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Vistas of Bharat : Indian Culture

Shadow Puppets: An Exploration of a Timeless Performing Art

Shadow puppetry is an ancient art form of storytelling. It uses flat articulated cut-out figures called shadow puppets.

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Shadow Puppetry, puppetry, Chamdyacha Bahulya, Shadow Play

Asia, although highly neglected by Western conformities, has always had a rich heritage of art and literature. This is majorly evident in the folktales that have managed their way into contemporary art. Shadow puppetry is one such ancient art form of storytelling. It uses flat articulated cut-out figures called shadow puppets. These puppets are held between a source of light and a translucent color screen. It has been an ancient art and a living folk tradition in China, India, Iran Nepal, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia and many more.

According to historians, the shadow puppets of southern India enjoyed the patronage of several dynasties, such as the Rashtrakutas, Pallavas, Kadambas, Chalukyas and Hoysalas, as well as the support of the rulers of Vijayanagara and Mysore. Imperial patronage was also extended to the Killekyata community, the traditional performers of the puppetry form. Records of this are found via an award granted to them in 1520 AD in the Bijapur Sultanate.

Tholu Bommalata from Andhra Pradesh

Tholu Bommalata is the ancient traditional shadow theater of Andhra Pradesh. Literally, “atta” translates to “dance” and “Tholu Bommalu” refers to “leather puppets”. According to historical literature and records, the use of these puppets dates back to 200 B.C. under the Satavahana dynasty. The major works that fall under this storytelling tradition are the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. Additionally, other sacred Hindu texts that are no longer commonly narrated in contemporary times. These old texts have been replaced by more relevant social and environmental themes, such as reforestation or the domestic lives of ordinary people. While anyone can manipulate the puppets, only a skilled sutradhar can bring them to life. Traditionally, the sutradhar is the head of the family, with each member performing a specific role: dancer, singer, narrator, and actor. 

Tholu Bommalu are the largest shadow puppets in India. The puppets are made of leather, and the origin of the leather holds significant importance. Previously, deer leather represented gods, goat leather for saints or common people, and buffalo leather for demons. Today, however, goat skin is the primary material used. Considering the spiritual value attached to the gods and the impure means of sourcing the leather, numerous rituals are performed to purify the puppets before they are used to represent the spiritual deities. The puppets are highly regarded, and a proper funeral is conducted, where they are released into the waters of the Ganga River. Unfortunately, Tholu Bommalata is a dying art form. Only 9 active troupes today, compared to over 180 troupes active in 30 different Indian districts just fifty years ago.

Credits: D’source

Togalu Gombeyaata from Karnataka

Togalu Gombeyaata is a form of shadow puppetry practiced in Karnataka. It draws on epics, folktales, coarse humor, and high drama, as well as song and prose in its puppet plays performed through the night. Togalu Gombeyaata also shares historical and communal roots with Tholu Bommalata.

The Killekyata community derives its name from the eponymous character of a Togalu Gombeyaata performance, who provides an element of coarse comedy during a play. The community’s roots are traced to the present-day region of southern Maharashtra, from where groups of performers migrated to Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu.

The Togalu Gombeyaata figures are made of cattle skin and cast shadows on the screen during a play. Once the hide has been cleaned and tanned, it is chiseled along the outline of characters to create individual and composite puppets with rich details. A bamboo split, attached vertically along the center of the puppet, is used for manipulation. Traditional puppets, made of a single piece of deerskin, did not have articulated parts, demanding more skill and imagination from the puppeteer, which influenced the performance; the introduction of a principal character was accompanied by a detailed narration describing its physical features and attributes.

The repertory of Togalu Gombeyaata draws on the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, the Puranas, and local folktales called Janapada Kathegalu. A performance is held between 10 pm and dawn of the following morning, beginning with an invocation to Ganesha and Saraswati. Songs and dialogues, often witty, are used alternatively, and musicians accompany the puppeteers on the flute, dhol, cymbals, mukhavina, pungi, and ektari. An overnight Togalu Gombeyaata performance requires at least fifty puppets, including figures depicting birds, animals, and scenes.

Togalu Gombeyaata, like other puppet art forms, is in decline. The number of active troupes has decreased, and the tradition is being preserved by a few generational puppeteers. T Hombaiah, Bellagallu Veeranna, and Gunduraju are master puppeteers who have performed nationally and internationally and received recognition from central and state organizations. Veeranna, who also practiced the folk theater form of Bayalata, has expanded the repertoire of Togalu Gombeyaata while maintaining the traditional aesthetic. He has introduced themes based on social issues, India’s independence struggle, and biographical plays on figures like Mahatma Gandhi and Shivaji Bhonsle I. Gunduraju, whose family has a 200-year legacy in Togalu Gombeyaata, has established a research and training center to preserve the related shadow puppet forms in Karnataka, Telangana, and Andhra Pradesh.

