An essential part of traditional Rajasthani social life, Kathputli puppetry (derived from “kath,” meaning wood, and “putli,” meaning doll) is believed to have originated over 1500 years ago in a tribal Bhat community. The wandering puppeteers performed during the dry season before returning to their villages during the rains to cultivate their crops. The Bhats found favor and patronage with the royal and noble families of Rajasthan, performing epics heralding the life and deeds of the great kings and their ancestors, until the Mughal invasion saw a change in taste and the demand for their craft dwindled.
However, the contemporary descendants of the Bhats, known as Nat Bhat (those who perform plays), still share the nomadic life of their ancestors, traveling from village to village in troupes performing plays that narrate local history, myth and legend.
Puppeteers carve the timber heads of the Kathputli by hand, giving the puppets a distinctive nose that is offset with large stylized eyes, arched eyebrows and thin red lips. Dressed in vibrant miniatures of traditional attire, the costumes are complete with colorful accessories, like turbans and crowns to note a character’s social status.
The dexterous puppeteers animate the marionettes with strings looped around their fingertips, the rhythmic movements of the puppets are kept in time to a shrill reed-like bamboo instrument that acts to heighten comic moments and the the beats of a Dholak drum.
While still an intrinsic element of Rajasthani festivities and street life, competition from contemporary forms of entertainment have pushed the art form away from the foundation of traditional stories, threatening the knowledge held by the puppeteers as keepers of the folk tales and stories of the regions.
Conor Burke is a creative director and photographer living in New York, by way of Sydney and Dublin. He oversees PRIOR’s creative, having previously run photographer and interior artist Martyn Thompson’s design studio. Before that he was the market editor at VOGUE Living and a contributing editor at GQ Australia.