A puppet show in Nepal

Anthropology: History of Puppetry and its Cultural Variations

Most of us may have seen puppet shows one way or another. No matter how old we are, puppetry is always a delight to watch. There is something about watching the colourful dolls or puppets coming to life (in a non-creepy way) to narrate a story. How was the art of puppetry developed? Does it have the same standards in every country? What is actually conveyed through puppetry? These are a few questions which we’ll explore in this blog.

What is puppetry?

Puppeteers perform a puppet show in Taiwan
Puppeteers perform a puppet show in Taiwan. credit@ CommonWealth Magazine

Puppetry is a form of performance or theatre where puppets are manipulated by a person known as the puppeteer. The puppets are inanimate objects that may resemble a human or animal figure. Manipulating the puppets can be done by using hands and arms or through control devices like strings or rods to move the puppet’s body, limbs, head, mouth or even the eyes. A performance involving puppets is known as a puppet production, while the script for the production is known as a puppet play. During the performance, the puppeteer may either speak to add voice to the character of the puppet or play a recorded soundtrack.

The puppets can be of varying materials, depending on the form of puppetry and their use. Their construction can be very simple or extremely complicated. Finger puppets and sock puppets are the simplest ones. Finger puppets are fit onto a single finger while the sock puppets, made from socks, are manipulated by inserting the hands inside the sock. Opening and closing the hand simulates the movement of the puppet’s mouth. Hand or glove puppets are controlled by one hand occupying the inside of the puppet and moving it around. A familiar example is the Punch and Judy puppet. There are even larger hand or glove puppets that require two puppeteers to manage each puppet, like the Japanese Theater Bunraku. Puppets suspended and controlled by strings are called marionettes, while rod puppets are made by attaching a head to a central rod. Over the central rod, a body form with arms attached is controlled through separate rods. As a result, they have more movement possibilities when compared to a hand or glove puppet. Puppetry may take various forms, but they all share an object in common- to tell a story.

History and cultural variations of puppetry

Puppets are used in all societies not just for entertainment, but also as sacred objects during rituals, symbolic effigies during celebrations and as a catalyst for psychological and social change in transformative arts.


Ancient Egyptian puppets
Ancient Egyptian puppets. credit@ Egyptiangeographic

An ancient art form, records show that puppetry first existed around 4000 years ago in Ancient Greece. In the early times, puppets were used to communicate and animate the needs and ideas of humans across different societies. According to some historians, puppets were used in the theatre even before actors started performing on stage. Evidence suggests that puppets were used in Egypt as early as 2000 BCE. String-operated wooden figures were used to perform the action of kneading bread. Ingenious, don’t you think? And as we all know, Egyptian tombs are always an open window into Egyptian culture. Puppets made of clay and ivory and controlled by wires were found in the tombs, while hieroglyphs describing the use of ‘walking statues’ in Ancient Egyptian religious dramas were also described. The oldest written records describing puppetry are in the works of Herodotus and Xenophon, dating back to the 5th century BCE. Great works like the Iliad and Odyssey were presented through puppetry.


Modern African puppets
Modern African puppets. credit@ The Arts fuse

Puppetry and its traditions in Ancient Egypt may have influenced the traditions in Sub-Saharan Africa. In Africa, ethnic groups and secret societies made use of both puppets and masks in their rituals, dramas, healing and hunting ceremonies. In the modern-day, puppetry is a popular art form and is used in the ceremonial context, as part of a variety of folk forms like storytelling, dance and masked performances. By 2010, throughout rural Africa, puppetry was used as a way of transmitting cultural values, ideas and folk tales that were earlier communicated through formal education, cinemas and books.

East Asia

Archaeologists have unearthed evidence for puppetry in the Indus Valley Civilization. A terracotta doll with a detachable head and capable of being manipulated with a string was found, dating back to 2500 BC. Another one was a terracotta monkey that could be controlled with a stick. Puppets are also described in several literary works like the Mahabharata, Tamil literature from the Sangam era and many other works from the late centuries BC to the early centuries AD.