Credits: Serendipity Arts Festival

Tholpavakoothu from Kerala

Tholpavakoothu is a traditional shadow puppet play performed in Bhadrakali temples across the Palakkad, Malappuram, and Thrissur districts of Kerala. This art form, which originated in the 18th century, is also known as Pavakoothu or Nizhalattam. The performances take place on a special stage called a Koothumadam, located within the temple courtyard. The Tholpavakoothu art utilizes puppets crafted from deer skin to depict characters from the Kamba Ramayana. The show begins late at night and continues until daybreak, narrating the events from Lord Rama’s birth to his coronation as the King of Ayodhya. The language used is a blend of Malayalam and Tamil dialects.

The puppets, representing both noble and evil characters, are meticulously manipulated behind a white curtain lit by wick lamps. The chief puppeteer, known as the ‘Pulavan,’ leads the captivating performance. Today, Tholpavakoothu is primarily confined to the Ottapalam and Kavalappara regions of the Palakkad district.

Kerala’s rich cultural heritage is beautifully reflected in this art form, which seamlessly integrates Aryan and Dravidian cultural elements. Tholpavakoothu, performed along the banks of the river Nila, utilizes approximately 160 puppets for a full performance, which can last between 7 and 71 days, depending on the temple’s traditions. The puppeteers, often led by a Pulavar, undergo intensive training in both puppetry and the languages involved. The art form is preserved and promoted by dedicated troupes. Koonathara, founded by the renowned Tolpava Koothu artist, the late Guru Krishnan Kutty Pulavar is one such art form.

Credits: Kerala Tourism

Chamdyacha Bahulya from Maharashtra

Chamdyacha Bahulya is a classic shadow puppet theater art from Maharashtra, India. In the local Marathi language, “bahulya” means “figure” and “chamdyacha” means “leather.” The village of Pinguli, where this art thrives, is known for its skilled puppeteers from the Thakur/Thakar Adivasi community. These folks are mostly fishermen and farmers by trade. Each puppet show involves a puppeteer-storyteller, an assistant, and two musicians playing the dholak and pakawatch, as well as the jodiwala and wata, while also providing vocals.

The full puppet set has 65 figures carved from colorful buffalo leather. These figures typically lack moving parts, except sometimes having a single movable arm attached by a leather pin. The puppeteer controls the figures by manipulating a wooden or bamboo rod running through them. The characters, like kings and gods, are depicted in the Mughal artistic style, with features like mustaches, beards, and baggy pants.

Performances start with a dancer figure at the court of the god Indra. This is followed by the storyteller Haridas who begins the tale in Marathi. The main puppeteer sings scenes from the Ramayana, Panchavati, and Ravana Badha in Tamil or Kannada. The musicians provide the spoken dialogue. These puppet shows take place on a permanent stage in the village, expanded around temples or sacred sites during religious festivals or major fishing/harvest events. Today, troupes and traditional families in Pinguli continue this Chamdyacha Bahulya art. Some master puppeteers are recognized for their important contributions both locally and nationally.

Credits: Chetan Gangavane

Ravanachhaya from Odisha

In the Indian state of Odisha, there exists a unique shadow puppet tradition called Ravanachhaya. As the name suggests, it tells stories from the Ramayana epic. This tradition was especially popular in the Dhenkanal and Talcher regions during the 19th and early 20th centuries. It even enjoyed the support of the local royal family. The origins of Ravanachhaya are somewhat mysterious. Some scholars believe it dates back to the 3rd century BCE. On the other hand, some link it to the Indonesian wayang kulit tradition, which is even older. There is also speculation that the name might reflect influences from Jain and Buddhist texts, which sometimes portray the villain Ravana in a more sympathetic light. However, the puppeteers themselves say the name was chosen because the hero Rama is believed not to cast a shadow. Even though earlier regional texts do not explicitly mention Ravanachhaya, they do refer to shadow puppetry more broadly.

Traditionally, Ravanachhaya was performed by the nomadic Charan people, who were traveling performers entertaining wealthy families. Despite its religious themes, it was not confined to temples and was a popular folk theater style. In the 20th century, the Vichitra Ramayana by Odia poet Vishwanath Kunthia became the main source text for Ravanachhaya performances. This blended classical and folk music. There is limited information prior to this record. A typical Ravanachhaya show might feature many different puppet characters, scenes, animals, and composite figures. It may go up to 700 puppets to tell the entire Ramayana story.

Credits: OdishaLIVE

Vistas of Bharat : Indian Culture

Kinnera – A Cultural Symbol of Telangana

Kinnera – a musical instrument from Telangana is a symbol of the rich culture of the state. Dive deeper into its beats with us.

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Kinnera – an instrument buzzing with surs and taals of the south Indian state of Telangana, is a stringed Veena like instrument carved out of bamboo and dried bottle gourd. With twelve steps mounted with strings producing sounds of different frequencies, this instrument has an intriguing physicality. With different variations, a kinnera can have seven, nine, twelve or thirteen frets. It is curated using organic materials – the body is made with bamboo and sun-dried and hollowed bottle gourds form the resonators. The larger instruments come with three resonators while the smaller ones come with just two. The frets are generally made up of pangolin scales and honey wax is used to bind them. Earlier, the strings were made out of women’s hair, animal nerves and horses’ tail hair, but now metallic strings have replaced them. 

