Current Issue, Volume 1

Women in Indian Puppetry: Negotiating Traditional Roles and New Possibilities

Indian puppetry, long a formidable art playing a central role in religious rituals and village life, is caught up today in India’s seismic economic and cultural shifts. Many traditional forms languish on the verge of extinction, having long ago lost their audiences to film and television, often staying afloat by appealing to global interests (tourist dollars, international arts festivals) or national programs for heritage preservation. Meanwhile, looking to international models of contemporary performing-object theatre, innovative artists struggle to create new work, and educate audiences, especially India’s growing middle class, to appreciate a novel genre of performance. Although it has become commonplace in India for people to talk about puppetry in general, and traditional puppetry in particular, as a ‘dying’ art, it may be more productive to focus on it as an art in transition. Realigning this discourse can reveal new growth taking place and encourage puppeteers in their endeavors. In spite of the enormous importance and necessity for official government and other programs to support the work of artists, individual puppeteers, through the choices they make about their lives and their futures, either continue the work or leave it to languish. How dedicated performers craft a place for themselves in contemporary circumstances will help determine the future of Indian puppetry.

Some significant women have been mavericks in contributing to the art’s current ventures. In many traditional forms, where women, either through direct restrictions or custom, have kept away from the craft, the mere fact of a woman taking up the strings or the rods marks a moment of transformation. Some women have also thrown themselves into puppetry work with gusto, opening up novel avenues of engagement that establish role models for others. Women working in contemporary styles are simultaneously taking advantage of new opportunities offered them by the changing views of women’s roles in Indian society and of women’s traditional connections to issues concerning women, children, and education. Consequently, they are at the forefront of using puppetry to address some of India’s most pressing social problems.  At this transitional juncture for Indian puppetry, different players adding their voices and hands to the work can help rejuvenate the art by offering fresh approaches. The future of both traditional and new forms of Indian puppetry lies not solely, but importantly in the hands of women puppeteers and the expanding choices available to them in India’s changing social and economic circumstances.

The women presented here are not the only ones involved in puppetry in India today, although the field of participants is decidedly limited. But they are important figures and demonstrate the range of contexts for Indian women in this art, coming from rural and urban settings and engaging in traditional and contemporary styles. Their situations and accomplishments express the various choices, opportunities, and restrictions facing Indian women puppeteers. (1)

Traditional Forms in Rural Settings:

Both Rajitha Pulavar and K.S. Ranjini (2) practice traditional, inherited puppetry arts within Kerala’s lush rural landscape. While Ranjini carries on a folk tradition passed down to her directly from her grandmother, Rajitha Pulavar is the first woman to take part in her family’s ritual, temple form. Kerala is one of India’s wealthier states. A good part of the wealth comes from tourism that builds on the region’s beautiful landscapes and strong heritage of traditional performing arts, notably as the birthplace of kathakali. Promoting the environment and the arts contributes to Kerala’s economy, and supports, to some degree, the continuance of many aspects of traditional life. Nonetheless traditional arts and artists still struggle to survive as new forces intrude on rural lifestyles.

Rajitha Pulavar and Kerala’s Tholpavakoothu

Within Kerala’s tholpavakoothu  or leather shadow puppet tradition (thol- leather, pava– puppet, koothu– show/performance/theatre ),  it is precisely the ancient ritual form’s precarious state of existence that has invited women into new opportunities. Tholpavakoothu, which presents the story of the Ramayana four months a year during the dry season at special permanent puppet houses (koothoo-madam) on temple grounds throughout Kerala, has traditionally excluded women, even though the primary ritual audience for the show is the goddess Bhadrakali. The company leader is known as the “pulavar,” a term which means scholar, and he is revered for his deep knowledge of the epics and their philosophical dimensions, a wisdom he displays in performance. This shadow show, with its early roots in Tamil language and culture, has long used Kamban’s Tamil version of the Ramayana epic as its text. In performances that can take place over 7, 14, 21, 41, or even 71 nights, and which mix Tamil, Sanskrit, and Malayalam (the local language of Kerala), the pulavar expands on the twelve hundred to two thousand verses of the text he has memorized, adding associated stories, philosophical commentary, and interpretation, in answer to traditional questions posed by the other puppeteers.

According to Dr. Friedrich. Seltman, writing in 1982, women previously had not taken part in tholpavakoothu, or even been allowed to come in contact with the puppets:

Only the male members of the family are connected with the profession of shadow play. Women have nothing to do with it; they should not come in touch with the figures, and they are not allowed to enter the special area where the performances will go on. (Seltman 1982: 11) (3)

The reasons women have been kept from the art are partially due to custom, and are also related to the sacred precinct of the temple grounds where the show is performed. Ramachandran Pulavar, head of one of the few remaining tholpavakoothu troupes, offers the following views as some of the reasons women have been kept away from the form:

‪1. The main reason is that in olden days women were not allowed to go outside from the home. So they have to sit inside the house.

  1. As a part of Indian culture women are not allowed to work as priests in temples. Only men are allowed. The ‘koothumadam” [the puppet house] is also considered as a temple. The same purity of the temple should be maintained in the koothumadam. On considering why women are not allowed in the koothumadam, the lamps are considered as goddesses. This is not an official rule but it is done as part of culture. (Ramachandran Pulavar, e-mail message to author, August 8, 2014)

The sacred presence of the goddess in the lamps required for the shadow shows makes the puppet house a kind of temple and the performer a kind of priest, a position off-limits to women. But, as Ramachandra points out, there is no steadfast rule about this view, rather it is custom that keeps the practice in place. The lack of official rules perhaps offers a grey area subject to change within the context of other cultural changes taking place today.

