A form of string puppetry practised in the south India states of Karnataka and Kerala, yakshagana gombeyaata is deeply influenced by the folk theatre known as yakshagana, borrowing significantly from its performance structure as well as its use of music and dance. Like its theatrical counterpart, yakshagana gombeyaata is practised predominantly in the coastal districts of Karnataka and in Kasargod, Kerala.
Puppetry in Karnataka is called gombeyaata, which means “doll dance,” and includes string puppetry (sutrada gombeyaata), rod puppetry (salaki gombeyaata) and shadow puppetry (togalu gombeyaata). Regional variations in string puppetry – which take the form of differences in the style of puppets, costumes and music – closely mirror local variations in forms of yakshagana. In Kerala, yakshagana gombeyaata is known as yakshagana bommayatta, and the town of Kumble in Kasargod district is considered to be a centre of the art form.
String puppetry in Karnataka is believed to have existed from the ninth century CE onwards. It finds mention in several texts from the twelfth to sixteenth centuries, including in the works of poet-saints such as Purandaradasa and Kanakadasa. Historians also cite the influence of artist-activist Kotagi Basvanappa on yakshagana gombeyaata as it is practised today. Basvanappa, who lived in Karnataka in the nineteenth century, ran a school where both adults and children were trained in voice modulation, puppet making and folk music. In Kerala, the yakshagana poetry of Parthi Subba is considered an important influence on yakshagana bommayatta.
Crafted to evoke the visual effect of yakshagana actors, the puppets of yakshagana gombeyaata are depicted with similar costumes, headdresses and ornaments, rendered in great detail. The puppets are carved of light wood, with special attention paid to the face, neck, headdress, hands, and feet – the parts visible to the audience. The rest of a puppet’s body is more roughly carved and given a shape with costumes and padding. The parts are carved separately and fitted together to create a puppet that has joints at the neck, shoulders, elbows, knees, hips and ankles. Each puppet has six strings of varying lengths: two behind the ears, two at the elbows, and two at the knees. Each pair of strings is tied to a six-inch stick that serves as a control, and a puppeteer handles three controls per puppet. An additional string may be added for a prop, such as a sword or a torch. For situations such as a warrior riding a horse, two puppeteers control the action, manipulating the horse and warrior puppets respectively.
The puppets are divided into seven categories, based on characters and their respective costume and ornamentation. Puppets depicting female characters, called stree vesha, are 22 inches in height and are depicted with a hair bun, a miniature sari and ornaments. Puppets depicting male characters are divided into purusha vesha (heroic figures), Krishna, banna vesha (demons or villains), kireeta vesha (kings), hasya (a jester or servant) and muni (ascetics), and these can range from 24 inches to 32 inches in height. Each character has a fixed costume and visual style. For example, Krishna is painted blue while characters belonging to the purusha vesha category wear a headdress called kedige mundale. In addition, there are puppets of animals such as snakes, horses and eagles.
The stage of a yakshagana gombeyaata performance is made on a raised platform, 12 ft by 8 ft in size. The side facing the audience has a wooden frame with an opening of 8.5 ft by 3.5 ft, behind which the stage and backdrop are set up. Traditionally, oil lamps were used to light the performance, but these have now been replaced by electric lights.
The repertory of yakshagana gombeyaata performances features episodes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata as well as the Puranas. As the lead musician and singer, the bhagavatar’s role is similar to that of a conductor and includes singing the cantos, improvising dialogues with the puppeteers who voice the puppets, and controlling the tempo of the performance. Apart from their training in the manipulation of puppets, puppeteers are required to have a knowledge of the epics as well as the distinct musical framework of yakshagana theatre. The musical instruments used in the performance are maddale (a horizontal percussion drum), pungi (a reed pipe used as a drone), a harmonium and chende (a vertical percussion drum). Gejje or anklet bells are often attached to the puppets and may also be worn by puppeteers to emphasise the aural effects of a puppet’s dance.
Yakshagana gombeyaata begins with the bhagavatar, musicians and puppeteers offering a prayer, which is followed by the entrance of puppets depicting various deities such as Ganesh and Saraswati. It is only after this that the performance itself commences. While a yakshagana play lasts from dusk to dawn, yakshagana gombeyaata is condensed to a runtime of three hours. A traditional performance used to require more than 10 individuals, but performances today – with the songs, music and dialogues often being pre-recorded – involve fewer individuals. The language of these performances may be Kannada, Tulu or Malayalam.
Yakshagana gombeyaata suffered a decline in the early decades of the twentieth century. In the 1950s, it was revived with the assistance of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and the All India Handicrafts Board, who supported the efforts of Devanna Padmanabha Kamat, one of the few puppeteers still practising the form. Devanna, alongwith his son Kogga, re-established the family troupe, Shri Ganesha Yakshagana Gombeyaata Mandali, in Uppinakudru, near Kundapura. He went on to win the President’s Award in 1966 for his work. Today, his grandchildren operate the Yakshagana gombeyaata Academy, also in Uppinakudru, which offers puppetry workshops and stages monthly performances. In Kerala, a similar effort to revive a family troupe was led by KV Ramesh, who established the Shri Gopalakrishna Yakshagana Bombeyata Sangha in 1981, after having learnt the puppetry from his father. Both troupes have performed at several national and international events.
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