Puppetry Through The Ages

Puppetry provides us pleasant yet nostalgic feelings of our childhood days, when we enjoyed puppet shows with our parents.

Puppetry is one of the most ancient forms of entertainment in the world. Besides providing entertainment, this visual art form was also used for conveying meaningful messages. Over the years, puppetry has developed into a powerful medium of communication as it offers a real challenge to the imagination of viewers and creative ability of the presenters. This art is probably the least restricted in its form, design, color and movement and at the same time, the least expensive of all animated visual art forms.

A puppeteer is a person who manipulates an inanimate object – a puppet – in real time to create the illusion of life. Depending on the type of puppetry, the puppeteer may be visible to or hidden from the audience. In the present time, animators make a puppet move on film by using stop motion, where the puppet is moved tiny fractions in between each frame. A puppeteer can operate a puppet indirectly by the use of strings, rods, wires, and electronics or directly by his or her own hands. Some puppet styles require puppeteers to work together as a team to create a single puppet character.

Traditionally, Sub-continent has a rich heritage of puppetry. The history of puppetry in the Sub-continent dates back to circa 5th century BC. The early puppet shows in the here dealt mostly with historical themes, stories of kings, princes and heroes. In addition to this, political satire was also a favorite subject.

Religious portrayals in puppetry developed in South India with shadow puppets performing stories from epics like Ramayana and Mahabarata. Besides dealing with religious themes, Indian puppetry also conveys useful messages from Panchatantra and other mythological and historical epics. The folk puppeteers are also the traditional exponents of the craft.

The oral transmission of knowledge had ensured a much closed door familiar environment where the secrets of the professionals had been passed on from generation to generation. The folk puppeteers, nearly all, trace their ancestry to various areas of Rajasthan, in particular Bikaner. Generally they are called Pakhiwaas or gypsies; they are a nomadic lot that has roamed around from place to place, taking part in puppetry or singing from the vast repertoire of folk songs in various dialects of the language spoken in Rajasthan. They have been part of the history of this area since times immemorial and probably migrated to Bangla Fazil in district Ferozepur (now in Indian Punjab) sometimes in the past and from there they migrated to the new country Pakistan in 1947.

Even now these puppeteers do not live a settled life. Very few own houses and their community on the outskirts of the cities consist of temporary huts and small mud houses, something which places them in the lowest strata of society. Being landless and without any immovable property, they live in localities which in Pakistani parlance are called Kachi Abadis (the slums).

Because of their very poor economic conditions they have never had the resources to build their permanent dwellings.

They are all performers of traditional puppetry and have learnt the art from their ancestors, elders and other senior members of the family. The art of actually making the puppets from wood is dying out or is probably dead because all the puppets that they operate are old ones which they have inherited. New puppets are not made now, and when asked why? Most of them reply that it is a time-consuming handicraft, and in view of the dying art of puppetry and falling demand it is not worth the effort. The puppets that they possess are enough to meet the work load. They do not want to put in an effort for something that brings so little reward. Since these puppets can not be easily damaged they manage to carry out the minor repairs themselves.

These puppets, made of wood of the mango tree, are dressed up in colorful costumes which are made once a year. The puppeteers say that they make new costumes once a year as a kind of a ritual, not according to the wear and tear. It may be the paucity of resources which makes them change the costume not more frequently.

These string puppets (marionettes) are operated by the traditional puppeteers when they are invited by people. As a rule they do not go and perform in huge public gatherings like the various melas and urs that dot the countryside of the Punjab, Sindh and North West Frontier because of their preference for smaller audiences. Their show is probably designed in such a fashion that it is meant for smaller groups of people rather than a teaming crowd of thousands. The size of puppets and the set is also too small to be properly seen and appreciated in a large crowd.

The traditional puppeteers do not feel safe in larger congregations as one will find in the melas and urs. Especially vulnerable are their women, whom they have plenty of difficulty in protecting within the revelry-ridden atmosphere of the mela.