Kaladharan Viswanath, a scholar of Kerala performance traditions and a long-time senior officer at the Kerala Kalamandalam Performing Arts Academy, echoes the theme of the traditional role for women in the home as a reason against them performing. But he adds a further view on the gender and power relations implied in the caste system:

  1. It is customary in Kerala that traditional artists, men, perform at night while their women confine themselves to domestic chores. When their husbands come back after the performance, the women are expected, as an unwritten rule, to serve them. Any deviation is deemed to be a questioning of or insult to the prevailing social order and family status quo.
  1. Since the Pulavar community belongs to the lower castes in the hierarchy, the women were perceived by the men as vulnerable to the higher castes who formed patrons of the Hindu temples where Kuttu is performed. This and distant rays of Victorian morality might have forced the men in the community to keep their women off from the art form which happened to be night events. Darkness and sexual promiscuity are interlocked as is well known. (Kaladharan Viswanath, e-mail message to author, August 11, 2014)

The nighttime settings required for shadow plays have colluded with other social elements to keep women from performing in Kerala’s tholpavakoothu.

In the last century, however, human audiences for the form dwindled as did financial support for the performers due to various factors including the end of the royal patronage system, the spread of film and television as competing forms of entertainment, and the general move, even in this rural area, away from agricultural schedules to 9-5 work days, making long, late night performances problematic. The male performers of the younger generation were, consequently, faltering in their commitment to continue in the tradition. Ramachandran Pulavar’s family troupe, from the Palakad District, then under the direction of Ramachandran’s father, Krishnankutty, hoped to revitalize the form by taking a cut-down version of it outside the temples. In 1969 they created a non-ritual performance, reducing the epic’s events to one hour. This shortened version of the show was first successfully performed for the Kerala government in Trivandrum. It found further support from an international audience when, in 1979, Meher Rustom Contractor, (4) an important figure in Indian puppetry herself at the time and a pioneer and role model for women in the art, invited them to an Union Internationale de la Marionnette (International Union of Puppetry) or UNIMA (5) international puppetry festival in Russia. Exposure to an international audience for puppetry revived the performers’ commitment to the art, and novel projects eventually grew from these early experiments outside the ritual context, including, in 2007, a show about Gandhi and, in 2012, one on Jesus Christ aimed at Kerala’s large Christian population. (6) These new productions use the same traditional elements as the original form — a wide screen, 11-12 meters long, hand-carved flat figures, formerly made from deer skin, but now from buffalo hide, painted with colors made from local plants, and illumination from 21 coconut husk oil lamps, set along the back of the screen (Venu, 2006). In the new shows they are transposed to address novel subjects. [Figure 1]

Creating a version of the form separate from the temple and the religious restrictions on women performing there was the first step in opening up opportunities for women to take part in tholpavakoothu. Today Rajitha Pulavar, who is in her twenties and the daughter of company head Ramachandran Pulavar, is the first woman to perform in this tradition alongside her father and brothers, having learned the techniques from her father and her late grandfather, the master puppeteer Krishnankutty. She is memorizing the verses, practicing the intricate details of puppet manipulation, and is adept at building leather shadow puppets, albeit still only for venues outside the temple grounds. Her involvement in the art may be due less to personal choice and passion than to her father’s devotion to keeping the form alive by involving the whole family in it. Her mother and aunt are also now active in crafting puppets for new performances and especially for sale, adding to the family’s income. [Figure 2] In 2013 Rajitha received a competitive two-year grant from Sangeet Natak Akademi to use her traditional skills to create a new performance of her own, which, she says, may focus on women’s issues, though she hasn’t yet decided on the theme (7) (Rajitha Pulavar, conversation with the author, July 22, 2013). [Figure 2a; Figure 2b]

Ramachandran Pulavar’s family is the only group within the tholpavakoothu tradition to take the show outside the temples, and, in so doing, expose young performers to a wider scope of possibilities for puppetry. They are also, as a consequence of this somewhat controversial move, one of the only companies with young performers training as disciples in the form. [Figure 3]

Even for this family, however, dedication to traditional practice has taken a back seat to new obligations of year-round, full-time jobs and further education. In the past the family supplemented their performing income with agricultural work during the off-season. Today they farm only to support family needs. Ramachandran has taken the unusual risk of devoting himself full time to puppetry, promoting his art and taking it in new directions outside the seasonal performance schedule. The younger family members have occupations integrated into modern Indian life, which do not keep to seasonal patterns. Rajitha has a job at a bank and in July 2013 was training for a managerial position. Her brother, Rajeev, teaches computers at a local school. These other commitments make it difficult for them to learn and practice the tradition in the same way their father and grandfather did, especially in terms of spending the time required to learn the many text verses by heart. (8)

While Rajitha does not perform at the temples, with so few traditional performers left, perhaps, in the future, people may accept a woman in temple performances, especially if they wish to receive the blessings garnered by sponsoring a show (9). In July 2013 I saw Rajitha Pulavar at an off-season ritual performance done privately at the Pulavar’s home for a family from Trivandrum, who had been advised by an astrologer to sponsor such a show to alleviate their family troubles. Although I didn’t notice her backstage handling the puppets on this occasion, these patrons didn’t seem to mind Rajitha being there, soaking up an inheritance that might yet be hers. The performance was a ritual, but performed outside the temple, alleviating some of the problems Ramachandran Pulavar and Kaladharan Viswanath point out for women performers.

Recently married and with her bank job to handle alongside puppetry, it remains to be seen how Rajitha Pulavar will continue in puppetry work in the future. Her father, at least, seems committed to accommodating and promoting tholpavakoothu in hope that both his son and daughter will keep the tradition alive for the future, seeing more worth in investing in his inheritance by transforming it to suit contemporary circumstances than in squandering it by letting it drift into obscurity. Rajitha has been offered unprecedented opportunities within this transformation.

