Indian Puppetry: Types, Origin & Salient Features of Puppetry | UPSC Notes

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Indian Puppetry : Types, Origin & Salient Features

A puppet is an inanimate item that often looks like a person or an animal. Puppetry is a type of theatre in which dolls are controlled by a person. This kind of show is also called puppet play because, no matter what kind of doll is used, it is used to tell a story.

India’s puppetry has a long history.

• Some scholars say that puppets have been around since the beginning of civilization. Some people even say that some terracotta figures from the old civilizations of Harappa and Mohenjodaro were made to look like they were moving.

 For example, there is a terracotta bull with a head that can be taken off and moved with a string. There is also a terracotta monkey that goes up and down a stick to make a vertical movement.

• In the Mahabharata, puppetry and shadow play are mentioned as ways for people in India to have fun. Srimad Bhagavata, a great epic that tells the story of Lord Krishna as a child, says that God controls everything in the world like a marionette with three strings called Satta, Raja, and Tama.

In the third century BCE, the Ashokan rock edicts also talked about India as a place where puppet shows were put on.

• The great grammar teacher Panini used dolls to show how to use grammar rules. In his Ashtadhyayi Mahabhashya, Patanjali used many examples from the Sanskrit plays and entertainment of his time to explain the three main types: dance theatre, puppet theatre, and musical story telling.

Therigatha, an old Buddhist book, talks about puppet theatre with wooden string puppets with removable limbs. Natyashastra, written by Bharata, talks about the Sutradhar, who moved dolls with strings (called “sutras”) from inside.

• The epic Shilappadikaram by llango Adigal, the Kamasutra of Vatsyayana, plays like Panchala Anuyanam, and Kathasaritsagar, which is a collection of old fables, all talk about puppet dances, puppet shows, mechanised wooden toys, etc.

• In modern times, people who work in education all over the world have noticed that puppets can be used as a way to communicate.

• Many schools, organisations, and people in India use puppets to teach students and teachers about important ideas.

Types of Puppets

Puppets come in a wide range of shapes, sizes, and materials. They are also used for different things. They can be very complicated or very easy to put together. India has almost every kind of doll. Different types of painting and sculpture from different parts of the country can be seen in the puppets from those places. If we want to sort puppets into groups, we can split them into four main types.

• Puppets with gloves

• Puppets with strings

• Puppets with rods

• Shadow puppets

Glove Puppets:

• UP, Odisha, West Bengal, and Kerala are where glove puppets are most common. The puppeteer wears these on his or her hands and moves their heads and arms with his or her fingers.

• They are also called arm puppets, hand puppets, and palm puppets. The head is made of paper mache, cloth, or wood, and just below the neck, two hands stick out.The puppet is moved by sticking the first finger into the head and using the middle finger and thumb as the puppet’s arms. With these three fingers, you can make the glove doll move.

• Most of the time, glove puppet plays in Uttar Pradesh have social topics.

• Radha and Krishna’s stories are used as the basis for plays in Odisha. The puppeteer also plays the dholak with one hand while using the other hand to move the doll. The way the actors say their lines, how the puppet moves, and the beat of the dholak all work together to make a dramatic mood.

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• The typical puppet show in Kerala is called Pavakoothu. It came about in the 18th century because Kathakali, a famous traditional dance-drama from Kerala, had an effect on puppet shows.

Pavakoothu has a lot of different parts:

• The head and arms are made of wood and joined with thick cloth that is cut and sewn into a small bag.

• The puppets’ faces are decorated with paints, small, thin pieces of gilded tin, and peacock feathers, just like the players of Kathakalli are dressed and decorated on stage.

The height of a puppet ranges from one foot to two feet. The Chenda, Chengiloa, llathalam, and Shankhathe conch are used as rhythmic instruments during the show.

• In Kerala, the stories from either the Ramayana or the Mahabharata are used as the basis for glove puppet shows.