The shows are normally held on invitations where the amount of fee is decided before the show. Earlier they used to roam in the streets of the villages and cities hawking for children to see the show and on finding an audience would immediately put up their simple set and start to perform. They would then be paid by the audience. It was a kind of ticketing system, the value of tickets was pre-decided, quite inexpensive, which the children of localities could afford easily. Now they are usually invited by people to their houses on occasions like birthday parties of the children or even more rare a marriage ceremony; purely for the sake of enjoyment and fun.

The groups which perform vary from a couple to about six members. In the general division of labour, men operate the puppets and act as narrators while women usually sing. They can even play the musical instruments, but in certain circumstances only men do that as well. The shows are usually held at night under an indigenous variety of tent or camp called tambu. First, they raise a wooden platform, usually in the shape of a flat wooden top with legs called takht so that its level is above that of the squatting audience, and then hang a cloth called chaddar. At times even a charpoy is used to cordon off the performance area which generally is done by hanging a cloth. In old times the lighting was done by burning the oil lamp but now, electric bulbs are used. Lighting is of a most basic kind as the stress is not on the light effects but the story and the skill of those operating the puppets.

There are a wide range of styles of puppetry, and all require puppeteers. There are shadow puppets, rod puppets, marionettes, table-top puppets, body puppets, hand or glove puppets, etc. Whatever the style, the puppeteer’s role is to manipulate the physical object in such a manner that the audience believes the object is imbued with life. In some instances the persona of the puppeteer is also an important feature.

The dialect in which the tales are narrated has been replaced by a more contemporary idiom and the traditional songs with rich musical input has been substituted by songs based on current film tunes. The old instruments too, have been replaced by more recent gadgets and it is not be long before computer generated sounds and electronic manipulations take over. Who knows?

In Pakistan, when we talk about puppetry, the Rafi Peer Theatre is well known and is associated with the one of the well known families of this region which is being affiliated with the performing arts one way or the other. Faizan Peerzada is handling the project who has taken it to the international level, he has been performing as a trained puppeteer since 1978, and he has created over fifteen hundred puppets for a wide range of puppet plays with performances all over Pakistan. Due to his consistent devotion, he has played an instrumental role in not only reviving this art form but bringing it to the fore-front of public recognition as well. His most commendable contribution in this field is playing as a host to four International Puppet Festivals of Pakistan in the historic city of Lahore since 1992.

His relentless efforts have made this Festival one of the finest in the Asia Pacific Region. Today, it can easily be said that puppetry in Pakistan has become a major form of communication and entertainment. And it is definitely here to say,

“with Faizan reroute to setting up the Puppet Museum in Lahore. He has also initiated and set up the Pakistan chapter of UNIMA (Union International de la Marionette). And as a founder member, he heads it as its President. Faizan has also been the artistic and technical Director of the 1st and 2nd International Theatre and Dance Festivals Pakistan held in 1996 and1997”.

Other than him Samina Ahmed is also taking care of puppet shows at Alhamra Arts Council Lahore which are being held on Sundays. But they are not growing as they should be and it can be observed easily that they are same as they were thirty years ago. Even the themes and stories have not been changed.

Sergey Obraztsov who has been frequently cited as the father of artistic puppetry, was skilled in finger puppeteer and showing puppeteer with his bare hands. His famous number was a dancing couple whose complicated tango movements had to be manipulated by seven puppeteers simultaneously. Two of the most famous modern puppeteers are Jim Henson and Frank Oz. Using the Muppets their work has entertained children for decades on the popular television series like Sesame Street, and adults for The Muppet Show. Henson and Oz also regularly worked in film, including direction and puppeteer work in the 1982 film TheDark Crystal and the 1986 film Labyrinth. Oz is also well known for his work with the puppet of Yoda in the popular Star Wars movie series and as a director of movies such as the musical Little Shop of Horrors. Jim himself never played with puppets when he was a kid, but as soon as television came out, this young artist started to experiment with this art form. While on the other hand, Frank Oz’s parents were both puppeteers but Frank didn’t get into it until he met Jim and saw The Muppets for the first time.

The art of puppetry has actually commented on social, political, romantic, religious and mythological subjects in an era when modern tools of communication were not even invented, but in modern times, this ancient and colorful art is getting obsolete and may become an extinct if not saved.