Pankajakshi, Ranjini, and Kerala’s Nokku Vidya Paava Kali Tradition

Still in the state of Kerala, a four-hour drive from Rajitha Pulavar, one can find—in my case, with much perseverance and the help of at least six Kerala friends—a small, humble home, buried in the lush greenery of Monipally behind the Devi temple. Here Moozhikkal Pankajakshi and her granddaughter K.S. Ranjini live with Ranjini’s mother and brother. Pankajakshi is in her seventies and retired, leaving Ranjini, thirteen, as the only living performer of a local performance tradition called nokku vidya pava kali, or eye skill. It is primarily a balancing act, in which the performer, sitting on the ground, legs stretched out in front of her, head tipped back, chin in the air, balances a stick on her upper lip. [Figure 4] She starts her show by lighting an oil lantern placed on top of the stick and then, throughout the performance, alternates, in place of the lamp, different carved, wooden figures with minimally moving parts, which she manipulates by pulling on a string with her hands. Some of the figures are folk characters, while others represent epic heroes like Hanuman from the Ramayana. [Figure 5] All have their stories sung by accompanying musicians. The performance is a sequential display of these different figures, balanced atop the stick, making simple movements as the performer’s hands tug the light strings that move the figure’s joints overhead. The performer’s eye stay fixed on the puppet as the musicians sing songs of the figure’s exploits. Nokku vidya’s name surely derives from the skill of keeping the wooden figures balanced through the performer’s fixed, steady gaze.

This pure entertainment (not ritual event according to Pankajakshi) is done at Onam, harvest time. But Pankajakshi acknowledges a devotional element in her performance, the bhakti, or devout love she has for the characters. It is not necessarily a woman’s art, but she says not very many people can be taught to do it and in her experience women seem to have more of the patience required for it. Her granddaughter is the only one she’s been able to teach so far. Her own daughter never performed, instead pursuing work as a typist, and her grandson couldn’t learn but has joined the musicians instead. (Pankajakshi, conversation with the author, July 24, 2013).

With only one living performer, this form might seem on the very brink of extinction, but the near surety of its continuance lies, to my mind, in Ranjini’s eyes, which light up when she talks about how much she loves performing. It is perhaps bhakti, along with love for her grandmother and the bond they share through this form, that enliven her own presentation and her commitment to it. This kind of personal passion for the arts can be hard to come by today in India’s inherited traditions, where performers often feel underappreciated and disgruntled in a world that is leaving their hard-earned skills far behind. Their disaffection contributes to a desire to push offspring into more lucrative, less anachronistic careers. Personal passion is vital to the survival and flourishing of traditional forms however difficult it is to cultivate deliberately.

Ranjini’s burden of maintaining an inherited tradition is lessened by the fact that, once mastered, nokku vidya, in its unadulterated form, doesn’t require the kind of full-time commitment that tholpavakoothu’s traditional long temple performances have for mastering the numerous verses and playing all night throughout the performance season. Her show is only about an hour, she doesn’t need to learn to sing or recite, or to carve puppets as she continues to use the same few simple puppets crafted long ago by her grandfather and great-grandfather. [Figure 6] It really is more of an occasional display of skill than a career or full caste occupation, leaving her free to pursue other interests. This tradition does not offer the deep philosophical explorations that tholpavakoothu’s epic text and commentaries do, but it simplicity supports its sustainability. Nonetheless, it is now only in Ranjini’s trained body and in her commitment to continue performing and passing her training on to the next generation that the tradition will survive. And, of course, there must always be patrons, like the Edamana Shrikrishnaswamy temple in Kottayam that sponsored her show in December 2013. As her form relies on rural Kerala’s traditions of harvest celebration, Ranjini may eventually need to play a part in maintaining the performance context that makes her art meaningful or in helping to cultivate a new set of conditions to support the practice for nokku vidya to survive into subsequent generations.

Bringing Traditional Forms to Urban Audiences: Anupama Hoskere and Dhaatu in Bangalore

Anupama Hoskere was not born to inherit the art form she now pursues but came to it through an unusual route that keeps her from officially being a traditional artist, in spite of the long cultural roots of the form she’s mastered. Although, like Rajitha Pulavar and Ranjini, she performs in a traditional style of puppetry, she lives in the growing IT capital of Bangalore, and her background is more representative of India’s growing middle class than of a traditional low caste Indian artist. In her work she tries to find new ways to make traditional arts connect with India’s modern urban centers.

Hoskere earned a degree in engineering in the United States from California State University at Long Beach in 1994 and worked in engineering in the US for several years before returning to India with her husband and children in 1995. It was then, on seeing a much-transformed Bangalore in the throes of IT development that she sought to reconnect with Hindu values and philosophy. This quest led her to puppetry as a way of teaching the epics to her own children and others in her neighborhood and eventually to Guru M. R. Ranganatha Rao, in his seventies and a master of the mudalpaya-style rod puppet tradition in Karnataka. Rao himself had revitalized the form in the past, in his forties taking charge of the waning family tradition practiced by his grandfather, Narasinga Rao, who “was an ‘asthana’ puppeteer at the Mysore palace” (Devika 2001).

Although Rao doubted the seriousness of a middle-class, US-educated mother of three’s intentions in learning the art of puppetry, he agreed to teach her, first how to perform and later how to carve wooden puppets, on each occasion requiring her to assemble a class of ten or more to make it worth his while. She enlisted all her family members and friends to ensure that the classes would run, and they are now members of her company, Dhaatu, (meaning “root”) (10), founded as an NGO in 2004, which offers all styles of traditional forms of puppetry from Karnataka, including rod, string, and shadow forms (the shadow shows are done by the junior company, ages twelve to fifteen). They specialize in the inland mudalpaya style of string puppets, also known as bhagavatha style, with some slight changes to the tradition. According to her, the company “…just modified it enough for it to be appealing to the urban audiences without sacrificing its structure and flavor. Changes in sound, light and choreography are what has been added on” (Anupama Hoskere, e-mail message to author, September 2, 2013). Some technological additions include recorded music and special lighting and other effects. Having trained in bharata natyam dance for many years, Hoskere also added strings to the feet of some of the puppets, which is not traditional, so she could make them dance. She has built a large bharata natyam dancer puppet based on her own design, with moving eyes and more than eleven strings that manipulate various parts of its body, which she is still devising how best to manipulate. [Figure 7] She is happy to explore new modes of puppet building and manipulation if it can help her create interesting figures for her performances, and her engineering background proves to be a great help in this process. In 2011 she and her husband, Vidyashankar Hoskere, also an engineer, took a puppet-making workshop in Prague with Mirek Trejtnar to learn Czech marionette carving, jointing and stringing techniques.