Credits: Scroll

Origin of Kinnera 

As per legends and beliefs of scholars and poets like Jayadhir Tirumala Rao, the origin of Kinnera dates back to around 4th century AD. It is native to the tribes residing in the Deccan Plateau. It is believed that the members of the Chenchu tribe who lived in the Nallamalla Forest would play the instrument alongside singing and narrating ballads. Another belief that is considered to hold true for the origin of Kinnera is the Dakkali tribe of Mahbubnagar performed it around the start of the 12th century. 

The tribes that played the instrument also used to recite ballads and folk tales along with it. These accompanying ballads would be generally derived from historical incidents, heroic stories of warriors, lives of local heroes and songs from the Jamba Puranam. The Jamba Puranam is one amongst the 40 Puranas in Telugu and it is different from the Sanskrit Puranas. The Telugu Puranas contain content that is specific to a local community of the south Indian regions. Simple, short and often dramatic monologues would also form a part of the ballads recited while playing kinnera. The variations in the mood of the song would drive a change in the tone of the voice, facial expressions and body language of the players. 

Maestros of the Instrument

Dakkali Balamma

She was the only woman performer of Kinnera until her death at the age of ninety in December 2018. During her early age, she would ride around on a horse and sing. At that time, her voice had a vigour, it was powerful and impressive. Her performances on the instrument were kindly received by people. She would be showered with love, appreciation and money. The Madigas, who were the patron class of Kinnera, would provide her with food and clothes as a reward for her performance. But the good times did not last long, misfortune knocked at her door as the instrument faced a drastic decline in its popularity. The result was such that when Balamma died in December 2018, she was penniless. The villagers cremated her by pooling in money for her rites. 

Credits: Scroll

She is still remembered for her last performance at the age of 86 years, when she had sat down with her Kinnera on the ground outside her home in Mambapur village of Telangana. Though her voice had turned hoarse with age, her knowledge of pitch, laya and beat was strong. And she was bestowed with a rich applause by her audience. 

Darshanam Mogilaiah

The only living Kinnera maestro, the Padma Shri awardee, now fondly known as Kinnera Mogilaiah is one amongst the ones who are still making people hum to the beats of their Kinnera. Born in 1951, he is an artist from the Nagakurnool district of Telangana who learned the art of playing the instrument from his father Yellaiah. Living a life full of instability and hardships, he has worked as a construction site worker and labourer for more than 14 years in cities like Mumbai, Adilabad, Karimnagar and Warangal. He belongs to a family of pioneers of Kinnera as an instrument. Mogilaiah is also appreciated for being the first man to create a twelv- stair kinnera. Consequently, he has been conferred with the Padma Shri Award by the Government of India. 

Credits: AuthIndia

But the deeply saddening ground reality is triggering. These honors and awards do not make any significant difference to the lives of these maestros. They are forced to survive on the bare minimum. Remunerations are not stable, performances are reducing and they are surviving only on the doles of the Madigas tribe. 

Decline of Kinnera 

There are many significant reasons for the decline of the patronage of this instrument. One narrative is that the tribals believe that once a woman was so engrossed in the music of Kinnera that she accidentally cut her baby along with the vegetables she was cutting. Another reason and the likelier one, is the lack of raw materials. With mass deforestation and forest fires, it has become difficult for the tribals to obtain the right variety of gourds and pangolins. Thirdly, the dwindling remuneration and declining patronage of the instrument is another reason that follows. Most importantly, the technicalities of making and playing the instrument are very special. Thus its non-mainstream nature has led to its decline. 

Credits: YouTube (Bharat Today)

Revival of Kinnera

The government of Telangana has been making significant revival attempts to protect the heritage and culture of the state. The state is organising festivals and encouraging performances of Kinnera artists. They also plan to introduce the instrument as a part of the curriculum at music colleges and universities. Specialised faculty for the same would be appointed but this move is solely dependent on the response of the students towards learning the art form. A documentary film on the life of Darshanam Mogulaiah has also been made to let his story reach the masses. 

The remuneration, pension and living conditions of the artists is also being keenly taken care of. Also the Dakkalis are being made familiar with their lost culture and heritage once again. The state of Telangana is all set to revive the art form and bring back kinnera as a mainstream musical instrument with Ballama smiling from heaven.

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Vistas of Bharat : Indian Culture

Glove Puppetry: The Simple Art of Puppetry In India

Glove puppetry is an art form that holds significant cultural value to Indian culture. Let’s dive deeper into this art form.

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glove puppetry, puppeteer, puppets, show, art

The art of puppetry is very old and rich. But what’s more fascinating is the regional connotations attached to it. Glove puppetry is probably one of the oldest and simplest forms of puppetry that has existed. Given its simplicity, its prevalence in various states of India is highly out of the ordinary. However, the way each region has its own version of glove puppetry and glove puppets is what makes this form of art all the more interesting. Do you remember waking up at 6-7 in the morning to catch the latest episode of Gali Gali Sim Sim or Sesame Street as a kid? That is a perfect example of the use of glove puppets, as it uses a mix of glove puppetry and rod puppetry in popular media.  Let’s dive deeper into the world of glove puppets and glove puppetry in India.