String Puppets

In this, the focus is more on how well the magician can control the puppets. India has a long history of making string dolls, also called marionettes. It gives the dolls more freedom of movement and makes them the most flexible. Rajasthan, Odisha, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu are all places where this type of theatre has done well.

String puppets have the following features:

• The puppets are usually eight to nine inches tall and made of wood.

• Oil paint is used to paint the wood the first time and to add details like eyes, lips, nose, etc.

• The arms and legs are made of small wooden pieces that are attached to the body. The body is then covered with tiny dresses of different colours and joined together.

• It has tiny jewellery and other items that make it look like it came from real life.

• Strings are tied to small holes in the hands, head, and back of the body. The puppeteer then moves the strings to move the hands, head, and body.


These are called Kathputli in Rajasthan. It is made from a single piece of wood, and the Rajasthani models look like big dolls dressed in bright colours. Puppeteers move them with anywhere from two to five lines that are usually tied to their fingers.

• Other things about them are that their clothes and headgear are made in the Rajasthani way.

A very dramatic form of the local music plays in the background of the puppet show.

Some of the things that make these string dolls stand out are their oval faces, big eyes, arched eyebrows, and big lips.

These dolls don’t have legs and wear long skirts that trail behind them.


These are called Kundhei in Odisha. It is made of light wood and has no legs. Instead, it has long skirts that run around it. It is also sometimes thought that the music of Odissi dance has affected it.

Other things about them are that they have more joints, making them more flexible, easy to move, and adaptable.

Most of the time, puppeteers hold a triangle-shaped piece of wood to which strings are connected so they can move it.

Kundhei’s clothes look like those worn by players in traditional Jatra theatre.


These are called Gombeyatta in Karnataka. They are made to look like the characters in Yakshagana, which is the native form of theatre in the area. Most of the time, the episodes of Gombeyatta are based on the Prasangas of the Yakshagana plays.

• Some things about the Gombeyatta puppet figures and theatre are: The puppet figures are very stylized and have joints at the legs, shoulders, elbows, hips, and knees.

Five to seven strings are tied to a prop to move these dolls.

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Some of the puppet’s more complicated moves are done by two or three people at the same time.

The music that goes with it is powerful and mixes folk and classical styles in a beautiful way.


In Tamil Nadu, these puppets are called Bommalattam. They are a mix of stick puppets and string puppets.They are made of wood, and the strings that the puppeteer uses to move them are tied to an iron ring that he wears on his head like a cap. Some dolls have arms and hands with joints that can be moved by rods.The Bommalattam performance also has these other parts:

The Bommalattam marionettes are the biggest, heaviest, and most flexible of all traditional Indian dolls.

A doll could be as tall as 4.5 feet and weigh about 10 kg.

The beginning of a Bommalattam play is very complicated and is split into four parts: Vinayak Puja, Komali, Amanattam, and Pusenkanattam.

Rod puppets

Rod puppets are like glove puppets, but they are usually much bigger and are held up and moved by rods from below. Most of this kind of theatre is done in West Bengal and Odisha today.

Putul Nautch:

It is called Putul Nautch in West Bengal. They are made of wood and reflect the different art styles of a certain area.

In the Nadia area of West Bengal, puppets made of rods used to be the size of people, like the Bunraku puppets of Japan.

This kind of animal is almost gone.

The Bengal rod puppets that are still around are about 3 to 4 feet tall and are dressed like the players in Jatra, a traditional form of theatre that is popular in the state.

Most of these dolls have three points of movement. The main rod holds up the heads, which are joined at the neck. The rods that hold up the hands are joined at the shoulders.

• This traditional form of puppetry from West Bengal has an interesting and very artistic way of moving the puppets. A hub made of bamboo is tied tight around the puppeteer’s waist, and the rod holding the doll is put on top of that hub.

The puppeteers, each holding one puppet, stand behind a curtain as high as their heads. They move and dance while moving the rods, which makes the dolls move in the same way.