Though Hoskere may take liberties with strict ideas of tradition, other than her work, mudalpaya-style puppetry is dying out, with only two performers left in Bangalore, both of whom are already in their sixties and seventies. (11) In 2011, Hoskere also finished a senior fellowship from India’s Ministry of Culture to revitalize eachanoor puppetry, which utilizes more stylized versions of the mudalpaya puppets that are heavier, with elaborate headdresses, and which has all but died out. [Figure 8] She researched and documented the form, carved a new set of these puppets, and created a show for them. (12)

According to Hoskere, women have not performed in her Karnataka traditions in at least the last fifty years or so (e-mail message to author, September 2, 2013). Her company, which includes her two daughters, her female cousin, and some friends, as well as her son, is predominantly made up of women. In August 2012, UK film director Vicky Hart and I showed film footage we had shot of Hoskere’s company to male and female members of the Women’s Center at Banaras Hindu University (students and faculty) as part of a presentation we gave there. What most impressed them was seeing the strength of Hoskere and her colleagues as they lifted and manipulated the heavy wooden puppets (which weigh between two and four kilograms, or four to eight pounds, apiece), an image they did not associate at all with Indian women. In several Indian puppetry traditions, like the koyya bommalata string puppets of Andhra Pradesh, the men manipulate the heavy wooden figures, while the women provide singing and musical accompaniment. The heavy weight of the puppets is one reason often given for this division of labor.

Hoskere carves the puppets, paints them, makes their elaborate outfits, writes the music for the shows, adapts the scripts from traditional stories, and directs the performances, as well as performs. [Figure 9] Since she started Dhaatu in 2004 she has carved over 700 puppets. She is deeply committed to the philosophical dimensions of the traditional stories she offers, as well as to a classical view of arts and aesthetic as a whole, and to that end she is studying the Natyasastra in depth with Dr. R. Ganesh, a scholar of Sanskrit and Indian performing arts and a master of “the literary sport of Avadhana,” a traditional poetic form (Anupama Hoskere, e-mail message to author, February 9, 2014). She applies values drawn from The Natyasastra to, in her view, elevate the aesthetic offerings of puppetry and make it more appealing to contemporary audiences. This practice, to some, moves Hoskere’s work outside the confines of what has primarily been a folk tradition, by adding to it features from India’s classical arts heritage. However, a large part of Hoskere’s ambition in puppetry is to connect the people of Karnataka, especially the growing urban population in Bangalore, back to their own traditions, to let them know that these puppetry forms are theirs, part of their local heritage. She feels this is particularly important for an urban population becoming more and more estranged from its cultural roots. She is personally at home with improvising within the tradition if she can offer puppetry more cultural visibility and a promising future.

Hoskere is lucky to be supported in her work by her husband, as marriage and its social obligations can pose many problems for Indian women artists. For example, Seetha Lakshmi, in her sixties (who, though living in Chennai in Tamil Nadu, is an inheritor and practitioner of tholu bommalata, Andhra Pradesh–style, large-scale shadow puppetry), has passed on her training to her son, daughter-in-law and two granddaughters, Priyanka and Madhumika [Figure 10]. But the family members all accept as fact that, when the young girls marry, they will be under the authority of their new in-laws and can only continue to work in puppetry if their in-laws approve, which may be unlikely. Both Priyanka and Madhumika intend to prepare themselves for other careers; the older one has just entered an engineering program, and the younger one, still in high school, is looking to work in the business end of the fashion world, like her mother [Figure 11]. Their father, Wasu, currently squeezes puppetry in between work at his nine-to-five job at a computer technology company. The family today blends seamlessly into Chennai’s urban middle class, and the father will doubtlessly be looking for husbands for the girls from that background rather than from puppeteers of Andhra Pradesh, the world his parents came from.

Anupama Hoskere work is also supported financially by her husband’s thriving construction company, leaving her free from concerns of how to make a living from her art. As with the old-time sponsorship of royal houses, she can continue to perfect her craft with an assured livelihood and continued patronage. Her own indefatigable spirit for her work thrives in this environment. The erosion of royal and other long-term patronage systems have contributed to the destitution of traditional puppeteers. In 1971, the full abolishment of the privy purses allotted to the royal courts throughout India brought a final blow to a patronage system already on the wane. With dwindling chances to perform, Indian puppeteers can understandably be extremely competitive over opportunities that do arise, sometimes making it difficult for them to work together to improve their overall social and economic position.

Hoskere tries to address this situation and promote other traditional puppeteers from her own secure situation by hosting an annual puppetry festival in Bangalore, with performers from throughout Karnataka and other parts of India performing in every style. This festival again aims to offer the citizens of Bangalore an opportunity to experience the varieties of puppetry that their region, and India as a whole, has fostered, while exposing puppeteers and their work to urban spectators. Having opportunities to perform and build new audiences for their shows is one of the primary concerns of traditional puppeteers in India today and vital to their livelihood and the continuance of their traditions. It is a task that many puppeteers, from rural backgrounds, can have trouble mastering on their own as it can require using new technologies to identify, reach, and draw in new audiences, skills traditional puppeteers, especially those from an older generation, never had to learn. They may also need to change or adjust performance practices to accommodate urban venues and the interests and schedules of urban spectators.