Sakhi Kundhei Nach: Odisha

The glove puppet form popular in Odisha is called Sakhi Kundhei Nach. Although it is spread out across the art majority of the puppeteers are concentrated in Cuttack. The puppeteers hold the belief that they used to belong to the warrior caste (rajputs) and used to live in Vrindavan (the birthplace of the Hindu god Krishna) before they migrated to Odisha almost two centuries ago. The puppetry acts that they execute using the glove puppets highlight this past as most of the act centres around the many adventures of Lord Krishna.

The characters that the glove puppets represent include Krishna, Radha, and the cow herder girls or gopis. Further, the puppet representing Radha is also called Chandra Badani (Face-like-the-moon) with little circlets of bells under her skirt and around her wrist that ring as she moves. All the puppets are lavishly dressed and the puppeteer operates them manually with one hand and plays an instrument such as dhol with the other hand. As the puppets enact the adventures of Krishna, the puppeteer sings Odia songs that are derived from medieval poetry to complement the episode that is being enacted. Today, there are troupes and traditional families who have mastered this form of glove puppetry and are recognised for their talent locally and nationally.

Credits: YouTube (OdishaLIVE)

Benir Putul: West Bengal

The glove puppet form popular in West Bengal is called Benir Putul. The name “Benir Putul” also refers to the “braiding of the hair” in the Bengali language which symbolises the twist and turn of the puppet that is similar to the movement of braiding hair. The puppeteers who practice this form of glove puppetry belong to the lower caste and are often palanquin porters, hand-rickshaw pullers, cycle-rickshaw drivers or landless villagers.

Measuring up to 25 centimetres with baked clay heads and wooden arms the puppets are dressed in long cotton skirts. The glove puppeteers expertly make use of their hand dexterity to convey the conversation between the two puppets. The theme of most of the puppet shows is based on the jatra (popular Bengali legends) and the main characters in the puppet shows are majorly Krishna and Radha (used mostly in Bhakti songs) or Madan and Puti, a husband and wife pair who are constantly fighting with each other. Today, there are troupes and traditional families who have mastered this form of glove puppetry and are recognised for their talent locally and nationally.

Credits: Sahapedia

Gulabo Sitabo: Uttar Pradesh

The glove puppetry form popular in Uttar Pradesh, this form of glove puppetry derives its name from the two main characters of the play; i.e., Sitabo, the over-worked spouse and Gulabo, the bright mistress of the same man. Most of the puppet show is semi-improvised, wherein the puppeteer makes use of acapella narration to accompany the act with salacious jokes, local humour and songs that befit the situation the characters or puppets are facing. During festivals, few puppeteers travel from place to place performing this form of glove puppetry in Lucknow but this form of art has been on the decline.    

Credits: Navbharat Times

Pavakathakali: Kerala

The glove puppetry form popular in Kerala, Pavakathakali is a glove puppet form that came into existence after the birth of the dance form Kathakali. Majorly popularised by the Andipandaram community, which lives in Paruthippuly village in the Palghat region of Kerala, this form of puppetry involves the puppets being dressed in lavish kathakali costumes. The size of the puppet is around 40-60 centimetres in height and they are manipulated by the puppeteer by his/her/their fingers. The index finger manipulated the head and the thumb and middle finger manipulated the arms, this form of puppetry requires the puppeteer to be highly dextrous. The puppets are adorned with various accessories like small metallic golden ornaments, cowrie shells, etc. 

The minimum number of people required to put up this form of glove puppet show is around six as it involves musical instruments used in kathakali such as chenda (drum), chengila (gong), illetalam (cymbals) and shankh (mother of pearl conch shell), and one or two singers to bring the show to live. In the past, no special stage or podium was constructed for the puppet show and the puppeteers would enact it in the courtyard of the house and get paid for their performance. The major themes it covered are from the extracts of Mahabharata. Since the 1940s the art form was in decline but was revived by the director of Sangeet Natak Akademi, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay in 1981 and today has received global recognition.

Credits: muse man you

Chinni Patti: Karnataka

The form of glove puppetry popular in Karnataka is known as Chinni Patti. This art form derives its name from the dolls that are used for the puppet show which are called Chinni Patti or “little doll” made out of wood and rice straw. Mostly practised by beggars who put these small puppet shows on the streets accompanied by small cymbals, this art form can be traced back to the aborigines of the Karnataka social system which used similar dolls for tribal rituals. The major theme of this art form includes the daily adventures of tradesmen who have been fooled, of worthies taken for a ride, and of cuckolded husbands.

Credits: World Encyclopedia of Puppetry Arts

Pava Koothu: Tamil Nadu

Popular in Tamil Nadu, Pava Koothu is majorly performed during festivals, and the major theme of the puppet show is demonstrating the victory dance of goddess Lakshmi after her victory over the demons. The puppets are small in size and made out of rice straw and paper, and they require simple manipulation and musical instruments to go with them. This art form was in decline until recently when it was brought to life by Tamil intellectuals.  

