Which child has not been charmed by the puppets on 'Sesame Street' or Ali Baba challis chor? Here is a short history of puppets.
Puppets have served as analogy for matters ranging from spirituality to
politics to commercialisation. Humankind is often referred to as
'puppets of God'. Acclaimed classical novelist William Somerset Maugham
put it thus, "Money is the string with which a sardonic destiny directs
the motions of its puppets." These comparisons arise from the fact that
a puppeteer operates puppets directly or indirectly. However, how did
these little makeshift dolls, playing different characters in folk
Puppets across the Continents
The development of puppetry in different parts of the world, with their
own unique structures and mythology, makes for a fascinating study. The
term 'puppet' has a simple origin. It is derived from the Anglo-Norman
word 'poppe' meaning 'doll'.
While we cannot be completely certain, some scholars hold that puppetry
originated in India about 4,000 years ago. In Sanskrit plays, the
narrator is called 'Sutradhar' or 'holder of strings', which is similar
to a puppeteer. Early Indian puppet shows dealt with religious themes
and political satires. Chinese puppetry can be traced back to 2,000
years ago. The famous Chinese shadow theatre was then called 'pi ying xi'
or 'theatre of the lantern shadows'. Puppeteers held sway over all
sections of society including the royal courts by the Song Dynasty in
Japan is not a stranger to puppetry either. Out of its many forms, the bunraku
has sufficient acclaim all over the world. This form depicts Shinto
temple rites. By 1730, it had become so complex that each puppet had to
be operated by three puppeteers. Many other Asian countries have also
encouraged puppets. Thailand's hun krabok or rod-puppet theatre, Vietnam's moa noi ruoc or water puppetry, and Java's wayang kulit or shadow puppets are notable mentions.
Explorers have discovered figures with movable parts dating back 4,000
to 5,000 years ago in the Middle East. Egyptian hieroglyphs of 2000 BC
portray 'walking statues' in religious dramas. The Turkish Shadow
Theatre called karagoz
is one of the most noteworthy puppet theatres in the Middle East.
Apparently puppets travelled from China to Turkey via India. Other
theories state that the Turkish rulers were impressed with puppet shows
in Egypt and brought the tradition back with them. Puppets have assumed
poetical overtones in the Middle East. A form of shadow puppetry is
called khayal al-zill or 'shadows of imagination'. Here, live
music consisting of drums, tambourines, and flutes is played, along
with smoke, fire, thunder, rattles, and elements that may evoke strong
reactions from the audience. Iran also boasts of a unique style of
puppetry where there are two players in the performance.
Puppets made their first emergence in Europe through Greece. Puppet
plays were shown at the Theatre of Dionysus at Acropolis. This gave
rise to the commedia dell'arte
tradition, where performers travelled from place to place in half-masks
or with puppets. Puppeteers did not enjoy a high social status and
consisted mostly of the then pariah groups like Jews and Gypsies.
However, in 1310, the Church began to encourage puppetry, which helped
it flourish. Italian puppet shows, known as marionettes, produced
momentous shows like the tragedy 'Dr. Faust'. However, puppeteers
became divided into two groupsâ€”the privileged theatre artists and the
street performers, who continued to be outcastes. Innovations such as
increasing the number of strings controlling the puppets were made in
marionettes. The opera dei pupi in Sicily employed rod marionettes and depicted medieval epics of the Charlemagne knights.
Africa may have captured the tradition of puppetry from Egypt. Right
from ancient times to date, the people use puppets in ceremonies in
secret societies, ethnic groups, healing and hunting ceremonies, ritual
dramas, and for entertainment.
In the Teotihuacan culture of Central Mexico, about 600 BC, puppet-like
statuettes were part of funerary rites. Puppets were included in
ceremonies among the indigenous people of North America as well.
European puppeteers accompanied Mexicans to America but eventually,
America developed its own unique puppet styles and characters. The USA
has pioneered puppetry since the 1960s. Politics came to be portrayed
in puppet shows through Peter Schumann's 'Bread and Puppet Theatre'.
Jim Henson came up with 'Muppets', soft puppets made of cloth or foam
rubber. Television popularised puppets with programmes like 'The Sesame
Street' and 'The Muppet Show'.
Puppets may have been the predecessors of sophistically animated
characters. Walt Disney, the pioneer of animated films, has confessed,
"I started, actually, to make my first animated cartoon in 1920. Of
course, they were very crude things then and I used sort of little
Whatever may be the pull of puppets, the tradition has survived long enough to hold a place in the contemporary world.