Hoskere in 2013 worked with an art gallery and theatre constructed by the Bengaluru (Bangalore) Metro at the city’s center, where Dhaatu offered puppetry exhibits, puppet shows, and workshops, hoping this new establishment would give the people of Bangalore an ongoing venue for traditional puppetry in a visible, central location. Continued education about and exposure to regional puppetry forms helps promote them and their overall cultural value. Hoskere is also developing a puppetry performance curriculum for passing the practice on to future students. In August 2014, with her teacher Ranganatha Rao, she ran a workshop to teach puppet carving skills to a select group of performers. Some of Karnataka’s remaining, talented performers, having inherited beautiful puppets, never learned to carve for themselves. Being unable to carve new characters hampers a puppeteer’s possibilities for expanding his repertoire and creating new shows that might appeal to new audiences. In January 2015 Hoskere will attempt hosting her first international puppetry festival, hoping to foster more exchange between local and international artists.

In the fall of 2013, in recognition of her contribution to the field of puppetry, Hoskere received an award from the D. Subbaramayya Art Trust. This was the first time such an award, presided over by a panel of eminent art scholars and performing artists, was given to a puppeteer (Anupama Hoskere, e-mail message to author, February 9, 2014).

Not being born to a puppetry tradition, Hoskere may not be a “traditional performer” in a rigid sense of the word. But her work is playing an important role in bridging the widening divide between traditional life in India, usually preserved in remote rural settings, and the new ways of rapidly growing, urban technological centers. She is tackling one of Indian puppetry’s greatest challenges: finding ways of making the art relevant to new ways of life. Although she has adapted her puppetry form to a certain extent, her overall approach is to emphasize traditional aesthetics and recultivate their appeal, and, in so doing, bring traditional performance to renewed prominence.

New Artistic Works in Urban Areas

In contrast to Hoskere’s approach, Anurupa Roy in Delhi and Padmini Rangarajan in Hyderabad embrace contemporary forms of puppetry and use them to address the changing artistic interests and social concerns of their urban audiences. Roy’s work reveals the strong influence of international models of puppetry from her studies and travels abroad. Although she also does educational and politically engaged shows, she is primarily an imaginative theatre artist with a highly skilled company, creating theatrical works of art with puppets. Rangarajan, without any formal puppetry training, is less invested in artistic concerns themselves, concentrating instead on the power of puppetry to address problems plaguing modern life in order to offer spectators concrete lessons and solutions.

Anurupa Roy and Katkatha Puppet Trust in Delhi

In Delhi, Anurupa Roy’s company, Katkatha Puppet Trust, follows in the path of contemporary international artists in expanding the idea of puppet to embrace all manner of performing objects—masks of every sort, small doll-like figures, shadow forms—creating a total theatre that places these performing objects alongside human actors and new technological media. Besides learning her craft with fellow puppeteers in India, Roy also studied with important international figures Michael Meschke in Sweden and Bruno Leone in Naples, widening her vision of puppetry and her artistic skills. She now connects regularly with a global community of puppeteers, performing at puppetry festivals around the world and participating in exchanges with artists visiting India. Her varied projects range from a workshop presentation developed with women living under violence in Kashmir that was based on their stories, to AIDS-awareness shows for schools, to a renewed view of Rama in the bunraku-style puppet show About Ram, to a puppet version of Twelfth Night. [Figure 12]

In the summer of 2013, Roy stretched her endeavors even further when her company premiered a new piece called Life in Progress, dealing in very abstract terms with the problems of contemporary urban life in India. The production took Roy beyond the confines of even the many puppetry styles with which she has become comfortable to explore more enigmatic forms of presentation using primarily garbage—old newspapers and bottles—as performing elements and a nonlinear structure. [Figure 13] The use of trash reflects the ecological degradation and sanitation issues that have multiplied nationwide alongside India’s unbridled capitalism. The show, well received, was equally challenging to Roy and her audiences, accustomed to more straightforward modes of storytelling. It was successful enough to play again in Delhi at the 2014 Ishara Puppetry Festival. This festival, in its twelfth edition, organized by Dadi Pudumjee, founder and director of Ishara Puppet Theatre Trust and, since 2008, President of UNIMA, hosts companies from around the world along with Indian ones. It has become a vital venue for exposing Indian spectators and performers to novel ideas in global puppetry.

In August 2013 the company also premiered two short pieces commissioned by an NGO for Youth Day, which were meant to prompt young people to think about and discuss the nature of their political engagement—both political complacency and knee-jerk, reactionary responses. The company used as an example of the latter the large protests that took place in Delhi in 2012 against the men who brutally gang-raped a young woman on a bus, focusing on the people who marched through the street carrying nooses and calling for the rapists’ deaths, without fully acknowledging the more systemic problems for women in India. One short sketch used a blank, white-cloth figure, performed through direct manipulation by two puppeteers, as the central performer. Brief vignettes depict the different stages of the character’s life, and at each juncture, s/he is told not to question the status quo. Finally, falling into one of the numerous potholes that pockmark Delhi’s streets, (unattended to by municipal authorities) and passing the marches against the Delhi rapists, the figure starts to question the problems surrounding him/her. The show depicts this new status with a simple cut out question mark appearing above the character’s head.

The other piece used human performers wearing oversized, full-head masks to tell the story of a woman who is harassed both at work and at a bus stop while her boss, co-workers, and other pedestrians deliberately ignore her plight. [Figure 14] These same characters are later vocal participants in the Delhi rape protests, in spite of having neglected the other woman’s situation when they were in a position to help her.

