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Puppets: a dying traditional art

Lifestyles have changed so rapidly that many of our traditional crafts and hobbies have been relegated to the archives. Television and videos occupy our free time, and the incredible Information Highways have turned us into obsessive compulsive fanatics who cannot take their fingers off the mouse. We have become cross-eyed, staring at computer screens, and kyphotic, hunched over in our high-backed chairs. The tragedy is that even our children have caught the virus and prefer the computer to other carefree games and hobbies. Haven’t we read about three- or four-year-old prodigies already addicted to cybernetics?

Stress is inevitably the internal reaction to these high-tech stimuli, and the eternal desire to be one with the crowd is leading many young people to depression, nervousness, peptic ulcers, and chronic fatigue. In light of these realities, it would be wise not to lose sight of our old traditional hobbies that may prove therapeutic, but are sadly dying for lack of patronage.

One of them is the art of puppets. Puppets emerged in India, under the rulers of the Vijayanagar Empire, in the 3rd century AD. It was perfected into a theatrical art in Andhra Pradesh. He helped propagate the works of saints and religious leaders, and also acted out stories from Hindu epics.

Later, it spread to Southeast Asia. Cambodian puppeteers inspired the Thais, and in the 14th century, Thai shadow play gained prominence. Java and Bali, although it did not become popular in Sumatra.

Malays followed Siamese and Japanese styles in the 19th century. A gallery of shadow puppets from sixteen countries has been exhibited at the Negara Museum in Kuala Lumpur. In all these countries, Rama, Sita, Hanuman and Ravana are the main puppets, since the tales of the Ramayana are performed. The stories of the Mahabharata also lend themselves to the interpretation of the puppeteers.

The puppet is more than 1500 years old in China. Their stories never come from Hindu epics, but rather from ancient Chinese classical literature. In the days of yore, the Imperial Court was the puppeteer’s main sponsor.

Greek puppets originated in the 5th century BC. C. and were made of clay figures with small joints. There is also evidence of puppets in ancient Egypt, mostly miniatures of gods.

The word puppet is derived from the Latin word ‘pupa’, which means ‘doll’ or ‘girl’. In the mid-19th century, it was called a ‘marionette’ because the puppet of Mary was used in Nativity plays. Puppets survived the Middle Ages, despite the fact that theater and theater were banned by the Church.

In the 16th century, during the gold rush in Honduras, a man named Cortés entertained these pioneers during their long journey from Mexico to El Dorado.

In Italy, Germany, France, and England, puppets flourished from the 16th century on. The adorable Punch and Judy are friends from our childhood. Surprisingly, they did not originate in England. Punch was the brainchild of an actor from Naples, who named his character “Polcinella” (little chick) and described the adorable qualities of chicken. This puppet became so famous that in 1660 he came to London as “Punchinello”. The name was quite complicated, so it was abbreviated as “Punch”.

Punch acquired a wife named Joan, in Philadelphia. With these two puppets, the “Punch Opera” was produced and played in New York. Joan became Judy in 1825. These colorful characters have delighted children and adults alike around the world, in theaters or sidewalks, in museums or on street corners.

Little by little, puppet characters were added to the directory. The puppets took on a more sophisticated appearance, as skilled craftsmen began to make the models. Puppeteers were trained as performers and many original works were performed. What was once an individual show became a family occupation involving various family members or small men’s businesses.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, puppet theaters became extremely popular in art circles. Writers like George Sands and Goethe put on their own well-prepared puppet shows to entertain their friends. Famous men like Samuel Pepys wrote down the names of the shows they had seen in their diaries. George Washington even wrote down the sum he had spent to bring his family to the show. Puppet shows have been mentioned in literature by Shakespeare, Ben Johnson, and many others.

Guilds and societies were formed throughout Europe and in London. Books were published on the history, theater and technique of puppet shows.

However, with the advent of World War II, there was a decline in puppetry. Most of the young men were called to arms. Here and there, a lone puppeteer with his portable stage put on a show in camps, bomb shelters, or hospitals.

Basically, there are three types of puppets.

