Joys of puppet shows

Amal Chatterjee
8 min readFeb 12, 2019

Source : Google photo of puppets

Synopsis : The introduction of modern era of satellite based entertainment that we watch in our flat screen television everywhere has brought about a gradual disappearance of certain time honored traditions like puppetry in many parts of our planet. This blog looks at what we have lost and what some people are trying very hard to preserve.

When we went to Vietnam a few years ago, we had the chance to see the “water puppet show “ in Ho Chi Minh City that is quite famous. I was particularly impressed by the fact that not so long ago the country was at war and no one could enjoy any type of show in the evening but now the country had peace where anyone could see the shows so it was a great progress.

If you see the water puppet show, you will understand why it is called water puppet show. There is a water tank or pool with a curtain behind which stand the puppeteers so you do not see them. You only see the puppets in the water that they manipulate through strings or thin bamboo strips attached to the lower part of the puppet that is under water so you do not see the strings or the bamboo either. The story is about water dragons or such or fishermen in boats so it is a delightful way to move the puppets through water.

On one side of the stage are the musicians in their colorful costumes and traditional musical instruments while a narrator tells the story enthralling the audience. It is not the type of itinerant puppeteers that you will find in other countries because it requires a water tank, curtains etc. so they have an auditorium especially built for it where you will sit in comfort and enjoy the show. At the end of the show, all the puppeteers come up to the stage and take a bow while we applaud. Watch the video here of water puppets.

Source : U tube video of Vietnamese water puppet show

Puppetry is a very old tradition in many countries where the itinerant puppeteers go around from village to village to tell the stories by manipulating their home made puppets that they dress very colorfully and entertain the audience through narration, music and a lot of fun. It has always been a part of Indian tradition in some parts where it is still carried on but sadly this delightful tradition is slowly fading away due to the onslaught of modernity and shifting and changing times.

Source : Google photo of Punch and Judy show

In England we still see the Punch and Judy show in rural villages where children are entertained by the itinerant puppeteers who may be Gypsies or others who earn a living this way. It has always been a part of their tradition so everyone knows the stories told this way and they are quite familiar with the Punch and Judy fights that delight the kids.

Source : U tube video of shadow puppets in Indonesia

In Indonesia, they have shadow puppets show . They make puppets cut out from flat leather sheets that are mounted on thin bamboo strips . You may not see the puppets but only their shadows clearly on a screen behind which the puppeteer stands and deftly manipulates the puppets to tell his story. Often the story relates to the Ramayana or Mahabharata epics reminding you that once Indonesia was Hindu and later Buddhist so some story telling traditions of their past still exist.

In Phnom Penh, Cambodia we saw the leather puppets but not the show. The show we saw was with dancers dressed as monkeys or others playing musical instruments so it was quite delightful.

Puppetry has been used in many countries to tell the stories of famous people in the past who were known for their bravery and sacrifice in India so you may see the story of the Queen Lakhsmibai of Jhansi who died for freedom in 1857 battle or Alha Udal brothers who were known for their courage and bravery in Rajasthan or Rana Pratap Singh who fought Aurangjeb tooth and nail . There are so many heroes who are brought to life through the medium of puppets so the children in rural areas learn about them.

Source : U tube video of Indian puppet show

These puppets are not factory made anywhere but very carefully made by artisans who specialize in such craft they learned from their fathers and grandfathers and still make them but they will readily admit that the younger generation is not interested in carrying on the puppet making. Times are changing and so are the people with it. Now in India most of the villages have electricity that is changing their life drastically. With electricity comes flat screen televisions with numerous programs beamed via satellites so people for the first time can see programs from many different parts of the country.

Source : Google photo of Petromax

In the olden days when the villages were lighted only with oil lamps, people distracted themselves through puppet shows in their village square where a kerosene lamp or a Petromax gave some light. You still see them in some rural areas that are yet to be electrified but their days are numbered. A petromax is kerosene lamp with a small piston that you pump up to spray the fuel to a carbon or silk fiber bulb that then gives white light and makes a hissing sound.

What is changing is the way people entertain themselves. You see this in rural Africa where the village bards still tell their stories to children sitting under the Baobab with their home made musical instruments but with the spread of education and printed books, the bards are losing their oral tradition of keeping their history alive.

It is the same way the puppeteers will one day become history and their wonderful tradition of telling stories will vanish due to the modern age that has crept up to them via color television and radios. It will no doubt be a great loss because it will vanish forever as no new puppet masters will be trained and no one will continue to make the puppets.

If you ask the kids today who are growing up watching Muppet movies , who was Alha Udal or the Queen of Jhansi, they may not know. The puppet shows were more personal and the puppet master told the stories through songs and narration to a select audience of kids and adults who gathered around him under a tree in the village square.

This tradition gave them a livelihood albeit a small one but they continued until one day the electricity arrived. In the olden days, literacy was limited to only a few so most people who were illiterate were taught history through the oral tradition of which puppet shows were a part. But now the schools are opening up in rural areas so the kids are encouraged to join often with free lunch programs, free bicycles and books and school bags. India is changing fast this way so the literacy rate is rising dramatically.

Now the cellular phone revolution is sweeping the country from coast to coast bringing in more changes that were unheard of a few years ago. The paved road to villages, electricity and cell phones are changing the way people used to live so some of the old traditions like puppetry and village bards are in the process of disappearing which is a shame. But the loss of traditions and the livelihood associated with them are giving way to new livelihood programs that are initiated.

The countries that are underdeveloped and still suffer from poor infrastructure in many parts are the ones that carry on the old traditions like in many African countries but the trend is for development everywhere although the speed varies from country to country depending on their resources.

Source : Google photo of a Coleman slide projector

During my college days back in the sixties, we were given a film projector that ran on kerosene. It was a simple contraption that was like a petromax with a light source and a spool on which a small reel of film was attached. It was somewhat like a Coleman projector. We had to hand crank the spool to show the image on a bed sheet strung between two poles but we had to crank the film at a certain speed that had to be constant. A slow speed burned the film. This sort of mobile projector was used to teach farmers in the evening about modern methods of agriculture etc. It is now an obsolete piece of technology that has completely vanished.

Now you can get a slide projector that plugs into your dashboard of your pick up or van so you can run your engine and give a slide show to people in rural areas that are hard to reach and have no electricity. I had one in Haiti but someone borrowed it and never returned so I never got to use it. The point is that new modern methods are being introduced to teach children so the old ways are disappearing.

Source : U tube muppet video

I am fond of puppets and a fan of muppets because the muppets were a huge improvement over the puppets that could not speak and show facial expressions like the muppets. Children have grown up watching muppets and have learned their ABC and counting but the muppets are a product of technology that has made them look alive. Now the kids in other countries watch muppet shows through dubbing on their TV in their language making the muppets all the more popular worldwide. The traditional puppets could not compete with the talking puppets called muppets so they have remained limited in their audience that is dwindling.

People have to accept the changes that are being introduced through the modern technology and progress in infrastructure but it always comes at a price. The price is the loss of traditions that had kept people entertained through centuries. So if you find the Punch and Judy show somewhere, go and enjoy it before it disappears.

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