Credits: World Encyclopedia of Puppetry Arts

Conclusion

Glove puppetry is an art form that holds significant cultural value in Indian culture. And hence, efforts must be made to preserve the same.  From ancient times to today’s contemporary, puppet shows and the art of puppetry highlight the evolution of storytelling that is deeply ingrained in our culture. The few ways in which we can ensure the preservation of this art form include educating ourselves and others about the same and its significance.

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Vistas of Bharat : Indian Culture

Rod Puppetry: A Dying Art

Let’s dive deep into the world of rod puppetry to find out what makes it so unique and why is it slowly dying out.

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Rod Puppetry, rod puppets, puppetry, puppeteer, Indian art form, dying art

Different kinds of puppetry have taken over different parts of India. In fact, many of these kinds of puppetry such as glove and shadow puppetry are still very much famous among the masses as puppeteers find it easy to recreate. But one such puppetry exists which despite having a rich history and being pretty distinct, is showing a decline. And that is rod puppetry. Practised mainly in West Bengal, Odisha and Bihar this form of puppetry is slowly getting erased from the mind of the people. Let’s dive deep into rod puppetry and rod puppets to discover what makes it so unique and why it is slowly dying out.

How Does Rod Puppetry Work?

Rod puppetry is considered an extension of glove puppetry but the key difference is the usage of rods over gloves. Normally three rods are used to manipulate these rod puppets. The main rod which balances the head is attached at the neck and the two other rods that manipulate the hands are attached to the main rod at the shoulder joints. The legs or the lower body of the puppets are hidden with the clothes of the puppet. Depending on the region in India they are based on they can be huge in size or small. The three states of India in which this form of puppetry is famous include; West Bengal, Odisha and Bihar.

West Bengal

Known as Putul Nach which literally translates to “Dancing Dolls”, rod puppetry takes the form of a huge human-like structure going as tall as 3-4 feet in certain regions. These huge rod puppets are dressed like the actors in Jatra. What’s interesting about the rod puppetry form in West Bengal is how the puppeteers manipulate them. Unlike traditional puppets where the puppeteers stay in one place and manipulate the puppets, here the puppeteers are hidden behind a head-high curtain and dance or move along the huge rod puppets to impart the same moves to the puppet. The entire process that the puppeteers follow is pretty theatrical. Normally it’s the puppeteers who voice out the dialogue and sing for the puppet but sometimes they are accompanied by a group of musicians who sit on the side of the stage.

Odisha

The rod puppetry form in Odisha is a bit different from its Bengali counterpart just like its Rasgullas. The rod puppets in Odisha are not as big as the ones found in West Bengal they range from 12-18 inches. The shoulders of these rod puppets are connected to the main body with the help of strings, not rods. Thus, this form of rod puppetry uses a mix of strings and rods, giving a different dimension to their rod puppets. The puppeteers in this case squat on the ground and behind a scene to manipulate the rod puppets. Most of the dialogues are sung to tunes of classical Odissi music. Rod puppetry is also known as Kathi Kandhe in Odisha.

Bihar

Known as Yampuri, the rod puppetry form in Bihar has its own uniqueness. For starters unlike its Odia and Bengali counterparts, these rod puppets are made out of wood and don’t have joints. Hence, it requires the puppeteer to be very flexible in their approach and be highly dexterous when handling these rod puppets.

How Can We Conserve Rod Puppetry?

Living in the era of the 5G internet it’s not surprising that why these traditional art forms such as puppetry are dying out. Rod puppetry being a tough speciality in the world puppetry makes it even more susceptible to cultural extinction. Plus the added burden of creating these huge rod puppets and having barely any audience to cheer them on due to the rise of electronic media also contributes to its low popularity. One way to conserve this beautiful art form is by incorporating it in electronic media such as broadcasting it on YouTube to help increase its reach and ensure that it continues to entertain and teach the future generation.

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Vistas of Bharat : Indian Culture

Travellers’ Tales: Rediscovering Medieval Indian History Through Persian Literary Lenses

The foreign travelers who documented Indian history also delved into the analysis of Indian cultures and traditions in their works, providing valuable insights into the intricacies of this ancient land.

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Al Beruni, India, Abdur Razzak, Persia, history

India has long been a center of exploration for various foreign travellers, leading to the creation of a vast body of travel literature that we are familiar with today. These literary works, often considered factual accounts of Indian history and culture, have been written in numerous European and Asian languages, reflecting diverse perspectives on India’s rich heritage. The foreign travellers who documented Indian history also delved into the analysis of Indian cultures and traditions in their works, providing valuable insights into the intricacies of this ancient land.

Persian travellers made significant contributions to the understanding of Medieval Indian history and offered unique socio-cultural perspectives during their extended stays in the country. The medieval period in India witnessed remarkable developments in cultures, languages, religion and art. A large number of Persian records of the medieval period also contain varieties of information on economic development, agricultural production, trade and commerce, etc. Two renowned Persian travellers played a pivotal role in contributing to the understanding of the flourishing of Indian history during this era.

Al Beruni (1024-1030 A.D.)