In the 1990s Roy received much attention as a prominent example of a new, younger generation of puppeteers following in the footsteps of students of Meher Contractor, such as Dadi Pudumjee. Having now run her own company for over sixteen years, Roy is herself looking to support the upcoming generation of performers making their way in the art. All her company members—young artists in their twenties—were, as children, beneficiaries of the important work of Salam Balak Trust. This organization, founded with proceeds from the movie Salaam Bombay!, rescues street children, giving them not only a safe home, food, and an education, but also pairing them with artists who train them for a future livelihood in the arts.  Roy’s performers continue to build their skills working with her in a very collaborative environment, as well as with other puppet and dance companies across the city. These young artists are now beginning to make their own work.

Roy teaches workshops for children (some of whom have been with her for years, now becoming interns in her company) and brings in international interns to foster an exchange of skills between her group and artists from abroad. (A physical theatre performer from the Netherlands interned with the company in July 2013). She also takes on Indian interns from outside her company and, in 2013, her two interns were intentionally drawn from the kathputli, or traditional Rajastani-style string puppet performers’ community of the Shadipur Colony in Delhi. She hoped through this internship to build stronger ties with that world of traditional performers and offer these puppeteers further techniques for reinvigorating their traditional art. One Delhi kathputli performer, Puran Bhatt, has garnered important recognition at home and abroad for his work in both traditional Rajasthani-style and  newer models of, puppetry, bringing both to a high level of mastery. However, Roy is concerned that many Rajasthani puppeteers, whose livelihoods are precarious, do not show Bhatt’s commitment to perfecting their art and keeping it vital and relevant.  The internships were her way of offering more paths and motivation to some of these young artists drawn from traditional performance families.

Roy is working to have connect puppetry to the larger world of Indian theatre. After years of applying to perform at Delhi’s important National School of Drama International Theatre Festival, and being rejected because puppetry didn’t qualify as theatre, in 2010 her production About Ram was finally included. Since then she has had other productions presented at the festival and taught puppetry workshops at the National School of Drama in Delhi and worked with students who have graduated from NSD on productions using puppets. In 2014, Katkatha’s interns were three young actors trained at the Ninasam Theatre Institute in Hegoddu, Karnataka. I met them when they participated in the March 2014 Dramaturgy for Puppetry Workshop I conducted for Roy’s company and saw that working with Katkatha they were very excited to translate their theatre skills into puppetry and think about the different approaches of these two related arts.

Roy, (along with puppeteers Ranjana Pandey (13) and Dadi Pudumjee), is a very active member of UNIMA-INDIA, devising new ways the organization can continue to support Indian puppetry in all its manifestations. In July 2014, for example, she worked with UNIMA-INDIA to organize the first of what is planned to be a series of Master Classes on traditional puppetry. The intention is to offer further means of preserving and passing on traditional puppetry skills, while also exposing traditional performers to artists from outside the tradition to encourage various forms of exchange. The first highly successful Master Class was a weeklong retreat held at Savitri Villa in Mussoorie, bringing three togalu gombeyatta artists (Karnataka shadow puppeteers) together with nine participants and two people to document their work. Roy’s international experiences have exposed her to fresh ideas that can help Indian puppetry find new means to flourish.

Through her continued innovations and her sharing of puppetry techniques, Roy brings a contemporary vitality to the landscape of Indian puppetry. She demonstrates the creative possibilities of the art, inspires others, and connects Indian puppetry to an international community of puppeteers.

Padmini Rangarajan and Sphoorthi Theatre in Hyderabad

Padmini Rangarajaran is the founder of STEPARC, Sphoorthi Theatre for Educational Puppetry, Art and Craft, in Hyderabad (sphoorthi means “inspiration”), and she is the subject of the documentary film Magic in Our Hands, which I am working on and producing with UK filmmaker-director Vicky Hart of Heart in Media. (14) Although Rangarajan holds an MA in Social Work, a PG Diploma in Women’s Studies, and is pursuing a MPhil in Sociology, she is completely self-taught in the art of puppetry, using puppets of her own, sometimes crude, devising in educational and other settings (she was also a teacher) to address social issues like domestic workers’ rights, child marriage, and electronic waste. [Figure 15]

Rangarajan came to puppetry by chance when her young son told his teacher that his mother had made a monkey puppet for him at home, and the teacher asked her to perform something for the class. This impromptu invitation sparked a new career by giving Rangarajan a glimpse of how puppetry could enhance her own educational and social work endeavors. She already knew a little something of performance from a father who had spent time as a professional actor in both theatre and radio and was passionate about his art. From her son’s original “inspiration,” puppetry, and a love for it, barreled into her life with increasing momentum.

Rangarajan first used puppetry in conventional educational settings to teach topics such as spoken English, mathematics, history, and science. But her experience and reputation grew as she began addressing social issues. In April 2006, Rangarajan did an interactive play using a tall, female, papier-mâché rod puppet called Lakshmamma at a meeting organized by the Commissioner of Labour in Hyderabad in conjunction with the National Domestic Workers Movement (NDWM). NDWM was fighting for recognition of domestic workers and establishing a minimum wage. Rangarajan describes the character of Lakshmama as “highly regarded for her efficient work, good nature, being punctual and trust worthy. She is also a leader in her locality and respected by young and old” (e-mail message to author, February 14, 2014). As the puppet Lakshmamma discussed her own situation, the domestic workers in the audience, who first sat scattered and at a tentative distance from the presentation, began to gather closer to the puppet and soon started “talking to the puppet about their problems including sexual harassment, suspicions, theft cases and others problems,” offering stories of their own mistreatment (Padmini Rangarajan, e-mail message to author, February 14, 2014). The puppet allowed these oppressed women to share their life experiences. Rangarajan addressed this issue again in March 2010 for a play commemorating the International NDWN (network) Silver Jubilee and Women’s Day. This time she helped four domestic workers devise their own play, spending three days at Ravindra Bharathi, a national theatre space in Hyderabad, training them in puppet scriptwriting, acting and manipulation. Their final work stressed “the abuses and exploitation (verbal/physical and sexual) faced by the domestic workers in the work place, and the need for welfare board schemes and Social Security along with paid holidays on Sundays and festival days.” It played to an audience that included such dignitaries as the local Minister of Education and the Minister of Labor & Employment (Padmini Rangarajan, e-mail message to author, February 14, 2014). She has also created plays on the problem of child labor and in 2012 worked with students from the Azampur, Golnaka government school in Hyderabad on a play that was against the practice of child marriage. She and her students made simple painted foam rod puppets and used recorded music and dialogue so their message could reach spectators clearly in the windy, outdoor venues of their school audiences. By involving those concerned in the making of the work, Rangarajan gives them tools for both creative and political expression. [Figure 16]