While the puppeteers sing and say the stylized prose conversations, a small group of musicians, usually three to four people, sits on the side of the stage and plays a drum, a harmonium, and cymbals.

Both the music and the words have a lot in common with the Jatra play.

Odisha Style of Rod Puppetry

The native rod puppetry in Odisha is a little different from other places in these ways:

Here, Rod dolls are much smaller. They are usually between 12 and 18 inches long.

They also have mostly three joints, but instead of rods in the hands, they have strings. So, this type of theatre is a mix of rod puppets and string puppets.

The way to manipulate is a little bit different. The rod-puppeteers of Odisha sit on the ground behind a screen and move the rods.

Since impromptu prose conversations don’t happen very often, the language is more operatic.

Most of the conversations are sung.

Folk tunes and traditional Odissi tunes are both used in the music.

The music starts with a short piece of orchestral religious music called Stuti, and then the play starts.

The dolls of Andhra Pradesh and Bengal are bigger than those of Odisha. Odisha’s rod puppet shows are more like opera, and prose speech is rarely used.


The native rod puppet in Bihar is called a Yampuri. It’s interesting to watch because of the following things that make it stand out.

Wood is used to make these dolls.

Unlike the native Rod puppets of West Bengal and Odisha, these puppets are all one piece and don’t have any joints.

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Because there are no joints in these puppets, they are different from other Rod puppets and take more dexterity to move.

Shadow Puppets

India has more kinds and styles of shadow Puppets than any other country. Flat shapes make up shadow Puppets. They are made from pieces of leather that have been treated to make them see-through. There is a strong light source behind the screen, and shadow Puppets are pressed against it.

The way the light and the screen are manipulated creates silhouettes or bright shadows for the people sitting in front of the screen. Odisha, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, and Tamil Nadu are all places where this practise of shadow puppets is still alive.

Togalu Gombeyatta

• In Karnataka, it is called as Togalu Gombeyatta.

•Togalu gombeyaata means “a play of leather dolls” in Kannada, the language of the people who live there.The majority of these dolls are small.The puppets are different sizes, though, based on their social standing. For example, kings and religious figures are big, while common people and servants are small.

Tholu Bommalata

Shadow theatre is called Tholu Bommalata in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. The show has a classic musical setting and is based on stories from the Epics and Puranas that are about gods and religion.

• It has the longest and greatest history, and the following things are true about it: The puppets are big. They are made so that the waist, shoulders, elbows, and knees can move. Both sides are coloured. So, these dolls cast shadows of different colours on the screen.

The classical music of the area is the main impact on the music.

The stories in the Ramayana, Mahabharata, and Puranas are the basis for the puppet shows.


• People in Odisha call it Ravanachhaya.Ravanachhaya puppets are small—the biggest one isn’t more than two feet tall—and their arms don’t move. However, the shadows they cast are very sensitive and poetic.

• It has the following things that make it the most interesting shadow theatre:

The dolls are all one piece and don’t have any joints. Since they aren’t coloured, they cast shadows that are hard to see.

Since there are no joints, the movement takes a lot of skill.

The dolls are made of deer skin and are designed in bold, dramatic poses.

People often use dolls that are not people, like trees and animals. Aside from people and animals, trees, mountains, carts, and other things are also used.

Union Internationale de la Marionnette (UNIMA):

In 1929, the International Puppetry Association, also known as Union Internationale de la Marionnette (UNIMA), was formed in Prague.

It is a part of both UNESCO and the International Theatre Institute.

Digital puppetry

• Digital puppetry is the manipulation and performance of digitally animated 2D or 3D figures and objects in a virtual world that are rendered by computers in real time.

It is most often used to make movies and TV shows, but it has also been used in live theatre and interactive theme park activities.

Puppeteers and computer graphics artists argue about what does and does not count as digital puppetry.

• However, most people agree that digital puppetry is different from traditional computer animation because figures act out their parts in real time instead of being animated frame by frame.