A form of string puppetry practised in the Mysore region of Karnataka, sutrada gombeyaata shares several similarities with yakshagana gombeyaata – another form of string puppetry practised in coastal Karnataka – including its themes, its staging, and the use of music and dance. The primary difference between the two lies in the structure of the puppets used – unlike those of yakshagana gombeyaata, the puppets of sutrada gombeyaata do not have legs or feet.
The practise of string puppetry in Karnataka dates as far back as the ninth century CE. Historians, however, believe that puppetry as a performance art only gained popularity and flourished in the region between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries. References to puppetry, including string puppetry, can be found in the works of Kannada poet-saints such as Purandaradasa and Kanakadasa, as well as in literature from the Vijayanagara empire. Scholars have also noted that string puppetry in Karnataka closely reflects the costumes, background music and dance style of yakshagana, a local form of folk theatre, with sutrada gombeyaata drawing considerable influence from mudalapaya yakshagana.
The upper bodies of sutrada gombeyaata puppets are carved from a light, rot-resistant wood, while the lower body is simply in the form of a long skirt. The puppets can measure up to two feet in height, and are manipulated through the use of six strings attached to the ears, hands and hips. The stage is usually set up in front of a Kali temple, with a visible area of around 1.8 x 1.2 m and a depth of 0.75 metres. The repertory includes episodes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata as well as religious texts such as the Puranas. The puppeteers usually invite a bhagavatar (singer) and musicians to perform alongside them. The main musical instruments used during a performance are maddale (a horizontal percussion drum), chende (a vertical percussion drum), cymbals, harmonium and mukhavina (a reed pipe).
MR Ranganatha Rao and BH Puttuswamachar are among the established puppeteers of the form today. Rao, a schoolteacher, is credited with devising puppetry kits for rural classrooms. He is also the founder of a puppetry and music troupe, and has mentored several puppeteers, including National Award-winner, Dattatreya Arralikatte. Puttuswamachar, who was trained by his father, has performed sutrada gombeyaata on several national and international platforms.
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