Kathputlis of Rajasthan – A True Cultural Asset of India


Kathputlis of Rajasthan - Features 2
Image – Sumeet Jain / Flickr

Puppet shows have been a source of entertainment for children and adults. In the Indian context, puppets and puppet shows have a distinct touch of tradition and culture. It is the state of Rajasthan from where the Indian form of puppets, Kathputlis, are famous worldwide.  

Kathputlis of Rajasthan are vibrant-looking wooden puppets that have their tale of history dating back to the times of the Royals. Kathputli is regionally, nationally, and globally known for its unique beauty from its form, clothes, to theme. The puppet, the puppet maker, and the puppeteers all have their distinct roles in defining the establishment of Kathputlis.  

Here we will talk about the etymology, history, themes, and other qualities of Kathputlis that make it so popular. 

Etymology of Kathputlis of Rajasthan 

Kathputlis of Rajasthan - Etymology
Image – Rishabh Mathur / Flickr

The amalgamation of two colloquial terms forms the term Kathputli. ‘Kath’ means wood, and ‘Putli’ means doll. Together they define wooden dolls. The Kathputlis colloquial name also adds to its charm. 

History of Kathputlis of Rajasthan

Kathputlis of Rajasthan - History
Image – Wikimedia commons

Kathputlis have been an essential part of the social life of Rajasthan. The Kathputlis reference can be found in some Rajasthani folk songs, folk tales, ballads. Historians and Scholars have traced the origin around 1500 years ago in the tribal Bhat community of Rajasthan. It is through the hands of the Bhat community puppeteers that Kathputlis got its traditional flavour. Kathputlis still holds its place as a cultural asset of India because of its authentic representation of heritage.  

Folk tales and folk stories are the basis of the tradition of Kathputlis. Folk tales convey the story of ancient tribal people- their lifestyle, culture, and beliefs. The inspiration of the tribal people’s hard work to sustain their art gave the Kathputlis its authentic traditional flavour. The Kathputli art is believed to have its origin in the present-day Nagaur and surrounding areas.  

In the old days, the Bhat community lived a nomadic lifestyle. During the dry season, they would travel and perform Kathputli shows for the Royal and noble families of Rajasthan. Later, they went back to their village during the rainy season to cultivate the crops. The Royals and Nobles gave a lot of favour to the Bhat community. These patrons took care of the artists in return for them singing their praises and performing shows in their honour.  

It was for the aristocrats’ favour and the locals’ genuine interest in seeing their shows that the Bhat community was able to establish their art. It is also one of the reasons that this art is still surviving the test of time.  

Themes of the Kathputli Shows

Kathputlis of Rajasthan - Theme
Image – Wikimedia commons

Given the Royals and Nobles’ favour, the themes of the shows were usually about the aristocrats. There are epic themes of the great deeds of the kings and their ancestors. Some even had praises of the then-present royals; the pieces had an illustrious touch. 

 The performances also have themes of the tradition of the tribal community and their lifestyle. Ordinary folks also enjoy these shows because of characters like snake charmers, peasants, and other everyday characters relatable to them. Daily anecdotes of rural life are also enjoyable to the audiences.  

The ‘Kathputli waalas’, the puppeteers of the Bhat community, were agricultural labours.  The people viewed their representation of the struggle to survive their art with genuine interest across the social scale. Even today, Kathputli performances in the nook and corners of Rajasthan have stories ranging from Royalties to ordinary peasants, and people enjoy the shows because of their rich cultural context.  

Structure of Kathputlis of Rajasthan

Structure of Kathputlis of Rajasthan
Image – Wikimedia

In the light of its etymological origin, Kathputlis are wooden dancing dolls. They are usually within a height range of 1.5 to 2 feet. But it is not just the wooden structure that makes Kathputlis such a famous doll. A lot of craftsmanship goes into the making of beauty. 

The most important aspect of making the Kathputlis is attaching the strings in the right places. The strings are a vital part of the marionette Kathputlis. It allows the puppeteer to control the movements of the dolls during the performance. The length of the string is quite long. Even the quality of the string is essential. The string needs to have good strength to not break in the middle of a show. The strings are attached after the doll is ready.  

The dolls, as characters of common or royal men, have legs. Dolls representing common or royal women do not have any legs in their structure. Depending on what other character the beauty is, a horse rider or a snake charmer, the craftsmen make the rest of the body accordingly. Over the wooden frame of the upper body, it is stuffed with cotton to help define it. The rest is taken care of by the clothing and accessories of the doll. 

Features of Rajasthan Kathputlis

Kathputlis of Rajasthan - Features
Image – Pxfuel

The wooden structure of the doll undergoes a lot of detailed processing. Features like the eyes, nose, and mouth are carved out with extra attention. The Kathputlis have distinguishing big eyes and noses. The puppet makers carve the eyes and nose with their hands. They also need to ensure that the surface is smooth for later painting the details on them. If the doll is a man, a big black moustache is quintessential to complete the traditional look.  

Cloths of Rajasthan Kathputlis

Kathputlis of Rajasthan - cloth 2
Image – Kandukuru Nagarjun / Flickr

To cover the frame of the wooden structure, the dolls wear colourful dresses. Apart from the gender normative dress style, a lehenga for women and dhoti for men, all the dolls are in bright clothes. The dolls of the Rajasthan wear traditional clothes, bandhani and sequential attire. In vibrant red, yellow, orange, blue, and others, the dolls can catch your eyes from a distance. 

Accessories of Rajasthan Kathputlis

Accessories-of Rajasthan Kathputlis
Image – Wikimedia

In the traditional Rajasthani attire, there are certain accessories to pair with their dresses.  

In the case of a woman, a dupatta, heavy pieces of jewellery, and big bangles are common while for a man, a colourful Rajasthani turban and traditional chappals, mojaris, are necessary.  

The Kathputlis, according to their gender, are given the requisite accessories. Depending on the character the doll plays, an accompanying horse or pungi is attached to the figure. A horse defines the doll to be a warrior. A pungi, a wind instrument, describes the doll as a snake charmer.  

Music of Rajasthan Kathputlis

Music-of Rajasthan Kathputlis-1
Image – Rajeev/Flickr

A traditional folk tale is not complete without any traditional music. The Kathputli shows represent the authentic tribal community or in honour of the artisans’ patrons. Rajasthani folk music and instruments are a common accompaniment during the performances. 

The puppeteers sing aloud the songs and their accompanying artists give the up-beat rhythm of the music. A dholak and a reed-like bamboo instrument are the minimalists yet defining accompaniments of the performances.  

In contemporary times, the Kathputli shows are a symbol of the heritage of culture and tradition. At one time, the performances were an essential feature of every social gathering. Now it is a part of a local tour across the state of Rajasthan.  

Image – Bnilesh/Flickr

Artisans of the present time, descendants of the original Kathputliwaala community, try to keep the tradition of these dolls alive. Tourists who visit the state of Rajasthan usually bring back a pair of Kathputli, a man and woman, as a souvenir of the state. More than as a part of a live performance, the dolls are also objects of home décor. At present, the dolls are produced in bulk in the cities of Jodhpur and Udaipur, where the performances are still a part of daily life.  

Despite the changing time and introduction of other forms of arts, Kathputlis are a part of the traditional culture of Rajasthan, like the Ghoomar dance of the state. The rustic qualities of the Kathputlis of Rajasthan make it famous worldwide.  

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