A form of string puppetry practised in Odisha, gopalila kundhei, also known as gopalila kandhei nata, traditionally presents musical plays based on episodes from the life of the Hindu god Krishna. It is practised by members of the Ahiragouda community and is one of four puppetry traditions native to Odisha, alongside sakhi kundhei (glove puppetry), kathi kundhei (rod puppetry) and Ravana chhaya (shadow puppetry).
Gopalila kundhei is predominantly practised in the districts of Puri and Cuttack in northern Odisha and the district of Ganjam in southern Odisha. Though its exact origins are not known, historical references to the string puppetry tradition have been found in several regional texts from the fifteenth century onwards.
The puppets used in gopalila kundhei are made at Raghunathpur, in the district of Jagatsinghpur, and their visual style is influenced by chalchitra painting as well as by the temple sculptures of the region. The puppets vary in size, from 9 inches to 2 feet in height, and can weigh up to two kilograms. They have joints at the shoulders and elbows and are manipulated with three strings attached to the hands and the head. The strings are attached to a triangular control made of bamboo.
Puppets used in performances in northern Odisha are made without legs, while puppets used in Ganjam and other southern districts are crafted with both legs and feet. The puppets are made of wood, and a layer of chalk is applied to the limbs and faces before they are painted. The faces of puppets depicting gopis (female cowherds) are painted yellow and the characters are often shown with water pitchers on their head. The puppet depicting Krishna is green, and the puppet depicting Balarama is white.
A gopalila kundhei performance can last between thirty to forty five minutes, and includes several songs. The performances are held on a stage 4 x 2 x 3 ft in dimension, and are begun by blowing a conch and invoking regional deities such as Jagannath and Sarla. The puppets are manipulated by one puppeteer and an assistant, while male and female narrators sing and voice the puppets. The female narrator is seated behind the stage, while the male narrator sits in front. The musicians in a troupe play the pakhawaj (a two-headed horizontal drum), the harmonium and manjira (cymbals).
Between the 1940s and the 1980s, gopalila kundhei enjoyed a surge in popularity as a performance art, with hundreds of troupes performing across the state. This popularity was also reflected in an expanded repertory, which incorporated stories from other religious texts, in addition to tales of Krishna. By the 1980s, themes influenced by the regional theatre form of yatra were also incorporated. The puppets and musical influences within the form evolved along similar lines. However, the puppetry form has since suffered a decline: by the early decades of the twenty-first century, only six to eight troupes were actively performing gopalila kundhei.
Dash, Gouranga. “The Puppet Art of Odisha.” Indian Horizons 60, no. 2 (April–June 2013): 38–51.
Ghosh, Sampa and Utpal K Bannerjee. Indian Puppets. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications, 2005.