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Photo: © Illariya Constanza

Traditional Indian Puppet Theater and the »Dying Art«-Dichotomy

The Indian subcontinent is home to several living traditional forms that have continued over a few thousand years, passed on from generation to generation of both practitioners and audiences, who formed the context for the art form and shared subtexts and symbols of performances. Puppet theatre alone in India has 23 living traditional forms! In the post colonial era, Indian government policy informed by academic researches and discourses have given the title of ›The dying Arts‹ to puppet theater. This paper seeks to dissect this post colonial understanding of tradition that forms the lens to view ›folk‹ and traditional arts, and further strengths the class hierarchy in the Indian arts.

The most important aspect of traditional puppetry is its context, which is deeply rooted in the oral narratives, passed on generationally. These narratives, based on the epics the Ramayana and the Mahabharata and local lore determine the nature of the performances (dialogues, stylizations in speech, music and songs) the design of the puppets (color, shape, size, material used)and the aesthetic of the form. Traditionally the audience was already familiar with the story and often the songs and dialogues too. The role of the puppeteer was and still is more than that of a mere entertainer. S/He is the Shaman, healer, storyteller, holder of a collective history, drawing parallels between the local politics and the epics, linking everyday life, philosophy and ritual. Their deep knowledge of the oral narrative helps them to negotiate the space between the audience and the characters bringing them together skillfully. It is him/her, the carrier of the narrative and traditional knowledge systems and not the puppets, that are central to the performance.

When the Government and policy makers, informed by the researcher or academic, viewed the narrative form as a monolithic block, the individual puppeteer’s contribution or narrative nuances did not count. Clubbed with this is the notion that puppetry is »a dying art«, the culture policy makers went into and still continue to promote a ›preservation‹ and ›saving the art form‹ mode. Hence puppets have been acquired and kept in museums. These preserved puppets have become mere artifacts. No longer part of a performance, they are reduced to mere relics.

This paper also examines how the remaining narratives could be kept alive and what the role of modern academia could be. By sharing instances of recent experiments in training and ›passing on‹ approaches, it looks at ways to ensure the continuity in the traditions through the training and promotion of the next generation of practitioners. Is there a way to keep traditions that have continued from antiquity from shrinking further and eventually disappearing? And if they must still disappear how can they be documented and what are the discourses to be built around them?


Anurupa Roy is a puppeteer, puppet designer and a director of puppet theatre. She is the Co-Founder and Managing Trustee of Katkatha Puppet Arts Trust since 1998. She has a diploma in puppetry at Dramatiska Institutet, University of Stockholm and has trained at the Scoula De La Guaratelle under Bruno Leone. She is a recipient of the Ustad Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar in Puppetry, a National Award in Puppet Theater in 2006.

Anurupa works as a consultant in arts for public health, peace-building and education projects for communities, schools, juvenile homes, in conflict zones like Kashmir, Sri Lanka and Manipur. She has designed puppet exhibitions for Serendipity Arts Festival, The National Museum in Delhi, the Children’s Musuem at Prince of Wales Museum (CSMCS) Mumbai and during the Goethe Institutes Infinite Library Project. She has directed over forty puppet productions for Katkatha supported by India Foundation for the Arts, Festival Mondial Des Theatres de Marrionnettes, Charleville- Mezieres, France, Helios Theater, Hamm, Germany, The Japan Foundation, Atelier de la Luna, Spain and as guest director for TIE Repertory Company, National School of Drama and the Sandbox Collective, Bangalore.

A key priority for Anurupa is creating a rigorous training system for puppeteers with a focus to train the next generation of professional puppeteers in India, creating a discourse around puppetry and also building a network of puppeteers thus through UNIMA Puppeteers Trust where she co-founded the Master class programs in 2014 and the Foundation program in 2019.