Traditional string puppet plays from Rajasthan in north-west India. The Bhat and Nat communities of Rajasthan, most originating from the Nagaur district, traditionally nomadic but today more or less sedentary, would travel with family throughout the Thar Desert and Nagaur regions practicing the profession of putliwallah (puppeteer) and genealogists. As genealogists, they kept the family histories of important people in the villages and towns in Rajasthan where they themselves came from. For their own local rulers, for instance, thrice a day in the square they would recite the family histories, the events in the lives of the rulers’ ancestors.
As puppeteers (kathputliwallah or kathputli kalākāra, “artist”), they perform the kathputli ka khel (“kathputli play”). The kathputli performers claim that their ancestors had performed for royal families and had received great honour and prestige from the rulers of Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Punjab. Indeed, they mostly performed in other states, not only in Rajasthan. They traveled to Uttar Pradesh and other areas that were Hindi and Urdu (or Hindustani) speaking, thus the language of the kathputli ka khel – for both songs and dialogues – was a blend of these two languages. The kathputli puppets (putli meaning doll and kath, wood) are sculpted and painted by the puppeteers themselves and are composed of a head inserted on a short, thin torso of wood. The arms, made of wood or cloth stuffed with cotton, articulated at the elbow and wrist, hang and move freely on both sides of the body. Since most of the kathputli do not have legs, the puppets’ long, ground-length cotton voile skirts twirl about when in motion. Two strings, one attached around the puppet’s waist, the other to the top of its head, are connected to a loop that the puppeteer manipulates directly between his fingers or lifts to make the puppets dance. The dancer puppet, called Anarkali, however, is a more complex puppet, having around six strings. Traditional kathputli string puppets do not have controls. It is a very simple manipulation technique, yet the result is heightened by the fast movements from above and by the number of puppets assembled on the brightly colored cloth puppet stage representing a palace.
Today, the vitality of the kathputli ka khel does not seem to be waning. Many groups of puppeteers crisscross Rajasthan as well as other northern Indian states, particularly since the 1960s “Green Revolution” when an irrigation policy allowed farmers several harvests per year, giving landowning villagers the occasion to give thanks to the gods by celebrating feasts to which they invited troubadours and puppeteers. Often accompanied by Bhopa-Bhopi storytellers from the Bhil group who base their own stories, music, and dances on gigantic comic strip-like painted scrolls (phad or path), the kathputliwallahs‘ most intense period of activity is during the dry season. Since 1980, several kathputli troupes travel the world over, invited by institutions and festivals.