A form of string puppetry practised by members of the Thakar community, kalasutri bahulya is now found predominantly in the Sindhudurg district of coastal Maharashtra. The Thakars also practice chitrakathi, a form of narrative performance, and chamadyache bahulya, a form of shadow puppetry. Traditionally, each of the three forms was the preserve of a particular set of Thakar families, who also inherited the right to perform at specific places or for specific audiences.
The Thakars originally belonged to Rajasthan and are believed to have made their way to Maharashtra during the reign of Shivaji Bhonsle I in the seventeenth century, working for the Maratha ruler as spies due to the itinerant nature of their work. Later, the Thakars enjoyed the patronage of the rulers of Sawantwadi, who invited them to settle in the Sindhudurg region, and perform at the Sawantwadi palace and local temples during festivals.
The puppets of kalasutri bahulya are between 20 to 45 cm in height. Most puppets are carved without legs, with the exception of certain characters such as the dancer or the fisherman. The upper body – which includes the head, torso, arms and sometimes a headdress – is made of clay or carved from the wood of the Indian coral tree, while the lower body is composed of a long skirt. Each puppet has three strings: one attached to the head and one for each hand, and only the movement of the shoulders is articulated. Puppets representing demons are the largest figures in a performance and have an additional string attached to the lower jaw. The puppet’s strings are manoeuvred with the help of a control.
A category of puppets called kal bahulya do not have long strings attached to a control. Instead, short strings attached to the head and limbs are grouped at the back of the hollow puppet. The puppeteer puts his hand inside the puppet – similar to the technique used in glove puppetry – and manipulates the strings to move the puppet.
The stage for kalasutri bahulya comprises a wooden frame measuring 9 x 1 m, which is raised on a one metre high platform and completely covered on three sides. The space above the opening of the viewing area is covered to conceal the puppeteer and his assistant. The repertory draws from the life of Ram, covering the period from his birth to his victory over Ravan. Each performance begins with a segment called purva ranga, where certain rituals featuring puppets depicting the gods Ganesha, Shiva and Saraswati are conducted. While the puppeteer performs, an assistant narrates and sings the story, while a single musician provides accompaniment using instruments such as tuntuni (drone), a tabla (drum), a conch and chakava (cymbals). The songs and narratives are in Marathi, though for improvised interludes both Marathi and Konkani may be used.
Kalasutri bahulya was popular until the early years of the twentieth century. By the 1970s and 1980s, however, only a handful of families were still performing. In recent years, efforts have been made to document and revive the puppetry technique. Puppeteer Ganapat Sakharam Masge conducts puppeteering workshops across the country and formed his own puppetry troupe, which also performs chamadyachye bahulya and chitrakathi.
In 2006, master puppeteer Parshuram Vishram Gangavane founded the Thakar Adivasi Kala Angan in Pinguli, a few kilometres from Sawantwadi, to document and revive the performing arts of the Thakar community. Members of his family continue to perform kalasutri bahulya and chitrakathi, and have also collaborated on public awareness campaigns with the Maharashtran government. Gangavane was awarded the Padma Shri, India’s fourth-highest civilian honour, in 2021.
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