A form of glove puppetry from the state of Uttar Pradesh, Gulabo-Sitabo derives its name from its two principal characters, Gulabo and Sitabo. Typically performed as short skits, it's notable for its improvised witticisms and varied subjects, which are drawn from daily life.
Glove puppet theatre has been performed in Lucknow and other parts of Uttar Pradesh since the seventeenth century. Historically, Gulabo-Sitabo enjoyed the patronage of wealthy individuals and families, who would invite puppeteers to perform at their homes. During festivals, it was also common for puppeteers to travel to different areas and perform for large crowds.
The puppets of Gulabo-Sitabo are approximately 60 cm in height. They are made of papier-mâché and dressed in colourful costumes. Facial features and other details are painted on. Within the repertory of Gulabo-Sitabo, the two main characters are shown to have various relationships: sometimes they are the wives of two brothers, sometimes they are the spouse and mistress of the same man, and sometimes they are co-wives. What remains constant is the characterisation of Gulabo as a dominating personality and Sitabo as a more timid woman.
Performances of Gulabo-Sitabo are often semi-improvised, with the puppeteer who manipulates the figure also voicing them and narrating the story. The most popular aspects of the plays are the plots, which draw from scenes of everyday life, and the dialogues, which feature sharp, and occasionally crude, humour. In some performances, the puppeteer is accompanied by musicians playing the dholak (a horizontal percussion drum) and cymbals.
Popular in Uttar Pradesh until the 1930s, Gulabo-Sitabo gained an even wider platform in the decades following Independence, when its characters and format were adapted to promote social welfare programmes by the government. Lucknow was at the centre of this revival. In the mid-1950s, a department for educational puppetry was established at the Literacy House, with inputs from noted American puppeteers Bil and Cora Baird. Ram Niranjan Srivastava, one of the puppeteers who was a part of the department, went on to become a prominent performer of Gulabo-Sitabo. He was known for combining the typical humour of the format with plots tackling social issues such as child marriage and dowry. Members of Srivastava’s family, along with a few generational puppeteers in Lucknow, continue to keep the art form alive today.
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