During our documentary filming in 2012-2013, Rangarajan was involved in a project sponsored by Nokia to educate people about the growing problem of electronic waste and how individuals can help take personal action to address it. E-waste accumulating in India includes used materials imported from abroad, as well as those generated by Indian consumers. Most of it is inadequately disposed of, causing toxic chemicals to leak into the environment. These toxins find their way into crops consumed locally and exported, making Indian e-waste part of a global ecological problem.

Rangarajan and a group of students investigated the topic by visiting a dump yard, where impoverished rag pickers informally sort through garbage with their bare hands, leaving leaking batteries and other toxic elements behind as they search for the parts of dumped cell phones that have the highest resale value. By contrast, their visit to a rare recycling plant, showed how highly sophisticated equipment can take care of waste in more responsible ways. The puppet show, with mobile phone rod puppets as characters, premiered on the outdoor campus of Ananth Technologies Limited and made company workers aware of their responsibility for e-waste, encouraging safer disposal methods.

Like Hoskere, Rangarajan is also working to support traditional puppetry and the artistic heritage of her region. In 2012 she received a Tata Fellowship in Folklore, which provided funding to both her and Shri Mothe Janganatham of the Amapuram village troupe in Nerameta Mandal, Warangal District, Telangana (formerly part of Andhra Pradesh), a traditional koyya bommalata string puppeteer, for Rangarajan to document the puppeteer and his troupe’s work and practices. While engaged in this research, Rangarajan commissioned a koyya bommalata show for Hyderabad audiences. As with Hoskere’s festival, Rangarajan’s commission helped connect urban spectators with a forgotten local artistic heritage. Indeed, this company, whose members are all in their sixties or older, had given up performing until a few years previously when a local folk scholar, Dr. Jayadheer Thirumal Rao, showed renewed interest in their work. Today, the company drives a hard bargain when invited to perform, having a fresh view of the value of the rare art of which they are the sole inheritors. As in the case of many of the other traditional forms discussed in this article, however, their children, who have done well in IT and finance, have not trained in the form. Rangarajan’s records and the company’s beautiful, large, handcrafted wooden puppets may soon be all that is left of this tradition.

As with Roy, Rangarajan is also committed to bringing young people into her work, simultaneously training them, teaching them about India’s puppetry heritage, and offering them avenues for their own creative expression. Among her workshops for young people, there has been one with students at Lalita Kala Kendra, Department of Performing Arts at Pune University, one at the Chiguru festival organized by Youth for Seva, and one for students at the District Institute of Educational Training of Nizamabad. She has also done workshops for young mothers at Lamakaan, a cultural center in Hyderabad, and one for members of Teri, who work with schools on green projects and environmental awareness (Padmini Rangarajan, e-mail message to author, February 14, 2014).

STEPARC’s members include local college students, who are often drawn from the tribal populations in the region. Educational puppetry offers them a useful tool for addressing their communities, whose concerns are often neglected. Soyam Bheem Rao, involved with the company since 2012, is angling for a career in government and feels puppetry could be a useful means of sharing important information with members of his tribal village Keslaguda in Idervelly Adilabad District.

Rangarajan’s most recent project is the establishment of a Fun-Learning Study Center at the Bathukammakunta slum in Hyderabad. Although the Center is still in its infancy, and work is slow and difficult in this environment, STEPARC hopes to use puppetry and other arts to teach basic school subjects and provide creative enrichment.

While offering so much to others through her work, Rangarajan has also found her own refuge in puppetry from the somewhat oppressive social expectations for married women of her background, which no longer align with her own growing artistic and activist pursuits. Since puppetry has sustained her through her own personal struggles, Rangarajan has an intimate understanding of how the art can enrich the lives of others.


Indian puppetry is in a period of flux and transition as old forms die out and new models emerge. This time of change is creating a space for puppetry to reimagine itself, renewing its relevance to the lives of Indian people, as Indian life itself transforms. As one of India’s oldest arts, carrying the past in its crafted objects and physical practices, puppetry can serve as a bridge between history and the present. Indian women, who have much at stake in the way their country and its values and beliefs will change in this volatile time, are negotiating their own and puppetry’s new possibilities for the future within the art.

For Rajitha Pulavar, participating in a traditional form is already an innovation, transforming tholpavakoothu by allowing women a place in the form heretofore denied them. For Ranjini, merely keeping an inherited form alive is a contribution, but one that may require further engagement and adaptation in the future if modern life continues its encroachment on rural Kerala and its practices. Anupama Hoskere may be an interloper of sorts in traditional puppetry, but her bold approach forcefully supports traditional forms, making a vital connection between them and today’s urban settings. Anurupa Roy’s creative work models the artistic range and possibilities puppetry offers and brings international models into dialogue with Indian creativity. Padmini Rangarajan puts her craft fully at the service of social needs and demonstrates what perseverance and commitment can accomplish, even with little formal artistic instruction.

These women are not alone in shaping the next chapter in Indian puppetry’s future, but they are making important contributions and represent the broad range of work taking place. Even as government programs or other institutional supports contribute to the arts, these and other individuals in negotiating their own unique circumstances are forging new paths for puppetry work. The new models they create are helping the art to flourish today and in the future.


