In India, puppetry is one of the most ancient forms of folk art and has long been one of the primary forms of traditional entertainment. The string manipulated puppet as a form of entertainment is a legacy of the Indus Valley Civilization. References to a wooden puppet , manipulated by a string are found in Indian epic, the Mahabharat. Historical records of Andhra Pradesh indicate that this art was in vogue in the 4th century BC. Mention of ivory and mechanized puppets in the Kamasutra too reflects the antiquity and popularity of puppet plays in India.
The genesis of puppetry in India is in folk theatre. The term Sutradhar commonly used in traditional theatre, referring to the narrator, literally means the holder of strings. Like traditional folk theatre, themes for puppet theatre are mostly based on epics and legends and were part of an oral tradition. The prime objective of this form of communication has been to entertain while catering to the religious sentiments and educational needs of the audience.
The forms of puppetry prevalent in India are mainly rod, glove, string and shadow. Traditional puppet plays have always been embedded in the cultural and religious ethos of the regions where they originated. Imbibing elements from painting, sculpture, dance, song, secular themes or folklore, the end result was a vibrant layered form, the individual mechanics notwithstanding, where puppets could talk, sing, dance, play, fight and fly. Music to this day, is customarily used live, thus effecting immediate rapport with the audience. The presentation of most of these forms involves the creative collaboration of many people working together – for example, the author of the theme or song, the handler or actual puppeteer and the musicians – singers and instrumentalists.
Puppetry in West Bengal, which finds mention in the medieval folk ballads of undivided Bengal, is called Putul Naach, translating to Doll Dance. The older traditions here are rod puppets, or Dang Putul and glove puppets, or Beni (Bene) Putul. String puppetry, or Taarer Putul or Shutor Putul , it is believed, was a later import. While shadow puppetry does not exist in Bengal, there is a very unique and rare form practiced among some Santhal communities of West Bengal and Jharkhand, the Chadar Badar.
Except Darjeeling and Purulia, traditional puppetry exists in almost all the other districts of Bengal. Glove puppetry, the simplest form originated in East Medinipur and was also to be found in the districts of 24 Parganas and Murshidabad. Rod puppets traditionally, have been the domain of the eastern states of West Bengal, Odisha and Jharkhand. They are manipulated with three rods, one for the body and two for the limbs. Though facing extinction, this form is still to be found in some villages of South 24 Parganas. String puppets, originally manipulated with string and now with wire, are found mostly in Nadia.
The themes for the operatic puppet plays are mostly myths and legends, but have for the past several decades been increasingly influenced by the popular themes of the Jatra folk theatre tradition and even began to incorporate historical, social and even political themes. Thus popular song and dance sequences from Jatra and later from films, or the mimicry of a famous actor became “value adds” to these performances. But many puppeteers, who, with their simple themes, basic props and traditional music, found themselves unable to compete with increasingly popular forms of modern entertainment, gave up their tradition and moved to other occupations.
The puppeteers or puppet troupes are almost always ill educated, landless farmers or labourers, who are to be found in village fairs and festivals in the winters. Their art being of an itinerant nature, they carry the objects of their art with them, packed into boxes or folded and rolled into a cloth bag. While the rod and string puppeteers require a makeshift stage, a curtain (to hide the manipulators) and sometimes a backdrop, the fast disappearing glove puppet needs no such props and it is the dexterity and musicality of the lone performer that holds its audience in thrall.
In more recent times, there have been attempts at improving the puppet itself, modernizing the lighting and stage décor and even adding keyboards to the musical instruments used. Over the last few decades, the government has aided the artists in some ways by organizing events in different districts; however their main source of sustenance still remains the rural fairs and festivals. Patronage of this ancient folk form is conspicuous by its absence.