Chinese shadow puppetry
Chinese shadow puppetry. credit@ Pagoda Projects

In China, puppetry has been in existence for more than 3000 years. Puppets were originally used in pi-Yung xi (the theatre of the lantern shadows), or more commonly known as the Chinese shadow theatre. By the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD), puppetry was a popular form of entertainment among every social class, including the Imperial court. In Taiwan, budaixi or the glove puppets are controlled by the puppeteers working either in the background or underground. Extremely skilled or experienced puppeteers can even make their puppets perform stunts like somersaults in the air.


Japanese bunraku
Japanese bunraku. credit@ Daily Sabah

In Japan, bunraku is the most popular form of puppetry. Bunraku was born out of the Shinto temple rites and gradually grew into a highly sophisticated art form. Initially, bunraku was performed by only one puppeteer, but by 1730, its growth and popularity led to three puppeteers operating each puppet in full view of the audience. But the puppeteers would dress completely in black and hence, become invisible when they stand against the black background. The carved, painted and costumed puppets would be illuminated by torches.


The Korean tradition of puppetry is believed to have migrated from China. The oldest historical evidence of puppets in Korea was gathered from a letter that was written in 982 AD. In Korean, the word ‘Kkoktugakshi’ meant puppet. Gagsi means ‘young woman’ or ‘bride.’ During the early times, the most common form of puppets were those of either brides or young women.

Southeast Asia


Wayang puppets
Wayang puppets. credit@ Indonesia travel

In Indonesia, the wayang theatre was influenced by Indian puppetry. The term may either refer to the entire puppet show or the puppet itself. This art form is the peak of Indonesian culture and is popular throughout the country, especially in the islands of Java and Bali. In Java, wayang kulit is a form of shadow puppetry. Puppets are used to narrate the fables and folklore of Javanese history. Wayang puppet shows are performed during a myriad of events like ceremonies, rituals and even as tourist attractions. In the ritualistic context, puppet shows are part of prayer rituals held in temples, ruwatan rituals (cleansing children to ward off bad luck), and the sedekah bumi ritual (thanksgiving to the gods for a good harvest.) Ceremonies during which puppetry is employed are mantenan (Javanese wedding ceremony) and the sunatan (circumcision ceremony). During events like Independence Day, anniversaries of companies, municipals and birthdays and to commemorate certain days, puppet shows are put up. In the modern era, puppetry is also a popular tourist attraction.


A hun krabok puppet operated by three puppeteers
A hun krabok puppet operated by three puppeteers. credit@ Culture Trip

In Thailand, the most popular form of puppetry is the hun krabok, a form of rod puppet theatre. It originated during the rule of King Rama V (1868 to 1910) with considerable influence from Chinese Hainan puppetry. Hun krabok is a half-bodied puppet with its head representing different roles, such as a demon, hero, heroine, joker or animal. The heroine’s hands will be in the Tang Wong Ram gesture. The right hand of the hero, joker or demon will be in a clenched fist motion to hold a weapon, while the left hand will be in the Tang Wong Ram gesture. Each of the puppets will be adorned with ornate embroidery, depending on the role.


Vietnamese water puppetry.
Vietnamese water puppetry. credit@ Holidify

Vietnam has its own unique form of puppetry known as water puppetry. The puppets are made out of wood and the shows are put up in a waist-high pool. A large rod lies underwater with which the puppeteers support and control the puppets. This created the appearance of the puppets moving over the water. Water puppetry in Vietnam originated due to the disastrous floods that would flood the rice fields. To keep up good spirits and to keep themselves entertained, the villagers came up with this creative idea. There are societies within the villages dedicated exclusively to puppetry.


In the Philippines, puppetry was first developed during the Spanish colonial period. Carillo (also known as kikimut, titire or potei), the oldest form of Filipino puppetry, was first recorded in 1789. Figures made out of cardboard and small carts were used for this form of puppetry. Higantes, another form of puppetry, developed in the late 1800s. The term also refers to the giant papier-mâché puppets made for the Higantes Festival. The puppets, numbering more than a hundred, are paraded through town. The puppets are dedicated to San Clemente and mock the colonial-era landowners who abused the Filipinos.