Al Beruni was born in 973 AD in the Khwarezm region, which is located in Kath, the capital of the Afrighid dynasty of Khwarezm in Central Asia (present-day Uzbekistan). He dedicated twenty-five years to studying and excelling in astronomy, mathematics, chronology, physics, medicine, mineralogy and history. Additionally, he was proficient in several languages including Turkish, Persian, Sanskrit, Hebrew, Syriac and Arabic. In AD 1017 Mahmud of Ghazni traveled to India with a group of scholars. This group included Al Beruni when he was forty-four years old. During his thirteen-year stay in India, during this time, Al Beruni devoted himself to observing, questioning and conducting detailed studies about Indian culture and science.

During his time in India, he produced the monumental commentary on Indian philosophy and culture known as Kitab fi tahqiq ma li’l-hind. He read the major Indian religious and astronomical texts, highlighting parts of the Gita, the Upanishads, Patanjali, Puranas and the Vedas, as well as scientific texts by Nagarjuna and Aryabhata. Additionally, he documented some of Mahmud of Ghazni’s most egregious plundering incidents at Mathura and Somnath. While he couldn’t explicitly denounce these actions in his text, a definite sense of lament is evident. He wrote that Mahmud “utterly ruined the prosperity of the country…”. 

Beruni’s Kitab al –Hind

Beruni’s Kitab al-Hind is a respectable and valuable source of Indian culture even today. Although the data provided is generally accurate, the compilation data of his work from around 1030 A.D. is still subject to doubt. This is because Beruni rarely makes mention of where his visits took place or when they did and secondly his book, Kitab al-Hind is lacking in positive evidence. Moreover, due to the insurmountable texts written on this figure and his life, difficulty arises in distinguishing the historical events from the legendary ones.

In his book, Al-Beruni mentioned several obstacles that he incurred while understanding India. The language was the one of the most important of these. He found Sanskrit highly different from Arabic and Persian so much so that the ideas and cultural aspects of each could not be inter-translated. He also found religious beliefs and practices to be different from what he was familiar with. The third challenge he faced was the local community’s self-centeredness, which resulted in isolation. Knowing these challenges, Al Beruni derived his knowledge from the Brahmanical works such as Vedas, Puranas, Bhagavad Gita, Patanjali, Manusmriti, etc. to understand Indian society as a whole.

Al Beruni’s Views on Hindu Lifestyle 

Beruni’s book is an in-depth exploration of Hindu religion, science, literature, philosophy, social organization, geography, astronomy, life, customs, festivals, etc. He touched on almost all the aspects of Hinduism. Based on his studies and observations in India between 1017 and 1030, his book provides a comprehensive survey of Indian life. It can also be said that his work was perhaps the first major exposition of Hindu thought and life by an Islamic scholar. 

It also sheds ample light on the Hindu society which was otherwise facing an existential challenge from Muslim invaders. Al Beruni was also aware of the deep differences between Hindu and Islamic lifestyles. These differences were all over the languages, manners and customs. In his work, he also defended the natural aversion Hindus had against Muslims due to the atrocious activities of Mahmud.

However, Beruni also wrote about how Hindus were narcissistic in many ways. They believed that “there is no country but theirs, no nation like theirs, no king like theirs, no religion like theirs, no science like theirs.” He also stated that Hindus were so arrogant that they simply considered foreign scientists and scholars liars if they were to excel better than Hindus in any way. Although he critiqued the arrogance of Hindus, he also mentioned that this could be improved if Hindus started intermingling with people from foreign lands. He believed that this would change their perspective.

Issues In Indian Society

During his time in India, Al Biruni extensively studied the caste system or varnas. He concluded that the Brahmana were the highest caste, followed by the Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra. Al-Biruni sought to explain the caste system by identifying parallels in other societies. However, he also observed that within Islam all men were considered equal, differing only in their observance of piety. Despite accepting the Brahmanical description of the caste system, Al-Biruni disapproved of the concept of pollution. Moreover, only the Brahmans had the right to attain salvation. Al Biruni found the Brahmanical system highly misleading. He believed that Indians possessed rich knowledge but succumbed to superstitions within this system, thus diluting their wisdom. 

He also criticized various harmful practices in Hindu society. These were child marriage, prohibition of widow marriage, ‘Sati’ and ‘Jauhar’. Additionally, although he did not mention the dowry system specifically, he wrote about Stree Dhan. Stree Dhan was similar to dowry which was presented by the relatives of the girls to her in-laws. Furthermore, Al Biruni observed how the entire country was divided into small states that frequently quarrelled among themselves with jealousy and constant fighting. Prominent states like Malwa, Sindh, Kannauj and Kashmir engaged in regular conflicts. Overall, there was a notable absence of nationalism among Indians at that time

Abdur Razzak (1443-1444 A.D.)

Abdur Razzak, born on November 7, 1412 in Herat (Afghanistan) to Jalaj-ud-Din Ishaq was another important Persian traveler in medieval India. His father, Jalal-ud-din Ishaq was the qazi and imam of Shah Rukh’s court who was the ruler of Persia. After his father’s death, Abdur was appointed as the new qazi of the court. During his tenure as the Qazi, he prospered as a legal courtier, trustee and ambassador. His ambassadorial missions brought him to various places across Asia, including his most important mission in India.

