A form of rod puppetry practised in the eastern Indian state of Bihar, yampuri derives its name from its central theme – the depiction of Yama, the Hindu god of death, and the concepts of heaven and hell in the Hindu religious tradition. The performances were meant to be morally instructive and inspire a fear of the afterlife in the audience.
Unlike the puppets of kathi kundhei nacha and daanger putul – forms of rod-puppetry from Odisha and West Bengal respectively – the puppets used in yampuri do not have joints. Instead, the wooden puppets are made as a single piece, and are manipulated using rods and wheeled platforms during a performance.
The stage for yampuri spans 20 x 20 feet, with a height of 2–3 feet. The puppeteers sit inside a series of trench-like spaces within the staging area, from where they manipulate the puppets. The ticketed shows are held in Hindi and Bhojpuri and last for under an hour. The puppeteers are accompanied by musicians, who sit outside the trenches, and play the harmonium, dholak and cymbals.
Each performance begins with the entry of Yama and his messengers, followed by Chitragupta, the record-keeper of human actions in the Hindu religious system. The other characters, who represent the newly deceased, appear one by one in front of Yama and are judged for their deeds, based on which he either sends them to heaven (baikuntha) or hell.
The historical origins of yampuri remain unclear. However, a UP-based yampuri troupe, the Karmagat Yampuri Baikuntha Pradarshak Natak Mandali, is believed to be over two hundred years old. Historically, troupes performed yampuri at fairs in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Madhya Pradesh. Today, however, the form has become quite rare and is at risk of dying out altogether.
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