Modern Yoke thé puppets
Modern Yoke thé puppets. credit@ Travels and Tours

In Myanmar, Yoke thé, an elaborate form of the puppet show, evolved through royal patronage. Burmese marionettes (string puppets) probably originated around 1780 when King Singu Min ruled the country. The introduction of puppetry in Myanmar is credited to the Minister of Royal Entertainment, U Thaw. Since their origin, marionettes have been extremely popular. In the modern-day, very little has changed since U Thaw created art and the set of characters he developed centuries ago are still used today.


A Rajasthani puppeteer puts up a show with his string puppet
A Rajasthani puppeteer puts up a show with his string puppet. Credit@ Wheels on our Feet

According to some scholars, puppetry originated in India around 4000 years ago. Almost all kinds of puppetry are found in India. String puppets flourished in Rajasthan, Karnataka, Orissa and Tamil Nadu. In Rajasthan, the traditional marionettes are known as Kathputli, while those in Orissa and Karnataka are known as Kundhei and Gombeyatta respectively. In Tamil Nadu, techniques from both rod and string puppets are combined and are known as Bommalattam.

Shadow puppetry is popular in states such as Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Maharashtra. Shadow puppets consist of flat figures made out of leather, which is treated so that they become translucent. The puppets are pressed against a screen while a strong source of light is lit from behind. While the puppets are generally small in size, it also depends on what character the puppet denotes. For example, they are comparatively larger for kings and religious people, while those of common people and servants are made smaller.

Rod puppetry in India is mostly found in West Bengal and Orissa. It is an extension of glove-puppets, but a lot larger and controlled by rods.


Buz-baz artist-musician with his puppets and dambura.
Buz-baz artist-musician with his puppets and dambura. credit@ Morning Celebration

The form of puppetry native to Afghanistan is known as buz-baz. It is musical puppetry that originated in Northern Afghanistan. The puppet is a goat carved out of wood and adorned with sequins, bells and baubles. The goat denotes two things- one is the markhor, the snake-eating goat of Badakshan, and the second is the belief that mountain goats had powers. Accompanying the puppet is traditional Afghan music. The goat is in sync with the musical beat as it is connected to an instrument known as the dambura. The puppet is placed on a platform that has a string connecting the instrument to the puppet. This enables the puppeteer to control the puppet and play the dambura at the same time.

West Asia

Middle Eastern puppetry, like other art and theatre forms, was influenced by Islamic culture. Karagoz, the Turkish Shadow Theatre, has played a significant role in influencing puppetry in the region. It is believed to have migrated from China through India. Later, the Mongols took it from the Chinese and passed it on to the Turkish people in Central Asia. The Turkish people brought shadow theatre to Anatolia. Other scholars claim that it was the Egyptians who brought shadow theatre to Anatolia in the 16th century. In some areas, a form of shadow puppetry known as khayal al-zill is performed. The show is accompanied by live music (drums, flutes, tambourines), and also ‘special effects’ like fire, smoke and an assortment of sounds like thunder, squeaks, rattles and thumps.

In Iran, puppets existed earlier than 1000 AD. Initially, the puppets were gloves and string puppets. Influences from Turkey led to the popularity of other forms of puppetry. Often, puppet shows are performed in traditional tea and coffee houses, accompanied by storytelling.


Marionettes at the Marionette Museum in Palermo, Italy
Marionettes at the Marionette Museum in Palermo, Italy. Credit@ Simple Italy

Italy is believed to be the early home of the string puppet or marionette because of Roman influence. The Christian Church would perform morality plays with marionettes. It is believed that the word ‘marionette’ came from the small figure of the Virgin Mary. As time progressed, comedy was introduced to the plays, which did not please the Church at all. It led to the Church banning puppetry. But this did not deter the puppeteers. Their response was to set up stages right outside the cathedrals. The plays became all the more slapstick and ribald. It was out of this that the famous Italian comedy known as Commedia dell’arte (which would later serve as an inspiration for puppetry in other countries) was born. Soon, puppets were preferred to the actors who performed in the plays, including those of Shakespeare. While the marionette was popular among the elite class, rod puppetry was more of a lower-class origin. Venice was the hotspot for the marionette theatre.