SHADOW puppets are made of translucent leather and colored vegetable dyes. Buffalo, goat or sheep skin is treated to make it translucent. The limbs are loosely articulated so that they can be made to move separately. A stick is attached vertically in the middle. The movement of the sticks causes general movements. But for special movements, loose ropes attached to the limbs are used.

These leather puppets are projected onto a screen, which is illuminated by a light source placed behind the puppets. The Indian shadow play is different from other countries in that the flat puppets are pressed against a white screen, so that the audience sees a light colored shadow. The puppeteer sits behind the light source and manipulates the puppets to form moving shadows on the screen. He also speaks the parts, sings or is accompanied by music. The light source is a bowl filled with castor or coconut oil and lit with a wick. These are now replaced by low voltage electric bulbs.

In South India, shadow puppets are called Tholu Bomalatta or Thogalu Bombeatta. In the good old days, groups of artists roamed the countryside and performed nightly performances in the villages. It had a massive appeal to rustic folks. These puppeteers belonged to a semi-nomadic tribe called ‘Kiliikyathas’ and came from Andhra and North Kanara. As it was not a lucrative profession, they did manual labor during the day and only performed shows at night.

They acted by invitation only. The performance was contracted with a symbolic fee of ten rupees, delivered together with a betel leaf and a piece of arecanut, by the village chief.

The sutradara (chief puppeteer) performed the invocation to the local deities. This ceremony called ‘karagallu’ was to protect against hunger, pestilence or evil in the village.

The puppets were transported in reed baskets and kept their color for years. The elimination of the puppets when they were no longer useful or when there were no people to carry out the show, was done by immersion in a river or in the sea.

There is another form of puppetry in South Kanara. Here the STRING puppets or marionettes are manipulated by six strings. The performance takes place on a stage two meters long by one meter wide, with a background of blue or black cloth. Puppeteers or magicians are never seen. They wear anklets that create the illusion that the puppets themselves are dancing.

The main narrator (Bhagvata) recites the story line, while the puppets perform, and the puppeteers provide the dialogue and music. This 300-year-old Yakshagana puppet travels with the field theater company, which performs throughout South Kanara. Puppet shows take place during intermission, as the dramas continue throughout the night.

The puppet only needs a small investment in money, material and labor. Both the stage and the puppets are portable. The performance area is small. Shadow puppets originated in the east and traveled west.

The ROD puppets are of Western origin and have traveled east. They are also called stick puppets and are built around the main central bar. A short horizontal bar serves as shoulders, from which the upper limbs hang. The arms are made of cloth and stuffed with straw or paper. They articulate or manipulate with other thinner rods. These puppets can be the size of a man or larger. They are dressed in different costumes and the puppeteer hides behind the puppet and manipulates it. The face, neck, and hands are the color of flesh. The face can be made of papier-mâché or cloth filled with straw and covered with clay and starch paint. Features are outlined with a brush. Limb coordination is only achieved through practice.

Soft or BODY puppets are made of cloth and manipulated with the hand and fingers. Skillful fingers are needed for movement and the voice of a ventriloquist to simulate speech.

The visual impact of the puppets is amazing. In addition, the audience can wholeheartedly participate with their comments and encouragement. Provides clean family entertainment.

Puppet building is a rewarding hobby. You need good powers of observation and the ability to replicate characters, kind of like a cartoonist. You need a basic understanding of anatomy and skill to make the joints mobile. Innovation is possible with various materials such as cardboard, cookie tins, even banana skins. With a little imagination, skits or plays can be produced to educate or entertain.

The puppet is a good means of communication for rural audiences. Health, hygiene, family planning messages can be spread realistically. Countries like Africa are already using puppets for health propaganda.

Making and acting out puppets is good occupational therapy for convalescents and people with physical disabilities. Muscle coordination and manual dexterity improve with effort.

Child psychoanalysis is also possible by analyzing the comments they make about what they see.

Rural advertising is another possibility. Promotion skits can be organized to inform the public about the new products available.

However, the best use of this art is as a hobby. Creating and presenting puppet shows can provide hours of delightful fun for young and old alike. Let’s not let the puppets die.

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