaries are limitless. Contemporary puppet theatre does have its own idiom- the puppeteer designs the figure and idea much in the same way as a poet or artist may or for that matter even a dancer. The basics have to be through for fantasy and reality-dreams and visions to fascinate an unsuspecting audience.

It is this new trend in puppetry-that the contemporary puppeteer is involved with, around the globe and, much like its traditional cousin his themes deal with the times, an anguish, repression and a search for the unattainable beauty.

For audiences that are used to categorizing puppets with little figures-Punch and Judy in England or the often seen Rajasthani marionette in India, are in for a big surprise, as no longer is the figure a few inches tall, it can be larger than life, it may use the human body with the mask or a piece of cloth animated. The materials used could be from natural to synthetic, the everyday to the highly sophisticated.

Amongst the recent festivals of performing arts, India hosted an International Puppet Festival in 1990. The variety of styles an puppets presented was astounding-from the very traditional and naïve to the highly stylized and poetic.

The audiences as well as the groups participating got a glimpse of an art as it has and can evolve in the future. A theatre of ideas and figures without egos and boundaries speaking a universal language of friendship