A 2003 festival in New Delhi highlighted the state of contemporary Indian puppetry. Brad Clark is a designer, puppeteer, and professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.
The Indian Puppetry Festival Putul Yatra, sponsored by the Sangeet Natak Akademi, took place in New Delhi, India, 17-28 March 2003. One of the nation's premier research institutions since 1953, Sangeet Natak studies, documents, and supports a wide variety of Indian performing arts, including India's extensive heritage of puppetry. Sangeet Natak, first under Suresh Awasthi, and then in 1977 under Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya and Kapila Vatsyayan, worked to preserve traditional puppetry, via documentation, collection of figures, filming, recognition of artists, and other endeavors in what came to be called the Preservation and Promotion of Puppetry Programme led by Jiwan Pani (Pani 1986: vii-viii).
The festival, held as part of the Akademi's fiftieth-year golden jubilee celebration, presented traditional and contemporary puppetry from all regions of India. For two weeks, evenings were filled with performances, video showings, and an exhibition of the institution's collection of figures. Sangeet Natak maintains an extensive collection of traditional Indian puppets (gathered since the 1970s), which was displayed in a colorful, imaginatively designed environment along with contemporary figures loaned by individual groups for the duration of the festival. Videos and photographs complemented the exhibition of some two hundred figures and highlighted significant artists. The wall text by Usha Malik (traditional) and Dadi Pudumjee (contemporary) served as a concise encyclopedia of Indian puppetry. In association with the Union Internationale de la Marionette (UNIMA), an international conference, "Puppetry: East-West, West-East," followed the event. Subjects ranged from studies of speci.c regional forms to contemporary fusion productions. Kapila Vatsyayan, one of the most respected figures in the study of Indian traditional performing arts, delivered the valedictory address and provided a powerful presence throughout. For background information for this report, I have drawn upon Usha Malik's Putul Yatra program text, as well as Anurupa Roy's report on Indian Puppetry for the June 2004 UNESCO-APPAN symposium in Bangkok. For those who wish to see more, a website with images and video clips from Putul Yatra performances has been constructed by musicologist Elizabeth den Otter < http://www.euronet.nl/users/ edotter/india/indian_puppets.html >.
Putul Yatra showcased an extraordinarily wide range of Indian puppetry, including several forms now close to extinction. According to Roy (2004), the string puppet koyya bommalatum tradition of Andra Pradesh had been thought a dead tradition until a company was recently "discovered" in a temple and invited to perform in Delhi (Roy 2004: 4). The scale of this puppetry festival was unprecedented in India, and troupes came from all regions, often traveling for days by train.
Participants included street entertainers, rural traditional groups (including companies primarily engaged in ritual-based performances), professional urban groups presenting plays for young audiences, and experimental companies oriented toward adult audiences. While many features distinguished the groups, some common bonds were apparent. These included the visual emphasis of the art, musical accompaniment to support it, the tendency to present epic stories (especially the Ramayana), and, for traditional genres, ritual openings and invocations.
While language holds these puppet genres apart, visuality draws them together. As many of these companies performed in regional languages and dialects, much of the local Delhi audience was as dependent upon program synopses as were the foreign visitors. But puppetry has the advantage of being largely visual, and so the work communicated reasonably well despite the importance of dialogue (especially within the shadow theatre, where artists are sometimes more apt to tell than show the action). …