Visible Puppets and Hidden Puppeteers: Indian Gombeyata Puppetry

Article excerpt

Gombeyata is a string and rod puppet tradition of India. Here the relationship between performance practice and religious worship is explored by Michael Schuster, who undertook his initial research on a Fulbright fellowship.

When I first met Thimmapachar, my puppet teacher, in 1989 in the small village of Nelligere, I was not prepared for the education I was to encounter. I had come to Karnataka in southern India from California for a ten-month study of the traditional wooden puppetry called gombeyata, but initially I failed to understand the core of this tradition because I could not fully fathom the spiritual aspects of the art. As a Western theatre artist I was trained to respond to narrative concern. With time, however, I came to understand that this folk art exists as a spiritual exercise for puppeteers and continues to inform their aesthetic choices even as the performing context alters.

I had previously studied wayang kulit purwa in Central Java, as well as kathputli marionettes in Rajasthan, and had spent a month following a gombeyata troupe from the coastal area with teachers experienced in urban and even Western culture. Thimmapachar, by contrast, was deeply immersed in local, village culture. Not only did he serve as a priest for the Vishwa Karmis, a community of blacksmiths and carpenters, but he was also a bhagavata--a puppet narrator and troupe leader who teaches the text to the puppeteers, delivers narration, drums on the mrdanga, and sings to highlight action and emotion. (See Color Plate 2.)

Encountering Gombeyata

With my friend and translator Mowgalli Ganesh, a student of folklore at Mysore University I entered Thimmapachar's house. In the courtyard, a small, open furnace was surrounded by bullock carts and plows in need of blacksmithing. In the dim, windowless room, I saw a tall, dark man with white hair sitting behind a small anvil used for making gold jewelry. He motioned for us to sit on the straw mat where young boys served us sweets and tea. It was agreed that Thimmapachar, his younger brother Cennapachar, and his son Murthi would teach us puppetry after they had finished their day as wheelwrights, plowrights, and goldsmiths. Consulting his astrology books, Thimmapachar said we would need to wait several days for an auspicious beginning. As we left, two young boys purified the area where we had sat with cow dung. The area had to be purified because I was not a caste Hindu.

On Saturday night we returned to Thimmapachar's house for a rehearsal. At the far end of the room a rectangular puppet stage ten by eight by eight feet high was formed by ten poles lashed together. It was masked in front by a cloth that hung from a pole eight feet to four feet above the floor, masking the upper part of the puppeteers' bodies. The remaining four feet to the floor became a proscenium-like playing space via a second cloth dropped from a horizontal pole four feet above the floor and set to the rear. The puppets performed in the space between the two cloths. With their faces toward the audience or in profile, the visual effect is one of relief sculptures moving against a neutral background, as the curtain in front of the stage is opened and closed to mark the change of scenes.

We sat on mats. Cows were led past to the adjoining room. After an hour, four villagers arrived and Murthi climbed into the rafters to bring down the puppets. Seven people painstakingly prepared the eighteen figures in a mode similar to dressing the god image in daily temple ritual. The carved wooden puppets range between twenty and thirty-six inches in height. Characters include kings and heroes, princesses and dancing girls, demons, clowns, sages, and gods. Kings and heroes are distinguished by pink faces, even facial features, and the elaborate crowns inlaid with mirror work. Females have pink faces and refined features. Demons have bulging eyes, fangs, and red faces painted with elaborate designs. …