A tale of wood, cotton and love…
Contrary to popular belief the art of puppetry is not dying. Once being one of the most popular forms of entertainment for both children and adult worldwide is still flourishing in India, particularly Rajasthan. Kathputli is a traditional form of Rajasthani puppet theatre and it seems to be slowly spreading around the whole country once more.
Kathputli is a combination of two words. Kath meaning wood and Putli meaning a doll.
Ranging from themes of marriage to horror and the lifestyle of ancient Rajasthani people it is still a loved form of entertainment and is particularly loved by tourists. People flood in both indoor and outdoor theatres to watch colourful kathputliya (puppets) sing, dance and tell tales of love and war.
The kathputli are dressed in traditional Rajasthani outfits. The female puppets are usually adorned in red or bright pink fabric with mirror work on them. Those colours reflect happily married women with bangles dangling from their wrists. The male puppets have colourful turbans on their heads with uniquely shaped moustaches. The face of the puppets are made by skilled artists using mango wood and the fabric wrapped around their bodies is cotton.
The art is believed to be more than a thousand years old by some scholars. It is mentioned multiple times in poems, hymns, folklores and ballads. Kathputli is the most famous form of Indian puppetry and its shows attract larger crowds than shadow puppetry native to Tamil Nadu and rod puppetry of West Bengal. Fingers manipulate the puppets through strings.
The traditional Rajasthani puppeteers belong to Nagaur district in Rajasthan. They were gipsy tribes who used to travel around India to showcase their tradition and talent to earn an honest living by entertaining entire villages. The tribe used to travel and perform shows with the Rajput King, Amar Singh Rathore and tell stories of his battles, justice and bravery.
Somewhere around 1500 years ago, the Bhat community started using Kathputli as string marionette art and it is in their love for tradition and art that helped Kathputli survive the test of time.
Around 500 years ago, Rajasthani Kings and wealthy Rajput families started funding the artists and puppeteers. They would take care of them and look after the artists and in return, the artists would sing songs and perform puppet shows praising the lineage and ancestry of the families.
Once the entertainers of Kings and commoners of India are today entertaining massive crowds in Europe. An example of that is the Aakaar Puppet Theatre which was established in 1988 by Puran Bhat.
The group has performed countless shows and developed Indian Rajasthani traditional string puppetry abroad in UK, USA, France, Germany and Austria. You’d be surprised to know that the shows are always performed in Rajasthani Language Yet people still storm the theatres and can retell the story after leaving through the front door!
Art has no language.
The 21st century demands a modern twist to the art so “Aakaar” uses contemporary styles in their shows to adapt to changing times. Their performances are based on social themes like AIDS, family planning, and they also conduct programmes for mentally challenged children through puppetry. Multiple workshops are held to promote the art of puppet making in Europe and the internet contributes to its popularity.
Kathputli is a beautiful example of what can be achieved when one is determined to keep their art alive.