KathPutli - String Puppet



String Puppets

String PuppetsRajasthani string puppetry is one of the most vibrant aspects of Indian culture. These handmade wooden puppets are much more than just plaything or decorative dolls. They are a part of the traditional performance of puppetry – narrating an event from history, myths, folklore or legend, complete with music and speech. They are the repository of traditional wisdom, knowledge and social mores. Within them are contained the oral history of the region.

The tradition of handmade string puppets of Rajasthan is more than a thousand years old. It is known as ‘Kaathputli’ (‘kaath’ means wood, and ‘putli’ is puppet, i.e. wooden puppet) and mainly practiced by the Bhat community. According to legends, the string of puppetry goes back to age of Raja Vikramaditya of Ujjain, whose Simhasan Battisi (Throne of Thirty Two) had thirty two decorative dolls sculpted in it. The first Bhat is said to have produced a play with 32 puppets on the life and achievements of king Vikramaditya. His descendants performed it for hundreds of years for other royal families, receiving great honor and acclaim.

Much later king Prithviraj Chauhan asked the Bhats to create a play on his life and achievements. Under the patronage of Amar Singh Rathod of Nagour kingdom, the Bhats produced plays on his reign and heroic death.

During the Moghul period, however, the Bhats were gradually reduced to dire penury and had to depend on small landlords who had neither taste nor the resources to support and nourish this art.

String PuppetsThe Rajasthani string puppets are unique in their own ways. These gorgeous and colorful puppets are hand carved using wood and cloth. The head of the puppets are made out of wood and colored according to characters they depict in the episodes.

Strings are attached to the head for manipulation. The faces are usually painted yellow, white or any light color. Unlike the other string puppets of India, the body upto the waist and hands of Rajasthani puppets, is made of stuffed rags, cotton or cloth bits. The hands have no joints. The absence of legs is not noticed due the long trailing skirt made of colorful cloth. Popular legendary stories like Amar Singh Rathore are enacted with the folk music of Rajasthan.

The announcer of the show is called the Kharbar Khan. During performances, the puppeteers manipulate the puppets with a whistling, squeaking voice and are interpreted by a narrator who also provides the rhythms. The puppeteer takes a ghungroo (string of bells) in his hands and plays it according to the rhythm. He makes a loop around his fingers and manipulates the puppet. Free movement is possible owing to the absence of legs. A little jerk of the string causes the puppets to produce movements of the hands, neck and shoulder. Many puppets hang on one rope: one string tied to the head and other to the waist. Movement plays a very important part in this puppetry. The puppets are shown to have great speed and vibrancy. They are shoved towards each other with brandishing swords. Greetings and salutations are done by bending the puppets and leaving their arms to hang loosely.

The puppets are generally crafted in areas like Sawai-Madhopur, Bari and Udaipur. Bhats can make their own puppets also. The stage is made by placing two cots together vertically and tying bamboo around them horizontally. A curtain, generally dark in color, is used as the back-stage and a colorful curtain with three arches, called Tiwara or Tajmahal, hangs at the front. The puppets are tied with dark strings, which do not show against the dark backdrop, and dim lights are used. One of the popular characters is the dancer Anarkali who is hung by four strings. Her limbs are sewn in such a manner that with the slightest jerk several dance-movements can be produced. A Snake charmer is another attraction of the show. Others like the Horse rider, Nimbuwala and the Juggler are also recurrent.

In India, puppets or ‘Putlis’ have a life of their own. The word being derived from the Sanskrit root ‘Putta’, equivalent to Putra (son), the puppets are believed to be the articulation of life and thought. Especially for the artists of Rajasthan, the Bhats, puppets are a sort of divinity giving them livelihood, peace, activity and joy. For the rest of the world, this ancient performative art of Rajasthani puppetry is a source of pure joy, entertainment, cultural enrichment and artistic satisfaction.

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