Devika, V.R. (2001) “The magic of puppets” The Hindu, January 29 [accessed June 21, 2011].

International Labour Organization (2012) “Decent work for youth in India” April 17 [accessed August 30, 2013].–en/index.htm.

Seltmann, Dr. F. (1982) “Shadow play in Kerala” in Our Cultural Fabric: Puppet Theatre in India. New Delhi: Ministry of Education and Culture, Government of India.

Venu, G. (2006) Tolpava Koothu: Shadow Puppets of Kerala. Delhi: Sangeet Natak Akademi. Hope India Publications.


  1. The research presented here derives to a large extent from personal contact with the performers during seven trips to India between 2008 and 2014. I am grateful to the PSC-CUNY, Hunter College’s Presidential Travel Grants, and the Hunter College Education Abroad Program for support that allowed me to visit India for various purposes, in the end contributing to the research in the present article. Special thanks to Tim Cusack for his editorial input.


  1. I do not have the full name for K.S. Ranjini at this time, only these initials. As nokku vidya has only one performer today, it does not seem to be associated with a specific caste of performers, although it has been passed on through the family and other families performed this art in the past.


  1. The men and women in my education-abroad study group were all invited into the puppet house and welcome to try out the puppets.


  1. Further information on Meher Contractor and her contributions to Indian puppetry can be found in my article “Women in Indian Puppetry: Artists, Educators, Activists,” in Gender, Space and Resistance: Women and Theatre in India, edited by Anita Singh (New Delhi: DK Printworld, 2013) pp. 245-272.


  1. UNIMA stands for Union Internationale de la Marionnette, an international organization for puppetry, founded in 1929. UNIMA was the first international arts organization and was established to promote international understanding and exchange through the art of puppetry. The organization has chapters all over the world. The current president of UNIMA is from India, Dadi Pudumjee of Delhi’s Ishara Puppet Trust.


  1. A more complete study of the Pulavar company’s contemporary work and situation can be found in my article “Forging New Paths for Kerala’s Tholpavakoothu Leather Shadow Puppetry Tradition” forthcoming in The Routledge Companion to Puppetry and Material Performance, edited by Dassia N. Posner, Claudia Orenstein, and John Bell (London and New York: Routledge, 2014) pp. 205-217.


  1. Her brother, Rajeev, has already created his own show on the story of Demon King Mahãbali.


  1. Krishnankutty notably wrote down the first full performance text, including those elements puppeteers have added outside of Kamban’s Ramayana, and the written text can now be referred to in performance.


  1. According to Ramachandra Pulavar, in emails from August 28, 2014 and August 30, 2014, his family tradition is to keep performance within his caste, but he is willing to teach and train others outside the caste.


  1. Hoskere later offered this more complete understanding of her company’s name, describing it as a: “Sanskrit word meaning root, essence, sub-stratum and all pervasive. Dhaatur Uttama—the best amongst all. Dhaatu is Lord Vidhnu, who holds the portfolio of protection” (e-mail message to author, February 12, 2014).


  1. This situation is common in many traditional Indian puppetry forms where puppeteers have aged without passing on their tradition to a younger generation, whom they encourage to go into other, more lucrative fields. Selvaraj, for example, is the last living performer of Tamil-style shadow puppetry. His son, who works in computers, knows how to carve the puppets but does not perform. In his youth Selvaraj was part of a fifteen-member company of performers and musicians, which then dwindled to five, and now, at Dakshina Chitra, the heritage museum in Chennai, he performs a very brief one-man show, where he does all the puppets and simultaneously plays the drum with his feet. His original collection of puppets was lost, along with his home, in the 2004 tsunami. A US professor (he only remembered the name David) donated money to Selvaraj to be able to carve himself a new set for performance. (Selvaraj, conversation with the author, July 28, 2013).


  1. There are many other forms of puppetry in Karnataka. In Padavalupaya, the coastal region, there exist the tenkutittu and badagutittu forms of yakshagana puppetry, as well as forms of rod-style puppets. Some of these forms continue to thrive with younger puppeteers entering the field.


  1. For further information on Ranjana Pandey and her pioneering work in Indian puppetry, see my article “Women in Indian Puppetry: Artists, Educators, Activists,” in Gender, Space and Resistance: Women and Theatre in India, edited by Anita Singh (New Delhi: DK Printworld, 2013) pp. 245-272.


  1. Further information on Magic in Our Hands can be found at

Featured Image Credits: Licensed for free from Pixabay website.

About The Author

Claudia Orenstein is Professor of Theatre at Hunter College, CUNY. Her areas of specialty include Asian theatre and puppetry. She is co-editor of the anthologies The Routledge Companion to Puppetry and Material Performance and Women and Puppetry: Critical and Historical Investigations; and working on a new co-edited anthology, The Puppet and the Spirit. 

Puppetry International Research Review, Volume 1 (Fall 2022)

Puppetry International Research Review (PIR Review) is the world’s first and only global, interdisciplinary academic journal in English dedicated solely to puppetry and the allied areas of masks, performing objects, and material performance. Its mission is to foster scholarship on puppet theatre and related arts as practised in the past and present around the world and deepen historical and theoretical understanding of the field. Empirical and theoretical peer-reviewed articles, as well as critical book and performance reviews, will strengthen puppetry studies as an academic discipline. The journal welcomes submissions from scholars and reflective practitioners from all related disciplines. 

A project of UNIMA-USA, published by The Martin E. Segal Theatre Center, The Graduate Center CUNY, New York.

Editorial Board:

Founder and Lead Editor: Claudia Orenstein
(Hunter College, CUNY, New York)

Published by The Martin E. Segal Theatre Center, The Graduate Center CUNY, New York.

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©2022 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

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