The art of Indian puppetry is a topic as varied as the many diverse cultures and traditions the country has. Puppetry is a narrative theatre that includes gestures, narration, and music, and its origin in India cannot be dated back to a specific time and period. But mythology provides at least two incidents that are witness to this beautiful art.
According to a legend, Brahma – the creator, who gave life to adi – was the first nat puppeteer. He created a puppet with the idea of entertaining his wife Saraswati. However, since Brahma was not satisfied with his work, he banished the puppeteer to earth. This started the line of nat bhatt puppeteers. The legend mostly applies to the Rajasthani tradition nat bhatt, which is the name of the puppeteer cast from this region.
Another legend has a protagonist, Lord Shiva, a patron of puppetry. An artisan created two wooden dolls, which captured the attention of Goddess Parvati. It is said that they entered the dolls and began dancing. When they got tired or bored of it, they abandoned the dolls and the artisan became very sad about his dolls becoming lifeless again. Later, the artisan invented a system of strings to move the dolls. This gave birth to the famous art of puppetry.
The divine origin and involvement of gods is very much evident in both the legends, and this testifies the importance of the art of puppetry in India.
Looking back, apart from the legends, several other literary sources, like the Mahabharata, Panini’s grammar, and Patanjali’s texts also mention the existence of puppetry in ancient times. Tamil texts from the 2nd century BCE have mentions of dolls that are moved by strings. The antiquity of the Indian puppetry has also been mentioned by the famous German scholar Richard Pischel. All this information gives us an idea that several living traditions of Indian puppetry are heirs of a noble and very refined art that prospered in the past. Also, according to a scholar, Indian puppetry outdates theatrical plays as the word sutradhara (literally meaning ‘string holder’) indicates the director and main storyteller in Sanskrit plays.
Back in the day, puppetry was considered high among the urban elite and nobles. These days, traditional puppetry is regarded as folk art, typical of the rural environment and has various types of puppets – string puppets, rod puppets, glove puppets, and shadow puppets.