Abdur Razzak’s Observations of India

Upon arriving in the Indian subcontinent, Razzak’s first stop was the court of the Zamorin of Calicut in southwest India. His initial encounters with the natives of Calicut left him unimpressed, as he found them to be scantily clad and practising polyandry, which differed from his own customs. Later on, he received an invitation from the Vijayanagar King to visit his kingdom. To reach Vijayanagara, Razzak passed through Mangalore and Belur before finally reaching his destination.

During his time in the court of King Deva Raya II, Abdur Razzak’s accounts provide a grand and opulent depiction of India. He describes the vast reach of Deva Raya II’s dominion, stretching from the shores of Ceylon to Gulbarga and from Orissa to Malabar. Additionally, he mentions the monarch’s majestic attire and lavish aesthetics. Razzak himself was also graciously accommodated with lavishly provided amenities by the king’s court, highlighting the grandeur of India. Furthermore, he notes that Vijayanagara was a prosperous land with significant military strength. This was evident through bustling markets, fortified walls and a formidable force comprising thousands of warriors.

Hampi Through The Lenses of Abdur Razzak 

Razzak was truly impressed by the Royal Center of Hampi. He especially found the network of rivulets and streams flowing through channels of cut stone remarkable. He considered it a true testament to the engineering skills and architectural genius of that time. Despite all this grandeur, Razzak’s journey was also quite risky and challenging. After a whole year of adventure, going from Mangalore to Kalahat in India and facing a tough seventy-five-day journey by sea, Razzak had to leave India. However, his trip was full of amazing experiences and difficulties he had to overcome. It was a fitting conclusion to an adventurous year.

Issues Faced By Abdur Razzak During His Travel

Razzak’s journey was filled with wonderful sights, but it also had its share of perilous moments. After a year-long travel from Mangalore to Kalahat in India, he embarked on a challenging 75-day sea voyage across the Arabian Sea. Unfortunately, personal tragedy and political upheaval cut short his exploration aspirations. His brother passed away at sea due to an illness, and he narrowly avoided getting entangled in political turmoil sparked by local unrest. These events led him to make a solemn vow never to embark on another trip again. This highlighted the risks associated with venturing into new territories.

Cultural Outlook of Medieval Indian Society

The presence of Turkish rulers and Sufi saints in India brought about significant cultural and socio-economic changes. New establishments like madrasas, karkhanas, dar al shifas and thānās played a crucial role in shaping medieval Indian society. This information is extensively recorded in Persian sources from the Delhi Sultanate and Mughal Empire.

Along with political accounts, there are non-political literary works such as poetry, mystic records, geographical accounts and autobiographies that provide insight into this period. The Persian archives contain a wide range of documents including royal orders (farmans), imperial decrees (parwanas), deeds related to personal property, hortation, wakf properties/live stocks/produce, gift etc., commands nishans that are well-maintained across various archives in the country.

Economic Condition of Medieval Bengal

A wealth of historical texts written in Persian is a lasting legacy of Muslim rule in India. Over three centuries, Muslim power extended across Bengal. The port towns of Satgāon, Sunārgāon and Chittagong were pivotal in connecting Bengal to distant parts of the world through sea trade. During this time, these ports were bustling centers for maritime trade with several parts of the world. These included China, Sumatra, Maldives, Sri Lanka, the Middle East and East Africa. They traded primarily in pearls, silk, muslin, rice, bullion and horses. 

Bengal was self-sufficient in agricultural produce and also rich in non-agricultural products manufactured to meet local needs. Some surplus items were exported. Contemporary literature, both Persian and Bengali, as well as accounts of foreign travellers, shed light on the quality and demand for non-agricultural products within India and abroad. Bengal had a long tradition of textile manufacturing, with Persian chroniclers and foreign travellers praising the quality and quantity of cloth produced there. During the Sultanate period, Bengal was one of the three major textile-producing regions along with Coromandel and Gujarat.

Other prominent occupations in the region were centered around metal works, including blacksmiths and goldsmiths. These occupations had a long-standing tradition and high regard. Abul Fazl noted that iron-miners were located in the sarkār of Bazuhā. The goldsmiths of Bengal were renowned for crafting various utensils, jewelry and ornaments from gold and silver. These were highly sought after in both local and foreign markets. Pre-Mughal times saw Bengali ships playing a crucial role as a mode of communication and transportation. They carried out trade activities with distant lands as well as within Bengal itself.

This prosperous province maintained strong economic and cultural ties with other parts of the world through its flourishing maritime trade. Agriculture was not only essential for livelihood but also supported industries rooted in agricultural practices during this period.

Summing Up

Exploring Medieval Indian history through the Persian lenses offers a multifaceted perspective on the rich Indian history and culture. Their accounts provide insights into various aspects of Indian society. These include religion, philosophy, socio-political structures and architecture and enrich our history. Despite facing linguistic and cultural challenges, these travellers meticulously documented their observations. These allow us to gain a deeper understanding of India as a whole. Their writings enhance our appreciation for India’s diverse heritage. Additionally, they highlight the lasting impact of cross-cultural encounters in shaping historical narratives.