Guignol (right) in a puppet show
Guignol (right) in a puppet show. Credit@ Britannica

In the French puppet show, the main character is Guignol, who was created by Laurent Mourguet. During the French Revolution, Mourguet was struggling to make a living and, in 1797, he started practising dentistry, which in those days, simply meant pulling teeth. To attract patients, he set up puppet shows in front of the dentist’s chair. His first show included Polichinelle, a character he borrowed from the Italian commedia dell’arte. By 1804, his puppet shows were so popular and successful he gave up dentistry and became a professional puppeteer. What led to Mourguet being so successful was that he incorporated the lives of the working class and the everyday news into his shows. His characters were developed after ordinary people. The first character he developed was Gnafron, a wine-loving cobbler. Guignol came later in 1808. Guignol’s victory is that good triumphs over evil.

Great Britain

The Punch and Judy puppet show
The Punch and Judy puppet show. Credit@ Darlyn Finch

The Punch and Judy show, the traditional form of puppetry, has its roots in the 16th century and the Italian commedia dell’arte. The character of Punch was influenced by the character, Pulcinella (a classical character that originated in commedia dell’arte.) The character is a representation of the Lord Misrule and Trickster, two figures from mythologies. Punch’s wife was originally named Joan but later became Judy. By the 19th century, the Punch and Judy puppet show was performed in a transportable booth. In the early 20th century, the British Puppet and Model Theatre Guild initiated to popularize puppetry. H. W. Whanslaw and Waldo Lanchester, two of the Guild’s founders, worked to promote and develop puppetry by publishing books, mainly focusing on marionettes.

From 1957 to 1969, many television series were produced by Gerry Anderson, in which the marionettes were the characters. Many of these series employ the technique of super-marionation, in which the character’s dialogues are pre-recorded and then automatically synchronized with the puppet’s mouth movements. From 1984 to 1996, puppetry became a tool for political satire in Spitting Image, the British TV series.

Current British puppetry theatres include the Puppet Theatre Barge, Norwich Puppet Theatre, Little Angel Theatre, the Harlequin Puppet Theatre and the Biggar Puppet Theatre.

North America

In North America, the Teotihuacan culture of Central Mexico (600 AD) made figurines having moveable limbs as part of their funerary rites. Native Americans also made ceremonial puppets. Europeans brought their own puppet traditions to America and gradually, distinct styles, characters and forms developed in North America. When the Great Depression hit, folk puppeteers travelled with carnivals. They worked on scripts, marionettes and dioramas, all created by themselves.  

The Muppets
The Muppets. credit@ LA Times

In the 20th century, some advances in puppetry occurred in the US. Marionette puppetry was incorporated into television by the 1940s. Bil Baird and his wife, Cora Eisenberg, worked on revitalising marionette puppetry in the US. They had their own marionette theatre in New York. In the 1960s, Peter Schumann developed the Bread and Puppet Theatre. It led to the development of the political and artistic possibilities of puppetry. Around the same time, Jim Henson created the Muppets- soft, foam-rubber and cloth puppets. The Muppets became popular through children’s TV series like Sesame Street and the Muppet Show. Today, they are recognized and enjoyed by a majority of the population. The Jim Henson Foundation, founded by Henson, is a charitable and philanthropic organization that promotes the development of puppetry in the US.  

Puppetry in the contemporary era

Although puppetry is a theatre form enjoyed by the masses, there was a time when it was considered inferior to the ‘high arts.’ It developed as a separate art form from mainstream theatre and art. The ‘ragged’ and ‘lowly’ puppeteers who performed outside theatre buildings, at fairs and markets were classified along with gipsies and bandits. However, puppetry soon began to inspire artists from ‘high arts’ traditions. Puppetry continued to develop throughout the 20th century in a myriad of ways. A parallel development in cinema, television and other filmed media has helped increase the popularity of puppetry. Now, it reaches a larger audience than before. Puppets continue to uphold tradition, culture, history and storytelling through creative means.

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