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 dramas, evolve?
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 960-1279 AD.
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 groups—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 puppet things."
Whatever may be the pull of puppets, the tradition has survived long enough to hold a place in the contemporary world.
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- The Indiaparenting Team