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Vistas of Bharat : Indian Culture

Puppetry Art : Strings of Expression

Puppetry art is a canvas of culture for Indian artists. Dive deep into the origin and intricacies of the art.

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puppetry, puppet, artist, art, Indian, Indian culture

From narrating folktales and dancing on Nimbuda Nimbuda to grooving to Shakira’s Waka Waka, puppets in India have done it all. Puppetry, a unique art form, is an inherent part of Indian culture. Its presence dates back thousands of years. As an art form, puppetry holds a certain level of philosophical essence as well. Legend has it that God has been depicted as a puppeteer in the Bhagavad Gita. He is shown controlling the entire universe with three strings namely Satta, Raja and Tama. Today, as we celebrate World Puppetry Day, it’s time for us to dive back into the history and significance of Indian puppetry.

Origin of Puppetry

Puppets are dolls or figures that are controlled by a person and they appear to move on their own. Puppetry is believed to have developed more than 3,000 years ago. Egypt is considered to be the cradle of the earliest puppets. Archaeologists have discovered puppets made of ivory and clay in tombs. Ancient Greek scholars like Aristotle and Plato also mentioned them as early as 422 BC. 

In the excavation sites of Harappa and Mohenjo Daro, puppets with sockets have been unearthed which indicates that puppetry was a popular art form at that time. One can also find mentions of puppetry in the great Indian epic The Mahabharata and the Tamil classic Silappadikaram written in the first and second centuries BC. ‘Sutradhar’ which means ‘string bearer’ is referred to as the storyteller in Indian theatre. 

Types of Puppets used in India

Glove Puppets

Also known as hand puppets, sleeve puppets and palm puppets, they are popular in Indian states like Kerala, West Bengal, Odisha and Uttar Pradesh. Sakhi Kundhei Neta is the glove puppetry popular in Odisha. Stories of Radha Krishna formed the basis of the stories. It is mostly popular in the districts of Cuttack and Bhubaneswar. Beni Putul, popular in East Midnapur, Murshidabad and 24 Parganas districts refers to the dolls used for commercial purposes. It was used as a tool against the oppression of the British. Pavakoothu, another type of glove puppet that is popular in Kerala depicts the themes based on The Mahabharata and The Ramayana.   

Shadow Puppets

They are generally popular in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Odisha and Tamil Nadu and have six types. They are flat and transparent leather or paper cut-outs that are fastened to a supporting stick and moved by at least two other thin sticks or rods. Ravan Chhaya from Odisha and Tholpavai Koothu from Kerala are the two most prominent shadow puppet theatre traditions in India. 

String Puppets

Also called marionettes, string puppets have spread throughout the continent of Asia. This is generally popular in the states of Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Rajasthan. These puppets are made out of wood and the long flowing decorative skirts hide the legs. Strings attached to a triangular wooden control manipulate the puppets. In Odisha, the ends of the strings are tied to a triangular wooden frame to a horizontal bar while in Rajasthan, puppets are simply looped around the puppeteer’s fingers. String puppets are believed to dominate the Indian classical theatre and they find their first mentions in the Mahabharata of the 4th century BC.

Rod Puppets

They are an extension of the glove puppets but are larger than them and are supported and manipulated by rods or sticks of different sizes. They are generally famous in the Indian states of West Bengal and Odisha and they are generally made of three joints. This technique is also used for the round or doll-type puppets. The trunk is formed by a stick, the lower extension of which is the handle for its manipulation. Daanger Putul Nach is the traditional rod puppet performance of Bengal. The Mahabharata, the Ramayana, the Puranas and the Jatras form the themes of this performance.

Here are some flawless puppetry performances that are a visual treat to your life :

Bengal’s Glove Puppetry Performance

Reciting the story of a wedding without dowry, the artist in his performance uses gloves to move the puppets. He simultaneously sings a song to which the puppets dance creating a theatre-like experience.

Credits: YouTube (Daricha Foundation)

A Rajasthani String Puppet Performance

This puppetry performance by a Rajasthani artist shows string puppets grooving to the desi Bollywood music of today’s time. The art has now evolved beyond folk songs and ballads. It has reached the horizons of trending songs and pop tadka.

Credits: YouTube (Strong and Beyond)

Kerala’s Shadow Puppetry Performance

Narrating the traditional folktales and legends of Kerala, this style of puppetry dwells deep in the culture of the state. This performance also presents a story by way of shadow puppets which is indeed a wholesome and enchanting experience.

Credits: YouTube (Kerala Tourism)

Rod Puppet Performance by Bengali artists

Beginning with a mandatory concert to invite people from afar, these performances include announcements being made in the traditional ‘jatra’ style. This show by Bengali artists depicts an episode from the Indian epic Ramayana being enacted by rod puppets.

Credits: YouTube (Daricha Foundation)

The prominence of puppetry art is diminishing gradually due to a lack of patronage in the modern era and the confinement of the art to mythological stories. Puppetry art remains one of the most pleasant and worthy experiences of one’s life. The artists are immensely skilled and carry a knack in their field. The World Puppetry Day is a beautiful reminder to delve back into the art, the artists and the magical aura it carries. 

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